Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto will meet on Saturday night at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden (9 p.m. ET/HBO pay-per-view) with the middleweight championship of the world on the line.
Martinez, the champion, is one of boxing’s ultimate late-bloomers. He toiled in relative obscurity for much of his career before taking the middleweight title from Kelly Pavlik in a minor upset in early 2010.
The Argentine followed up that performance with a spectacular one-punch knockout of Paul Williams in a return bout, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Cotto is one of boxing’s gutsiest warriors. He’s almost never in a bad fight, and you know he’ll give it his all each and every time he steps through the ropes. The Puerto Rican icon is on a quest for history, seeking to become the first fighter from the island to win a world championship in four weight divisions.
One man is the recognized middleweight champion of the world, and the other is a blood-and-guts warrior who will one day enter the hallowed halls of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
But who has the better resume? Who is really the A-side—a question that has irked Martinez throughout—of this fight?
Luckily for us, this is a question that can be answered pretty easily by comparing how each man got here.
Disrespect Fuels the Fire
HBO has done a tremendous job of hyping this fight through its one-on-one interview program Face Off, which features the two fighters about to exchange fists sharing a table with moderator Max Kellerman.
The discussion is often, shall we say, heated, and it’s designed to create the impression of serious tension between fighters ahead of their showdown.
But the most recent edition, featuring Martinez and Cotto, didn’t have to do much embellishment. Martinez and Cotto genuinely seem to dislike one another, and it all has to do with those A-side, B-side comparisons.
Martinez, despite being the champion, has been firmly placed in the B-side of this fight. He gets second billing on all promotional materials, will walk to the ring second on fight night and didn’t have the ability to choose his own corner.
He’ll be fighting in what essentially amounts to a road game, taking on Cotto in the hostile confines of Madison Square Garden on the weekend of the Puerto Rican Day parade.
The argument presented for all these concessions on the part of the champion has everything to do with the business of boxing and the drawing power each man brings to the table.
But let’s take a look.
Quality of Opposition
Martinez wasn’t a star in boxing until he took the middleweight title off Pavlik in 2010. That win came on the heels of a controversial majority-decision loss to Paul Williams in a fight that many observers felt he deserved to win.
Both fighters were down in a wild first round, and it seemed that Martinez had the better of the action in an extremely close affair from that point on. He would later avenge that defeat with a spectacular highlight-reel knockout that literally knocked his foe out.
He’s been the middleweight champion since defeating Pavlik—he was still the best 160-pound fighter in the world even when he briefly didn’t hold a sanctioning-body belt—but he’s never beaten, or even fought, an A-Level fighter.
Martinez’s biggest fights—Pavlik, Williams, Chavez Jr.—have all come against second-tier fighters. His two losses, controversially against Williams and decisively against Antonio Margarito, also came against fighters below the elite level.
Cotto, on the other hand, has been in the ring with three elite fighters, losing to Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao and defeating Shane Mosley. He’s also fought, and beaten, a slew of second-tier guys like Margarito, Joshua Clottey, Zab Judah and Paulie Malignaggi.
Two of his losses have come to elite fighters—Mayweather and Pacquiao, the two best in the sport at the time—another came under highly suspicious circumstances against Margarito, and the last was against Austin Trout, a sold B-level fighter.
So when you look at the resumes in totality, Cotto has two more losses than Martinez, but both of those came against the men considered the pound-for-pound best in boxing at the time.
In terms of opposition level, you’d have to give the nod to Cotto. He’s clearly fought the higher-quality opponents over the course of his career, and his win over Mosley is the best on either man's ledger. It’s true that much of that isn’t Martinez’s fault, but it remains the reality.
Martinez captured the interim WBC Light Middleweight Championship with a victory over Alex Bunema in 2008, and he successfully defended it once, getting a ludicrous draw against Kermit Cintron in a fight he should’ve won twice.
He made the jump to middleweight, losing the disputed first fight to Williams and rebounding to take the WBC, WBO and Lineal Middleweight Championships from Kelly Pavlik.
