Last night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. won a world title in his fifth weight class and improved his career record to 43(26)-0 with a hard fought unanimous decision against fellow boxing superstar Miguel Cotto. It was Mayweather's most exciting and competitive fight in years.
The pound-for-pound king's nose was bloodied, and he showed fatigue in the late rounds, even as he managed to connect with one of his best punches of the fight in the final round, buckling Cotto with an uppercut.
This was a great fight, with Cotto turning in a smart, gutsy performance in defeat. While it solidifies Mayweather's status as an all-time great, it also provides new fuel to the fire for fans still holding out for an eventual super fight showdown between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
While Mayweather's well documented problems outside the ring have often shown that he is all-too human, inside the ropes, he has more often come across as a kind of supernatural phenomena, able to beat world-class competition again and again in seemingly effortless performances. Last night against Cotto, he had to climb down into the trenches and scrap.
Emmanuel Steward made a smart observation during the broadcast's wrap-up, noting "All fighters meet a guy they can't beat just with skill; that makes them fight."
This is the essential drama of the sport: No matter how the match up looks on paper, everything can go out the window once the two competitors actually climb between the ropes and start trying to pound each other into unconsciousness.
Winning like this, in a situation where he had to dig deep, ultimately enhances Mayweather's image as a fighter.
Last week, CompuBox founder Bob Canobbio released some statistics that document just how great Mayweather is as a defensive fighter. In the nine fights leading up to last night, Mayweather had connected with 46 percent of his punches, the highest among any active fighters, while limiting his opponents to a connect rate of 16 percent.
That's a 30 percent difference. The next closest among active fighters was Andre Ward, with a 15 percent difference.
An extremely accurate puncher in his own right, Miguel Cotto closed that gap substantially last night. But not nearly enough to win.
In a very hard-fought and competitive fight, Mayweather's ability to block or avoid Cotto's punches while consistently finding holes to exploit in Cotto's own defense was the difference.
As noted in the last slide, Mayweather's 46 percent connect rate is tops in the sport. A lot of fighters throw more punches than Mayweather, but nobody comes close to landing as consistently.
Mayweather's combination of timing, hand speed and agility allow him to pounce on split-second openings, inflicting punishment and piling up the scoring advantages with the judges.
This was on full display last night. Even in the fight of his life, Mayweather was consistently able to lance Cotto's guard with perfectly timed straight punches, crash around the outside of his defenses with hooks and drill him up the middle with uppercuts.
This is the extremely difficult situation Miguel Cotto found himself in last night: In order to beat Mayweather, the quicker fighter with a five-inch reach advantage, it was critical that Cotto manage to trap Mayweather on the ropes and take away his space to move.
But trapping Mayweather on the ropes is a bit like throwing Br'er Rabbit into the briar patch. He is very much at home there, able to angle his body and take away targets, deflect punches and slip punches while returning fire.
Some of the most exciting moments of last nights fight were the exchanges along the ropes. Cotto attacked with intelligent aggression, yet Mayweather still got the better of the flurries more often than not.
As the best defensive tactician of his generation, Mayweather's bread and butter has been to stay on the outside, picking apart his opponents with counters and pot-shots. Last night marked the second straight fight where he has shown more willingness to let his hands go and exchange flurries.
Last night, he was sitting down on his punches in the middle of the ring as early as the fourth round. Brilliant defense was still the hallmark of his performance, but this was an action fight with very little of what his detractors like to label "running."
In the post-fight interview, Mayweather credited his higher punch rate to his desire to entertain the fans. Mayweather is a showman to be sure, but this was a matter of survival. He simply wasn't going to beat Cotto without mixing it up and fighting.
When a great defensive fighter starts to spend more time on the ropes, deflecting and slipping, and starts to show an increased willingness to sit down on his punches and exchange, rather than sticking and moving all night, it usually indicates one thing: He has lost a step.
Mayweather is an exquisitely well-preserved 35. But even for an undefeated fighter who has never taken significant damage, that is a lot of years of rigorous training and demanding toil on the body. Very few, if any, professional athletes still have all the physical tools at 35 that they had at 25.
What they do usually have is an increased arsenal of tactics and tricks. Mayweather is a walking encyclopedia of practical boxing knowledge, and as a result, still very much at the top of his game.
But I think he has lost some speed.
