Thursday, November 12, 2009

Middle Way for Manny, Corners for Cotto

Middle Way for Manny, Corners for Cotto
Mark Connor
© Copyright 2009, Mark Connor

The fight this Saturday, November 14, between World Boxing Organization (WBO) Welterweight Champion Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico and Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines is one of the most anticipated in recent years. Unlike Pacquiao’s last fight against overrated and mismatched Englishman Ricky Hatton, this challenge to become the only man to win world championships in seven different weight classes could prove for him a bridge too far. Victory’s not a given for either man, though, and both can cause extensive damage to the other in a fight pitting skill and power of equal quality in different forms on either side. In conversation with world class trainer Dennis Presley, I was enlightened by his technical analysis while reaffirmed in my own inclinations about who will emerge victorious, even though they are in disagreement with his expert opinion.

“In the short and the small of it,” Presley asserted, “it’s going to come down to the power of Cotto verses the hand speed of Manny Pacquiao.”
The easy arrival at this conclusion is not lost on either of us, nor should it be to the active observer who knows the basics of boxing. Pacquiao is coming up in weight for the challenge, and Cotto is a brilliant boxer who represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics and established himself this decade as one of Professional Boxing’s most powerful punchers. Pacquiao has proven he has one punch knockout power, but most observers will tell you that at 147 pounds (or 145 as the “catch weight” contractually agreed upon for this fight dictates) he doesn’t have as much as Cotto does. Pacquiao does have a major advantage in speed, though, and as long as he maintains his balance he can fire off shots repeatedly while making opponents miss. But not many can counter such styles, control the ring, manipulate an opponent’s movement, and pin him in a corner or on the ropes as well as Cotto can. So which one will successfully use his arsenal against the other, and how much will they trade control of the fight throughout the possible shifts in momentum? As Presley explained to me, and as I must readily agree, the technical answer comes down to the first basic of boxing, and that is the placement of the boxers’ feet.

“Now, the thing I would remind folks if you’re a Pacquiao fan,” Presley explained, “is that if he can get Cotto turning and keep him out of going into that left handed stance, then he’s gonna already in the fight be one up because Cotto is the kind of fighter who’s gonna want to get in front of ya and bang the body. And if he can move him around so after Manny throws combinations he can just walk away from him and make him walk to him, Cotto’s gonna find himself in a little bit of trouble because the hand speed is all on the side of Manny Pacquiao.”
This is true, as can be observed from the rapid movement displayed throughout Pacquiao’s career, including his eight rounds of domination over Oscar De La Hoya during which he closed the Golden Boy’s left eye and nearly dropped him before the iconic American from East LA was forced to quit on the stool. The only way to counter such speed, balance, and as Sugar Ray Leonard identified to me in conversation last May about the Hatton knockout, “the accuracy,” is to slow him down. And the way to do that is to land harder punches, particularly to the body, to cut him off when he tries to move around the ring, and to keep him on the ropes.
“The other side of it is,” Presley countered in relation to Pacuquiao’s superior qualities, “if Cotto can ring body punches and if he can switch to southpaw and hook with the right hand to the body, he creates a problem for Pacquiao. Because Pacquiao in just a couple of fights I’ve seen him in with other southpaws is not as effective early against guys who can reach him to the body with that right hook. And so it sets up the straight left hand down the middle, and the thing many people don’t really pay attention to is that Cotto changes in every fight. He switches his stance up and he will throw that left and the right hook.”

What Presley is talking about is to one degree the brute strength of Cotto and his ability to use it to set up power punches. But Cotto doesn’t do that like a Hatton, who is basically a slugger. He works his jab and sets his combinations up strategically. He will throw that right hook (or, more accurately, a variation of the right uppercut) to the body from the southpaw stance, and he will throw the left hand down the middle and the right hook up top. He’ll do the same thing with the lead left hand and the right down the middle from the right handed stance. My question, both as one who has not witnessed as many Cotto fights as I have Pacquiao fights and as one who knows through experience about a fighter’s vulnerability when squaring his body up against an opponent, is how susceptible Cotto will make himself to punches down the middle when he pulls the stance switch. Presley’s belief is that Cotto must make that switch when Pacquiao is on the ropes.
“He’s got to work Manny into the ropes so when he makes the switch Manny’s not in the position to spin out on him,” he said. “In the middle of the ring, squaring up with Manny is the real dangerous thing to do because of the kid’s hand speed and because of his balance. . . The only thing he can do in the middle of the ring is hope to catch him with the left hand if he’s gonna switch. If not, then he needs to stay in the right hand [stance] because he can throw the punches on balance better that way, because you’re absolutely right—when he makes the switch he flattens it out and he goes for power and that gives Manny a chance to land some serious business.”

Another point we discussed is the availability for either one of them to get hit over or inside the lead hand with the other man’s hook. After all, to beat a left hander the right hander has to be able to hit him with the hook, and to do that he has to hit him with the right hand, but once one punch can be landed so can the other one. The same is true with the opposite hands for the left hander against the right hander. Each man can be hit by that hook because when southpaws and right handers fight each other the one who sets himself in range from the correct angle can land the hook. So the observation that Pacquiao must keep turning Cotto, particularly stepping outside his lead foot to move him in that direction—to the right of the left foot when Cotto fights right handed and the left of the right foot when he fights left handed—forcing him to defend against punches coming at him that he might not see, will be key for Pacquiao.

