Win vs. Cotto puts Pacquiao among all-time greats

BY foxsports • December 15, 2009

In violation of every expectation, and the blood oath he made to his trainer, Manny Pacquiao put his back to the ropes. It was the one place he was not supposed to be, gloves up in a posture that conveyed a great dare, as he waited to take shots from the bigger man.

"I heard that he's stronger than me," said Pacquiao. "I wanted to test his power."

This was the fourth round of what still seemed a very close fight, Miguel Cotto having won the opening round by establishing a powerful jab. At best, Pacquiao's rope-a-dope seemed to defy common sense. More likely, as you watched Cotto banging him around the body, it was evidence of the natural welterweight's physical superiority.

And then, without warning, everything changed. Not only did Pacquiao escape, he began tearing into the bigger man. The flurries came from angles that Cotto was not accustomed. "I couldn't see from where the punch came," he said.

The most damaging of the blows was a big left that sent Cotto down for the second time. The first knockdown had seen Cotto's gloves touch the canvas. This time, he went down for real. You could see it in the distant, dumbfounded look in his eyes. If it hadn't happened so late in the round, Cotto might not have survived.

As it happened, I had Cotto winning the next round -- a testament to his heart and a classical style. But Pacquiao shut him out the rest of the way, another six-plus rounds until referee Kenny Bayless finally called it off.

By then, Manny Pacquiao -- who began his career as a 106-pounder -- looked like a heavyweight. Through that long stretch, he became not just the aggressor but the stalker. The bigger man kept trying to dance away, and Pacquiao kept walking him down, closing the distance. By the end, he had made history, becoming the first man to win titles in seven weight classes.

Of course, weight classes aren't what they once were. But that's not Pacquiao's fault. Nor is it his greatest accomplishment. More important, he now merits inclusion in the elite fraternity of all-time greats.

"The best fighter I have ever seen," said his promoter, Bob Arum. "And that includes Muhammad Ali, and Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. The best fighter I have ever seen."

A buzz went though the room as Arum invoked Ali. Arum might be practiced in the art of hyperbole, still the statement had merit. Pacquiao is an anomaly. Who else gets better as he gets bigger? What other erstwhile 106-pounder has become a welterweight champion? None. Never happened before. And it probably won't happen again.

There's never been a bigger little man. What's more, it seemed apropos that he should borrow from the most famous big man of all in Ali. The rope-a-dope might be a high-risk tactic, but it allowed Pacquiao to establish a physical dominance that belied his size.

"I yelled at him every time," said Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's trainer. "Why are you fighting his fight?"

"I can handle it," Pacquiao told him.

With his back to the ropes, Cotto was free to bang the body and use his left hook. "I tried to pretend that it's not going to hurt," said Pacquiao. "But it really hurts."

He could laugh afterwards. Pacquiao, an apprentice balladeer who said he would sing eight numbers at the Mandalay Bay after the fight, is nothing if not a happy fighter. But to hear his explanation, he is also a daring, if underrated strategist. In other words, in taking punishment with his back to the ropes, he had Cotto exactly where he wanted him.

"I was trying to control the fight," he said, pointing to his temple. "In my mind."

He took blows few welterweights have been able to withstand. And in taking them, the little guy looked like a heavyweight.

Cotto landed 93 power punches, compared to 276 for Pacquiao. By the end, Cotto had a terrible gash over his left eye. His face had become grotesquely quilted mask. His wife and son had left their ringside seats, unable to witness more. His father asked for a stoppage in the 11th. Finally, with Pacquiao still stalking, Bayless granted his wish.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission ordered Cotto to skip the postfight press conference in favor of a body scan at the hospital. A publicist was left to convey his sentiments: "He wanted the media to know he fought the best fighter he ever fought."

By then, everyone had heard the chants for Pacquiao's next prospective opponent:

"We Want Floyd! We Want Floyd!"

Floyd Mayweather Jr. used to be the best fighter in the world. But now that he's not, you'll find out how big he really is.

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