LAS VEGAS – You have to feel sorry for Joe Santiago.
He's an easy-going guy, a soft-spoken man of 32 who has an undergraduate degree in physical education and a Master's in athletic training.
What Santiago doesn't have is a long and decorated résumé in boxing. He's never boxed himself. He hasn't built a champion, like so many great trainers have. He hasn't plotted the strategy in a superfight previously nor has he had to make adjustments on the fly with the entire world watching him.
Untested trainer Joe Santiago, right, will be in Miguel Cotto's corner Saturday.
(Lori Shepler/AP Photo)
Yet, Santiago is one of the central figures in Saturday's welterweight mega-fight between Miguel Cotto and pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
After a nasty split between fighter and uncle/trainer turned physical in April, Cotto fired his uncle, Evangelista Cotto, and appointed Santiago as his head coach.
Have no doubt that Santiago won't get much credit if Cotto wins, but he'll be the whipping boy if Cotto doesn't perform well.
Across the ring from Santiago on fight night, working in Pacquiao's corner, will be Freddie Roach, the three-time Trainer of the Year who is not only one of the elite trainers of this era but is quickly moving up the ladder as one of the all-time greats.
Roach's masterpiece has been his work with Pacquiao, whom he has molded into a wonderfully complete fighter with few discernible weaknesses.
It's largely been Evangelista Cotto who has taught his nephew the game and built him into the fighter he has become.
Roach lobbed an early volley in Santiago's direction when he said it's ridiculous to even consider Santiago Cotto's trainer.
"Joe Santiago is not Miguel Cotto's trainer and you're kidding yourself if you believe he is," Roach said. "You want to know who Miguel's trainer is? Miguel Cotto. Cotto trains himself. It's pretty obvious. But it's not a good situation if you want to perform at the highest level.
"I just watched the tape of the [Joshua] Clottey fight [with Cotto in New York in June] three times. Cotto makes so many fundamental, simple mistakes that I guarantee you we will take full advantage of. It's sad, really."
There's no upside for Santiago to engage in a war of words with Roach. Santiago doesn't have anything he can point to that will trump anything Roach says.
So, Santiago has hunkered down and gone about the business of preparing Cotto the best he knows how. And if Roach – or anyone other than Cotto himself – believes that's not good enough, Santiago couldn't care less.
"I'm there as the coach to help Miguel and see the mistakes and fix them and that's what I've done," Santiago said. "I feel Miguel Cotto is the best fighter in the world and it's my privilege to work for him. Freddie Roach ought to be worrying about Manny Pacquiao, not me. Joe Santiago and Freddie Roach aren't fighting; Miguel Cotto and Manny Pacquiao are, and that's who we should be concerned about and talking about."
Part of Santiago's job after taking over from Evangelista Cotto following the brawl was to change the tenor in camp.
Promoter Bob Arum said Santiago was essentially the trainer for the last four years as the personal relationship between Miguel and Evangelista deteriorated.
"For four years, Miguel and Evangelista, his purported trainer, didn't speak a word to each other," said Arum, who has promoted Cotto since he turned professional following the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. "Joe Santiago was there and Joe Santiago was really the trainer. When Evangelista was finally out of the picture and the question we put to him was, 'Should Miguel go out and get a trainer,' they said no. They wanted the continuity and stay with what they had before.
"The idea that Santiago is this new guy who is training Miguel for the second time is just total [expletive]."
It's the first time he has the title, however, and that means the spotlight will be focused on him much more intensely. Trainers make a significant impact at the highest level where the difference between the fighters is frequently infinitesimal.
Perhaps it's breaking down film and finding a way to exploit a weaknesses. Or it might be correcting flaws. Some trainers are great motivators and push their fighters to a higher level and others are genius at seeing what is occurring in a bout and making an adjustment.
Miguel Cotto was not interested in bringing anyone new into his camp. "I have the perfect team right now," he said.
(Lori Shepler/AP Photo)
Usually, however, the trainer plays a key role in these kinds of fights.
And so, that means an examination of the pros and cons of Santiago and Roach are inevitable.
Cotto, himself, who as one of the elite fighters in the game could have had his choice of any of the top trainers, was never interested in bringing anyone else into his camp.
"I have the perfect team right now," he said. "This is the team I put together and the team I wanted."
He chose a guy who began studying to be a boxing trainer at 14 because his parents wouldn't allow him to become a fighter himself.
He's developed a small but successful group of fighters, though he readily admits "none who are major stars yet."
Roach is the guy who has been there and done that. Roach apprenticed under Eddie Futch, the greatest trainer of them all, and learned techniques and insights he applies today.
"I learned so much from Eddie and when he finally let me work the corner by myself the first time, it felt so good," Roach said. "It was like, 'OK, if Mr. Futch believes in me this much and is allowing me to handle this on my own, I must be all right at this because he's the master.' I learned how to do this job from a genius.
"They can say what they want, but Cotto is doing everything himself. I was watching [HBO's Pacquiao-Cotto: 24/7] and they were doing the mitts. It was so slow, it was comical. We have a lot to work with."
Santiago insists he's comfortable with the camp and the work he's done. He said tensions have been much less, Cotto has been happy and as a result, he's worked better.
Santiago understands he's in a difficult spot, but he is willing to accept whatever comes.
"I know and my team knows the kind of work we've done, and we're comfortable with it," he said. "People who aren't part of it can't possibly know and so why should we pay attention to anything they have to say? If people want to think this fight is won or lost because of Joe Santiago, let them think it. My goal is to have Miguel as ready as he can be on [Saturday] and anything other than that doesn't matter."