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Feature Story

Crossroads fight for Cotto

By Graham Houston

Miguel Cotto, surely destined to be ranked with the all-time great Puerto Rican boxers, attempts to become a champion in three weight classes when he challenges junior middle champ Yuri Foreman at the new Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and he will be the crowd favourite even though his opponent lives in Brooklyn. Cotto’s big fights in New York have a Puerto Rican party atmosphere. He generates passionate support. Now Cotto’s career is at a critical stage. If Cotto wins he will continue to play a part on the big-fight front, either as a 154-pounder or as a welterweight. Defeat, though, could mean the end of a glorious career.

Cotto enlisted the services of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward for this fight. Steward tells me that the trainer-fighter relationship, and Cotto’s level of ability, exceeded expectations.

Steward has worked on Cotto’s balance and boxing technique, not changing him so much as getting him back to the classic boxer-puncher style of his earlier bouts. He feels we will see an improved Cotto, as well as a fighter who has regained his enthusiasm after last November’s stoppage defeat against Manny Pacquiao.

Cotto, Steward says, is ready emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.

Saturday’s fight, to be televised on HBO, has the potential to be a difficult one for Cotto, which is why Steward was brought on board in the so-called “hired gun” role.

Steward guided Julio Cesar Chavez to victory in the rematch with Frankie Randall and plotted unlikely victories for Oliver McCall and Evander Holyfield over Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe.

He sees this fight as exceptionally difficult because of Foreman’s elusive style. “Yuri Foreman’s a difficult opponent for any fighter in the world,” Steward told me in an interview for Boxing Monthly. “First, he’s a much better fighter than people give him credit for. He’s got great legs, the ability to go 20 rounds if he has to, going in one direction, going in the other direction, a complete circle, and in between times he has great coordination, throwing punches and getting in and out, and contrary to what other people say I think he punches better than people give him credit for. We have a very tough fight.”

Cotto will no doubt be focusing on keeping steady pressure on Foreman, if he can, seeking to launch fast attacks and probably trying to jab with his opponent or slip the jab and counter.

Foreman has the height and reach advantages — he towers over Cotto in the publicity photos — and it is not likely to be easy getting past his left jab. If Cotto can cut down the ring, though, and get in position to punch, he is likely to be the boxer doing the greater damage. Foreman is, as Steward says, a more authoritative hitter than generally believed but Cotto, even though he is moving up in weight, is the puncher in the fight.

Cotto has always been able to catch up with fast-moving types. Britain’s Michael Jennings was fleet-footed but Cotto chopped him down. Carlos Quintana tried to use the ring but couldn’t stay clear of Cotto’s firepower.

Foreman, though, is a junior middleweight who has boxed at 154 pounds for his whole career, while Cotto started out as a junior welter. If Foreman can get his jab to work consistently and perhaps drop in a snappy right hand from time to time he might be able to keep Cotto off of him for large portions of the rounds.

Even though he was meeting an opponent who had been diminished by making weight, I thought that Foreman took his fighting and punching to a new level in last November’s win over Daniel Santos. He dropped Santos twice and almost had him out on his feet at one point.

Although Foreman has only stopped eight opponents in 29 bouts he might, as the naturally bigger man, hit hard enough to get Cotto’s respect.

Steward says that Cotto isn’t a “shot” fighter, that the timing and coordination is still there. Still, Cotto has had some tough, bloody battles and the defeats against Antonio Margarito and Pacquiao were the type that can shorten careers. The loss to Margarito was particularly punishing and is now the subject of speculation due to the well-chronicled “loaded handwraps” issue involving Margarito.

Foreman, in contrast, has never been in what one could call a war although he struggled to stave off the earnest aggression of Andrey Tsurkan in December 2007. Foreman suffered a nasty cut over the right eye early in that fight and seemed in danger of falling apart in the fourth round, but he gritted his way through the rough patch, got his jab working and pulled away in the last three rounds to eke out the split decision.

I do believe that Foreman has matured and improved since the fight with Tsurkan. He is a fighter who feels his time has come, while Cotto is at the point in his career where the hard fights could begin to tell on him.

This is a highly interesting fight, made more so by the backstory of Foreman — a Jewish champion studying to be a rabbi — and the concern that Cotto might no longer be the formidable fighting machine he once was.

Cotto is the betting favourite. He is much more experienced that Foreman and has fought at a much higher level. Foreman, though, has the speed and the style that could frustrate Cotto. After all, Freddie Roach was not interested in a match between Manny Pacquiao and Foreman. Roach didn’t like the fight for Pacquiao against such a tall, mobile, bigger opponent. If Roach saw Foreman as likely to be troublesome for his superstar fighter it says a lot, to me anyway.

Foreman, then, is a boxer who must be taken seriously. Yet for all his evasive skills, I have no doubt that Foreman is going to get hit in this fight, likely harder than he has ever been hit. If he can take Cotto’s punches without wilting and maintain his movement and jabbing, he has a tremendous opportunity to score a memorable victory.

Having Emanuel Steward as his trainer is a huge plus for Cotto, but, despite this, I am going with Foreman to spring the upset — I have the feeling that he has the size, the speed and the style that can carry him to victory.

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