Due to the often ludicrous rules that govern boxing’s money-concerned sanctioning organizations, Martinez was stripped of his titles.
The WBO’s rules don’t allow a fighter to hold a WBO title in one weight class while simultaneously holding a different sanctioning organization’s belt in a different weight class. At the time Martinez held the WBO 160-pound title and the WBC 154-pound title.
The WBC didn’t rely on inane rules, stripping Martinez for refusing to face mandatory challenger Sebastian Zbik.
Zbik would go on to fight, and lose to, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. for the now meaningless belt, which the Mexican would cede in near-embarrassing fashion to Martinez a little more than a year later.
If we count The Ring Magazine belt, Martinez has compiled an undefeated 8-0-1 record in title fights. If we just count the sanctioning organization belts, that record drops to 5-0-1.
Cotto’s world-championship experience is far more extensive.
In his career, the Puerto Rican warrior is a three-division world champion who has accumulated an impressive 16-3 record in fights contested for one of the major world championship belts.
Cotto has held world titles at junior welterweight (WBO), welterweight (WBA/WBO) and junior middleweight (WBA), and he’ll be looking to add the WBC Middleweight Championship to an already extensive resume.
In Puerto Rican boxing history, Cotto is among the six men to win a world title in three divisions, but with a win on Saturday night, he’ll become the first to become a four-division champion.
This question is a bit more tricky than quality of opposition.
Martinez has never lost a world-championship fight, but Cotto has been in far more and against a higher quality of fighter.
But, and no disrespect to Martinez, Cotto has fought guys better than him for world titles.
“Maravilla” can’t say he’s fought better guys than Cotto.
The one thing that Martinez does have in his favor is that he’s the current lineal middleweight champion. That means he’s not just a belt-holder; he’s the guy who beat the guy. That gives him the legitimate right to say he’s the best at his weight, something Cotto has never accomplished.
Martinez is something of a PPV novice. He’s only main evented a pay event once before, challenging Chavez Jr. for a middleweight belt that was rightly his to begin with, in 2012.
Ironically, Martinez didn’t get top billing in that fight either. But overall the fight did well. It sold out the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, and it did a little under 500,000 buys on PPV. Those numbers may not seem spectacular, but in today’s boxing world where one of the principles isn’t named Mayweather, they’re very solid.
But that, unfortunately for him, is all she wrote when it comes to Martinez.
Cotto has been a major PPV star for years. His three biggest pay attractions have come against elite foes. He defeated Mosley on PPV from Madison Square Garden in 2007. And he’s stared down the biggest names in the sport—Pacquiao and Mayweather—in losing efforts.
He’s a proven box-office draw, with a natural fanbase, and he has more than enough experience fighting at this level of the sport and with these types of stakes.
So, again, advantage Cotto.
Take nothing away from Martinez, and this is not to say who is the better fighter or who will win on Saturday night, but his resume just doesn’t compare to Cotto’s. A lot of that isn’t his fault, but it’s no less true.
Cotto had major promotional outfits providing wind against his back from the moment he turned professional in 2001. That ensured that he would be moved correctly, moved quicker and positioned for significant fights earlier.
Martinez spent almost the entire first decade of his career fighting outside the spotlight of American fight fans. He turned pro in 1997, got knocked out by Margarito on the undercard of Erik Morales vs. Marco Antonio Barrera I in 2000 in Las Vegas and didn’t return to American shores for a fight until 2007.
He’s bloomed into one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport very late in his career.
Cotto, on the other hand, has been hovering around that list for much of his career. He’s never been the best in the game, and you could even argue that he’s never reached the levels of Martinez, but he gets some points for longevity.
Those longevity points count even more when you consider the style Cotto fights and the many in-ring wars he’s faced.
So, then, in the final scoring, Cotto has faced the higher quality of foes over the course of his career, he’s won more world titles and he’s the bigger draw at the box office.
Does that mean he’ll win the fight?
To be determined.
But it definitely makes him the A-Side.
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @McRaeBoxing.