Pacquiao-Cotto Will Determine the Direction of Boxing

14/11/2009 12:06

LAS VEGAS -- Boxing is alive and thriving, and you can see it in the nationalistic pride that enveloped Las Vegas on Friday. The Filipinos and Puerto Ricans descended on The Strip with their colorful flags and chants, and they queued in orderly groups -- Manny Pacquiao's publiko/bayan here, Miguel Cotto's publico/paisanos there -- for a raucous weigh-in Friday afternoon at the MGM Grand Garden.

So much excitement, for two 145-pound boxers standing on a scale. But Pacquiao-Cotto is the biggest thing to happen to boxing since Pacquiao-Oscar De La Hoya. Or Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton.

You get the idea.

The Pride of the Philippines (49-3-2, 37 KOs) squared off Friday against The Pride of Puerto Rico (34-1-0, 27 KOs) when they stood on stage in their skivvies, the crowd of about 6,500 -- Filipinos to the left, Puerto Ricans to the right -- roared its requisite country's approval.

Cotto's trainer Jose Santiago, who rarely speaks English, threw out a "145 pounds, a**hole!" to Pacquiao's trusted man, Freddie Roach, when Cotto stepped off the scale. Pacquiao, who is going for his unprecedented seventh world title in his seventh weight class, flexed his growing frame at 144 pounds, sending his fans into a cheering frenzy.

The drama continued. Antonio Margarito made an appearance on stage, infuriating the Puerto Ricans who revile him for destroying Cotto's face and perfect record in a controversial 11-round loss in July 2008. Then Margarito had the temerity to parade outside the Grand Garden Arena among the hundreds who were turned away from the packed weigh-in.

"Cheater!! He is a cheater!!" people screamed at a defiant Margarito, and security guards rushed over to prevent a melee from breaking out in the crush that swarmed the MGM Grand Studio Walk.

This is what makes the boxing so unique now, and helps separates it from the All-American MMA culture that has captured this country's imagination.

The pride, the pageantry, the intense rivalries, they all resonate with the pure boxing fan -- the person who will shell out $54.95 for Saturday's HBO pay-per-view show featuring the Pacquaio-Cotto 12-round welterweight main event. And the whole package goes to the hearts of the people of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, who are living vicariously through their countries' greatest athletes.

Las Vegas needs this energy. And many in boxing will grudgingly concede that the sport probably needs Pacquiao to prevail Saturday night. Because Las Vegas has become Manny's town, just as it once belonged to Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson and other actual current or former Vegas residents and boxing greats.

And ultimately, boxing needs -- and will demand -- that Pacquiao step into the ring against Mayweather.

Why would Cotto, a skilled, accomplished pure welterweight who is defending his WBO title, agree to take this fight against Pacquaio at 145 pounds, two pounds under the limit and his comfortable weight? Why would he agree to $2 million up front less than the challenger?

Bob Arum, the Top Rank promoter and mastermind who handles both fighters, has defended the honor of Cotto valiantly this week. But there is a simple truth to Cotto's presence in the ring Saturday night.

"In this fight," Arum said, "he is not the star of the show."

He is absolutely essential to the process, however.

Cotto is a brilliant fighter, and his legacy can't be tarnished by the brutal, bloody beating he sustained by the hands of Margarito 15 months ago. Who will say with certainty those hands weren't concealing illegal plaster inserts under their wraps? After all, Margarito and his trainer had their California boxing licenses revoked when inspectors found hardened plaster in his gloves before a welterweight title bout against Shane Mosley six months later.

But Cotto will need to go down Saturday night. He is a 3-to-1 underdog so that boxing can get Pacquaio-Mayweather.

HBO's PPV machine will rev up every ounce of its being for that dream mega-fight. Of course, Mayweather absolutely despises Arum, his former promoter, so there will be ample, calculated rhetoric between Top Rank, Inc. and Mayweather Promotions.
You have a perfect blending of style in this fight ... I see a very tough distance fight, and there is going to be blood.
-- Legendary Promoter Angelo Dundee

Arum has equal disdain for his former client, but even boxing's most prolific promoter has conceded this week that a Pacquaio-Mayweather event could easily surpass the record 2.44 million buys in 2007 for Mayweather-De La Hoya. So it will happen.

If Cotto wins -- and many in boxing are convinced he will beat Pacquiao by a late knockout or split decision -- Cotto-Mayweather would be an epic affair for boxing aficionados.

Then again, the world's most famous Filipino vs. the cocky, loud-talking boxing celebrity would be Dream Theater.

Where does this leave Pacquaio-Cotto, the matchup?

It will be worth every round, every minute.

Cotto, with his quiet dignity, has the edge in size and strength, and he will go to the body to punish his smaller opponent. By the time they step into the ring Saturday night, Cotto may weigh as many as 15 pounds heavier than his Filipino challenger.

Pacquiao, the smiling, generous people's champion, is renowned for his uncanny speed, a right hand that can now match his left hook, and his ring skills, all of which have been honed to precision by Roach. He is boxing's pound-for-pound champion, but Pacquiao is facing his greatest test.

"You have a perfect blending of style in this fight," legendary trainer Angelo Dundee told reporters this week. "If I ever had a fighter fighting Pacquaio, I would implement things that Cotto brings to the table.

"I see a very tough distance fight, and there is going to be blood."

Boxing will get the breath-stealing show it wants and needs, and the evolution of the sport will get a boost with what happens between Pacquiao-Cotto. Boxing is in an exciting place again. It's in the headlines, sound bites and every day conversation of sports fans.