Provided that Manny Pacquiao can survive his own match up with undefeated star Timothy Bradley next month, the outcry for the Mayweather-Pacquiao super fight will only grow throughout the summer while Mayweather is serving his jail sentence in Las Vegas, set to start June 1.
Last night's exciting fight will only provide more ammo for both sides in the debate over who is truly No. 1. The pro-Pacquiao camp is probably on the Internet in droves even as I write this, loudly trumpeting the fact that Cotto was so much more competitive against Mayweather than he was against Pacman.
Mayweather had the reply to that all ready to go during the post-fight press conference, noting that he went up to fight Cotto at his own weight instead of making him come down to a catch-weight, as Pacquiao did for their 2009 fight at 145 pounds
I am already getting tired of this, just rehearsing both sides' arguments in my own head. The anti-Pac crowd makes much too much out of Cotto fighting Pacquiao at a catch-weight. At the time, he was still campaigning at welterweight and had weighed in at 146 for his fight with Joshua Clottey only five months earlier.
The fact that Pacquiao beat Cotto more decisively has a lot more to do with the way they matched up and the type of fight Cotto chose to wage that night. Cotto was also still at the tail end of a period of extreme career and personal turmoil.
How Pacquiao performed against Cotto in the fall of 2009 and how Mayweather performed against him in the spring of 2012 has nothing to do with how they might perform against each other sometime in the winter of 2012/2013.
Until the two of them finally meet and settle this thing, there will be no way to truly determine which one is legitimately the best of this generation.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has become fabulously wealthy in part because of his commitment to playing the bad guy. He has spoken openly about understanding that a lot of people buy his pay-per-views because they want to see him get knocked out.
He is comfortable with it. In a sense, he even revels in it. During his notorious runs on HBO's 24/7, he has often seemed to go out of his way to enhance his image as an arrogant and cocky braggart.
But at the conclusion of last night's fight, he seemed to let his guard down a little bit. At the start of his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant, the veteran HBO commentator revealed that Mayweather had sought him out and offered an apology for verbally denigrating him during the post-fight interview after Mayweather knocked out Victor Ortiz last September.
Mayweather was gracious in his praise for opponent Miguel Cotto. When Cotto left the ring and refused to even do an interview backstage, Mayweather stepped in and joined Jim Lampley and Emanuel Steward during their wrap up.
Mayweather came off as a guy who, dare I say it, actually wants to be liked.
During Mayweather's past two seasons on 24/7, a lot of camera time has been devoted to chronicling his friendship with rapper 50 Cent. 50 accompanied him to the ring, carrying his belts when he battled Victor Ortiz last September and was naturally part of the ring-walk again last night.
There's a degree to which celebrity best friend pairings like this always feel slightly contrived. No doubt there is a genuine friendship behind it all, but when you keep seeing so much of it on camera, it always feels partly like an attempt to build synergy for the sake of marketing.
Still, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and 50 Cent make sense as buddies. They are two extremely wealthy guys in their mid-to-late 30's with a similar hip-hop sensibility. It seems like they would relate to each other.
And hey, when they decided they needed a third amigo, who could be more natural selection than Justin Bieber, a scrawny 18-year-old Canadian bubble gum star loved and adored by 11-year-old girls everywhere?
Last night's event was promoted by Golden Boys Promotion, the company Oscar De La Hoya formed while still an active fighter in 2001, in association with Floyd Mayweather Promotions and Miguel Cotto Promotions.
In other words, this was another show put together and promoted exclusively by fighter-owned companies.
Promoters are a critical part of the sport. Even a small show, let alone a major pay-per-view, requires significant capital to get started and meticulous planning to make it a profitable success. Still, stories about promoters ripping off fighters or using them poorly are as old as the sport itself.
There have long been rumblings about the need for something like a "Boxer's Union," but in a sport with no true central organization, that would be a difficult thing to put together. It wouldn't work the same as in team sports, where the players' unions can bargain collectively with the league.
But fighters who have had enough success and accumulated enough of their own capital really shouldn't need a promoter. De La Hoya and his partner, Bernard Hopkins, have been showing for a decade now that a fighter can hire his own people and put on his own shows without the likes of Bob Arum or Don King.
Fighters like Mayweather and Cotto have followed the example. A lot of people wish Manny Pacquiao would come around and do the same thing.
Of course, fighters turned promoters might still exploit or rip off other fighters. But I have to believe they would be less likely to do it than somebody who got into the sport purely for the financial return.