NEW YORK – When Miguel Cotto slipped through the ropes at Madison Square Garden after being drubbed by Austin Trout on Dec. 1, 2012, he had the look of an old, tired, worn-out fighter.
He waved feebly to the crowd as he trudged toward the dressing room, and many observers wondered if it was the final time he'd ever be seen inside of a ring.
It was probably the worst night of his professional life, but Cotto never once thought he was done. And he used an NBA analogy to explain why he felt he still had it in him to fight at a high level.
"A lot of people said Michael Jordan wouldn't have been Jordan without [Scottie] Pippen," Cotto said. "I think I've found my Pippen in Freddie Roach."
Cotto believes so strongly in Roach that as he was talking about Saturday's challenge against Sergio Martinez for the WBC middleweight title in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View card at MSG, he said several times that he feels incredible.
That struck a chord with his promoter, and close friend, Todd duBoef, the president of Top Rank. It was duBoef who originally signed Cotto to a Top Rank promotional deal fresh out of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and it was duBoef who made the trek to Puerto Rico to persuade Cotto to return to the company after two fights for Golden Boy.
One of the things that duBoef spoke to Cotto about after he re-signed last year was his training situation. Except for a very brief period with the legendary Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, Cotto had never worked with an elite trainer. For most of his career, he'd been trained by his uncle, Evangelista.
Later, he worked with Joe Santiago, who had few qualifications, and then with Pedro Diaz, who was a renowned Cuban amateur coach but who had virtually no pro experience.
With Roach, he landed a coach who is as good as it gets in all aspects. Cotto, despite winning world championships in three weight classes and building a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé, is learning many of the basics from Roach.
"I think Miguel questioned where he could go next and where his abilities were, but Freddie gave him an entirely new feeling," duBoef said. "Freddie put him into a new training regimen. Miguel had struggled forever with his weight. He's not struggling at all with his weight now. I've always said this: Miguel was like a racehorse with blinders on. In the corner, he had nobody who could give him good information.
"He never really had a real, true, top-level guy giving him the X's and O's. He was doing it on instinct himself. All great fighters hit a certain point where they need someone to pull the talent out of them, and Freddie's done it. Miguel said, 'I feel incredible,' and just to hear that, to me, was incredible. I've never heard a fighter say that. 'I feel incredible.' 'How are you?' 'Incredible.' There are no family issues. He doesn't have a problem with his uncle. Nothing. There was always something going on. No one was training him. Something. But he feels incredible now."
Roach spent considerable time working with Cotto, 33, on what he describes as "controlling the ring." He said when he broke down Cotto on film when he was training against him for the 2009 fight with Manny Pacquiao, he was amazed that Cotto had no concept of how to control the ring.
They worked on it so much in camp that Roach now believes it's a strength for Cotto, and he will show it in the fight Saturday.
"If you keep yourself in good position all of the time, 90 percent of the time that means you're in control of the fight," Roach said. "It's about his footwork, yes, but about how to control a ring. It's something that [the late Hall of Fame trainer] Eddie Futch taught me quite a while ago and it's something that Miguel didn't know too much about.
"It's something we've worked on quite a bit. Again, if he can keep himself in good position, it's going to mean 90 percent of the time we're in control of the fight."
Martinez promoter Lou DiBella said he was awed when he watched the champion work with a young fighter in Miami during his training camp.
Martinez told his sparring partner, "Think with your feet."
Later, Martinez explained that much of his success is a result of footwork.
"I do all my work with my feet," he said.
Martinez has had surgery on his right knee after each of his last two fights, the second last year more serious than the first. He's 39 and has had to defend himself against allegations that his body is broken down and he's no longer the same fighter.
If his knee breaks down again, it probably will spell doom for him, because unlike Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or Martin Murray, Martinez's last two opponents, Cotto is a terrific finisher who will take advantage of an immobile opponent.
But Roach isn't impressed by Martinez's footwork even when he's healthy.
"He's reckless," Roach said. "He just runs wherever he wants."
Much of the intrigue in the fight is because of the respective weaknesses of the fighters. Despite an impressive stoppage win over Delvin Rodriguez in October in his first fight with Roach in his corner, Cotto is still 1-2 since last beating a top opponent in his 2011 grudge match win over Antonio Margarito in the Garden.
He subsequently absorbed terrible punishment in losses to Floyd Mayweather and Trout.
Martinez is on a seven-fight winning streak, but a guy who has relied on footwork, lateral movement and superior athleticism has to be concerned when he's 39 and his body is regularly breaking down on him.
If, as he insists, Martinez is fully healthy, he should edge it out.
Whether he can summon that brilliance one more time is a question that won't be answered until late Saturday, though.