LAS VEGAS – David Diaz was supposed to be too big, too strong and a little too much for a guy who began his boxing career as a 106-pounder to handle. After eight-plus rounds, Diaz was crawling around the canvas on all fours, trying to regain his senses, after being overwhelmed by Manny Pacquiao.
Oscar De La Hoya was an even more formidable threat, a one-time middleweight champion. After just eight rounds with Pacquiao, though, De La Hoya looked as if he'd been beaten about the face with a night stick, barely able to rise from his stool under his own power after acknowledging his surrender.
And Ricky Hatton was in his prime, fearless and powerful, but he wound up flat on his back, out cold in less than two vicious rounds.
Those victories, in particular, are the ones that vaulted Pacquiao into boxing's most hallowed position as its mythical pound-for-pound champion and helped him to become today's most iconic boxing figure.
Miguel Cotto, though, shrugs his shoulders at such talk. All the fame, the glory and the hoopla that have surrounded Pacquiao since his attention-grabbing victories hasn't shaken the Puerto Rican's belief that he is the better man.
They meet Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in arguably the biggest and most significant bout of the year, nominally for Cotto's World Boxing Organization welterweight title but really for public acceptance as the game's premier performer.
The winner will likely be in line for a mega payday next year against welterweight Floyd Mayweather Jr., the other boxer with a claim to the top spot.
The popular opinion clearly favors Pacquiao, but Cotto is undaunted.
"What Pacquiao did in the past and who he's beaten doesn't matter to me," Cotto said. "He's not fighting De La Hoya or Hatton. He's fighting Miguel Cotto. This is different."
Cotto has an argument of his own to make, though few have advanced it. He's defeated Zab Judah, Shane Mosley and Joshua Clottey and on paper, those wins look better than victories over the slow and plodding Diaz, an aging and dehydrated De La Hoya and a vastly overrated Hatton.
Cotto's trainer, Joe Santiago, looks at those fights and the way the boxers match and he can't understand why the odds are creeping toward 3-1 in Pacquiao's favor.
"Me personally, I can't understand why Pacquiao would be favored, especially with the guys we've fought and the guys he's fought," Santiago said. "He fought a couple of guys who obviously weren't as good as they were at one time. I don't get why Pacquiao would be favored."
Pacquiao is blindingly fast and, working with boxing's Mr. Wizard, Freddie Roach, seems to get 25 percent better each time out. A little more than four years ago, he was beaten by Erik Morales, as tough a fighter who has ever laced on the gloves but clearly not one of the game's most skilled.
Pacquiao put his complete trust in Roach, who rebuilt his game and developed him into a one-man wrecking machine. By the time he faced Morales for the third time, just three years ago, Pacquiao had added a right hand to his arsenal.
He's learned how to take away his opponent's best weapon and how to maneuver the fight in the ring to suit him. He credits Roach, whom he calls "the Master," with helping him to achieve his potential.
"I believe a boxer should always try to improve and to learn new things so he can give a better performance for the people," Pacquiao said. "I like to learn and I have Freddie who can teach me so many things."
One of the things Roach has imparted over the last two months is to avoid the ropes and stay out of the corners. Cotto is a vicious body puncher with a pulverizing left hook, but he can't come close to matching Pacquiao's speed.
If Pacquiao allows Cotto to corner him or pin him on the ropes, he's voluntarily giving away perhaps his most significant advantage in the fight. And though no one would deem Pacquiao a slugger, his speed accounts for much of his power and the 37 knockouts he has among his 49 wins.
"It's not a secret that we don't want to see Manny laying against the ropes," Roach said. "He needs to keep the fight in the center of the ring."
If Pacquiao manages to keep it in the center of the ring, the onus will shift to Cotto to find a way to combat Pacquiao's advantages in speed and quickness. The one way to neutralize speed is with a consistent jab. If Cotto can repeatedly keep his jab in Pacquiao's face, he'll slow the Filipino and be able to cut off the ring and then keep the fight in a more confined space. At that point, Cotto's abilities as an inside fighter and a body puncher would dictate the bout.
Both Judah and Mosley were far quicker than Cotto, but Cotto managed to counteract that and win both fights impressively.
"A lot of people didn't think he was capable of that kind of a fight [that he put on against Judah and Mosley], but we knew he was capable of doing it," Santiago said. "We fought as a defensive fighter when we needed to be defensive. We matched speed for speed and traded jab for jab with them. We knew he could do that."
Doing it against Pacquiao, though, is another thing entirely. Pacquiao not only has won each of his last three fights against men who were bigger and supposedly stronger, he hasn't lost a round.
He's been dominant to the point of being ridiculous.
"Every single person in our camp respects Cotto and knows he's a quality fighter," Roach said. "But Manny's not just one of your run-of-the-mill stars. He's special and he's capable of doing things that other guys, even top-of-the-line, elite guys, can't do.
"When I first saw Manny, he was already a very good fighter and I knew he had a chance to improve a lot. But what he's done is just so amazing. What we're seeing is a guy who has developed into a very special, unique fighter. There aren't many like him."
- Manny Pacquiao
- Miguel Cotto
- Oscar De La Hoya