In his final analysis, Presley told me he believes Pacquiao can’t knock Cotto out and that if he wins it will be by decision. He also accepts the obvious ability of Pacquiao to win the fight. But he insists that if the fight ends by stoppage it will be a Cotto victory, and he does believe that whatever happens Cotto will win. I find this prediction very interesting, and as I said in my last article, I am always nervous when I disagree with a Presley prediction. But I do disagree with it, and that puts me at odds with many others I’ve spoken with.

My original coach, the 89-year-old elder of Minnesota Boxing Emmett Yanez who taught me as a child at the Mexican American Boxing Club in St. Paul, told me he believes Cotto will win. He just doesn’t see Pacquiao defeating the bigger stronger man. IBA Americas Super Featherweight Champion Wilton Hilario of St. Louis Park, MN also told me Cotto will win. He too asserts Cotto is too strong and powerful for Pacquiao. Interestingly enough, one trait Hilario shares with Cotto is the habit of habitually switching up between right handed and southpaw stances. He does it in a much different manner, though. And finally, one of Hilario’s trainers, Jacques Davis, chooses Cotto for the same reasons. On the evening of November 12 the sports book odds in Las Vegas favored Pacquiao. I lean towards Pacquiao with a couple of caveats, and I’ll explain why.
First, I believe the movement and speed Pacquiao needs to employ against Cotto are well within his means. So long as he’s prepared, he will do it. The main reason is that even though Cotto’s punches will be hard, fast, and strong, Pacquiao’s will reach their target earlier. He’ll also be able to move his head and spin away, coming back with combinations Cotto will be moving into. He will keep the fight in the middle of the ring, as Presley said he has to, and like he did in accordance with trainer Freddie Roach’s instructions against De La Hoya, he’ll move to the center of the ring the moment he feels his back touch the ropes. Furthermore, the speculation that Cotto is too big is overkill. Pacquiao came in at 142 for De La Hoya and shot up to around 147 by fight time. Yes, De La Hoya sabotaged himself physically by coming in at 145 and then not putting on much weight in the 24 hours leading up to fight time. He was old in fight years and way past his spectacular prime. But Pacquiao proved in rounds 7 and 8 that at 147 pounds his punch is still powerful enough to score a knockout. No, he didn’t put De La Hoya down, but he almost did, and if De La Hoya answered the bell for the ninth round Pacquiao not only would have dropped him, he might have damaged him permanently. Also, from seeing film of Cotto hitting the heavy bag with his shirt off, he appears to be habitually way over the 147 pound limit in between fights. If anything, it seems to me that dropping the weight, and especially an extra two pounds when agreeing to a catch weight, signifies that we ought to be wondering as much about Cotto’s strength as we are of Pacqauiao’s. And finally, in listening to the comments of Freddie Roach, I’m reminded of the Sugar Ray Leonard challenge of Marvin Hagler in 1987 for the World Middleweight title. Angelo Dundee said his fighter would win because he was the better fighter. That’s essentially what Roach said. He explained that he’s been studying Cotto for a long time and he knows Pacquiao can beat him. It always comes down to strategy, and that’s what it is a matter of here. I believe they have the strategy down and I believe it’s similar to what Presley and I have agreed upon in assessing Pacquiao’s chances here. So long as he’s in condition and mentally ready, he will win. Now, I have to include the caveats.

What makes this fight so much more difficult to predict is that Pacquiao dragged Roach to training camp in the Philippines instead of Roach’s preference of Vancouver. The training was interrupted by horrible tropical storms, and Roach left back for the U.S. before Pacquiao did. I have no idea to what degree these distractions will affect Pacquiao. I don’t know enough details about how much deviation from training actually occurred, and I would not advise anyone to bet on the fight either way. However, until I know for a fact that Manny Pacquiao is not in his normally superb physical condition and that he is psychologically distracted to the point of self doubt, I have to choose him to win based on superior boxing ability, including his balance, speed, accuracy, conditioning and heart, and yes, even his pure punching power. I also believe that even the establishment of a 145 pound catch-weight works to his advantage, and I will make one final comment regarding that issue.
I don’t believe any fighter should ever agree to fight for a World Championship title at a catch weight. Pacquiao is a great fighter and he is a great Welterweight when he only weighs 142 pounds. In fact, at 140.1 he is a Welterweight, as anyone else is. The WBO or any other sanctioning body diminishes itself by allowing Manny Pacquiao or any other star to dictate special parameters for a title fight. So long as the title can still be defended by Cotto if he weighs in at the 147 pound limit regardless of the catch weight issue, there is no diminishment of legitimacy if he weighs in at 145 of his own accord. But the sanctioning body destroys the integrity of the weight classification if it allows contractual manipulation of the limit to determine whether someone actually is champion or not. For that reason, regardless of how much money is at stake, for the sake of the integrity of the sport, the maximum limit of a weight class must always remain the maximum limit of a weight class, no matter what. After all, I don’t recall the great Henry Armstrong manipulating weight limits, but even he in all his greatness never had a right to do so in a title fight.

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