LAS VEGAS -- Ricardo Mayorga, true to form, was going nuts.
He stood in the corner of the ring, pointed to the canvas just in front of him and yelled at Miguel Cotto to stand on that spot and trade punches. Cotto paused, bided his time, then moved in, unleashed a flurry and slipped back out of range. Again, Mayorga erupted. Again, Cotto repeated his move. By the time the sequence was over, Mayorga had three times exhorted his foe to engage him; three times, the Puerto Rican champion had answered the challenge on his own terms, inflicted damage as desired, avoided return fire as required and ultimately put another round in the bank.
During the past several years, Cotto has fought a more consistently high level of opposition than perhaps any other fighter. He has, as a consequence, suffered the wear and tear of ring wars, even on those occasions when he has emerged triumphant. With the prospect looming of a summer rematch with Antonio Margarito, one of the two men most responsible for inflicting that wear and tear, he was easily forgiven a relatively soft touch in the interim.
But as soft touches go, Mayorga was potentially as hard as they come. Sure, he was faded, years removed from his last significant victory. Granted, he was crude -- in his boxing style as well as in his sometimes boorish mannerisms. But the man could flat-out punch, and the unorthodox awkwardness with which he threw his punches made it all the more likely that one or more of those hard punches might find a home.
And certainly, Mayorga had his moments, none more so than in the seventh round, when he threw punch after punch in his trademark fashion, not in combination with each blow setting up the next but one after the other, winged onward in the hope of success. Enough of them landed that Cotto, for the first time in the fight, began to ship some punishment and exhibit the first true signs of possible vulnerability.
But the exertion appeared to have taken a greater toll on the puncher than the punched. By the next round, Cotto was once more in control, the position in which he found himself for the great majority of his fight. His defense -- right hand held high, head and shoulders shifted just enough to evade the worst of the incoming artillery -- combined with a patiently constructed offense to ensure that Cotto won eight of 11 rounds on all three official scorecards entering the final frame.
Then, just as it appeared the bout would conclude with a wide unanimous decision, a left hook exploded on Mayorga's jaw, its force magnified by the fact that the Nicaraguan, as is his wont, was winding up to throw a big punch himself. Mayorga staggered backward, held out his hands beseechingly, as if unable to comprehend what was happening to him, and then dropped to one knee. The contest was effectively over at that point, although it would take an extra few seconds, a follow-up fusillade and a capitulation adding the icing and securing the victory.
After his defeat to Margarito in 2008, and even more following his loss to Manny Pacquiao the next year, Cotto seemed damaged goods, a man on whom years of hard fights had finally exacted a punitive toll. In two fights since then under the tutelage of trainer Emanuel Steward, Cotto has appeared an altogether stronger, better-rounded boxer. Of course, neither this version of Mayorga, nor Yuri Foreman -- whom Cotto defeated last year and who was himself a loser on Saturday night -- posed the stiffest of questions. But he answered them convincingly nonetheless, and now another challenge, surely more personal than the others, awaits.
Margarito may not be the man he once was, either, following defeats to Pacquiao and Shane Mosley, to say nothing of the sense that his greatest victories may have been aided in less than legal ways. But in July, Cotto will have the opportunity to use him as a measuring stick by which to gauge his progress under Steward, with which to continue his career resurrection and through which he can achieve a degree of revenge and redemption in the process.
Yet, however much the fire of vengeance may burn within him, Cotto will assuredly approach that challenge as he did on this night: calmly, unhurriedly and on his own terms.