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NEW YORK – Miguel Cotto is ready. Bob Arum is ready.

The question that begs to be answered is whether Floyd Mayweather Jr. is ready.

Cotto set the stage for what could be the most intriguing welterweight bout since 1980 – when Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard fought in Montreal – by stopping Zab Judah in the 11th round Saturday before a raucous crowd of 20,658 at Madison Square Garden. Cotto did it with his sledgehammer punching power, brutally wearing Judah down as the fight progressed.

Cotto was pounding Judah so fiercely that Judah took the unconventional step of taking a knee in the ninth round without being hit to avoid taking more punishment.

"When you do that, it means you're getting your (butt) kicked, that's what that means," said veteran trainer Miguel Diaz, who worked as Cotto's cutman. "Don't say Zab is chicken. He showed a lot of courage because he was hit with a lot of very hard punches. After guys fight Cotto, they don't fight again."

Mayweather says he isn't fighting again after defeating Oscar De La Hoya last month in what was the biggest pay-per-view event in history. His adviser, Leonard Ellerbe, said earlier in the week that the only fighter who could lure Mayweather out of retirement was De La Hoya.

Though that rematch will probably occur because of the money involved, it would come nowhere close to being the match that a fight with Cotto would be.

Cotto doesn't have Mayweather's blazing speed or mind-boggling quickness. But Mayweather doesn't possess the paralyzing power that Cotto does.

Cotto isn't a one-punch knockout artist like, say, fellow Puerto Rican Felix Trinidad, the former welterweight and middleweight champion. But Trinidad's power was like the snap of a whip. Cotto's power is like being beaten with a club.

"They're different fighters," Judah said of Cotto and Mayweather. "But (Cotto) is a great fighter. A great fighter."

Top Rank president Todd duBoef said he'll try to make a Mayweather bout, though the short-term plan is to match Cotto with the winner of the July 14 bout between Antonio Margarito and Paul Williams.

Though Ellerbe said flatly that Mayweather would never fight in a Top Rank-promoted bout again, that would only be short-changing the public, the sport and Mayweather's own legacy.

"It's a doable fight from our perspective," duBoef said. "It depends upon what Floyd's (financial) expectations are. We did 20,658 in this house. That hasn't been done since (heavyweights Evander) Holyfield and Lennox Lewis (in 1999). It was a complete sellout."

The fight, though, wouldn't be about the money. This would be a battle of styles, a struggle for supremacy. There are few who believed De La Hoya was anywhere near as good as Mayweather and those who gave De La Hoya a chance to win that bout did so only believing that Mayweather had moved up too far in weight.

But Cotto is in his prime and is proving to be the Duran to Mayweather's Leonard. Trainer Emanuel Steward, calling the bout at ringside for HBO Pay-Per-View, suggested Cotto's defensive problems would cause him problems against Mayweather.

"It would be a good fight, but (Cotto's) defense needs to get a lot sharper because he's so open to be hit," Steward said. "He just can't get hit that much at this level. He's fighting too wide."

But Mayweather was unable to stop Judah like Cotto did on Saturday. Judah had his moments early in the fight and wobbled Cotto in the first round, but Cotto never quit coming.

By the sixth round, Judah had lost the steam from his fastball and he began to resort to looking for an opening to throw a haymaker.

By the eighth, he was hanging on. Judah said he was weakened by the low blows Cotto landed, though only the second appeared to be a significant shot and he seemed to try to milk the first.

Even referee Arthur Mercante Jr. seemed to have his doubts. After the second low blow, he urged Judah to fight, he said.

"(I said), 'I'm going to give you the five(-minute break). Take it and then be ready to go. You can't win a championship like this, so let's fight,' " Mercante said of his second-round talk with Judah. "He did and it turned out to be a great fight."

As good as it was – and be assured that the bout will garner its share of votes for 2007 Fight of the Year and may be the leader in the clubhouse – it won't come close to a Mayweather-Cotto fight in terms of both suspense and strategy.

Mayweather has frequently mocked Cotto as "easy work," and there is little doubt that Cotto would have difficulty with Mayweather's fast hands and accurate punches.

But Leonard had a similar advantage over Duran and yet Duran managed to pull out a victory in a pitched battle in their first match.

Mayweather and his team seem to want to anoint themselves the greatest, but the greats have to accept the greatest challenges.

I believe – and have for more than six years – that Mayweather is the best fighter in the world. I think he would beat Cotto.

But more than anything else, I want to see him prove that in the ring.