One night, two fights, four fighters.
For Victor Ortiz, Saturday night at Madison Square Garden was billed as the biggest test of his young career: Opening the televised portion of a pay-per-view card in the self-styled world's most famous arena, against a former titlist with a reputation for being awkward and tough.
That former titlist, Carlos Maussa, had lasted eight rounds against Saturday's headliner, Miguel Cotto, four years previously. He had upset former WBA junior welterweight beltholder Vivian Harris with a seventh-round stoppage in June 2005, a result that was all the more shocking given that it came just six months after the second loss of Maussa's career, a unanimous decision defeat to the unheralded -- and unremarkable -- Arturo Morua.
If he ended his career tomorrow, which he might be well advised to consider doing, the Harris fight would be the high-water mark of Maussa's career, it would also stand as his final victory. As an encore five months later, he gave Britain's Ricky Hatton a tough battle for eight rounds before the man from Manchester finally overwhelmed him, taking the Colombian's WBA belt away in the process.
And then, after nine months on the shelf, he lost again, this time to Manuel Garnica, an opponent who himself had come out second best in his previous two contests.
All of those factors made Maussa, on paper, the perfect opponent for a young man with 19 victories from 21 fights and whose only defeat had been by disqualification, and whose only other career blemish was a technical draw after his opponent's elbow carved a gash on the forehead that cut clean to the bone.
It is boxing's cruelest, but most common and most necessary spectacle: The faded veteran being fed to the up-and-coming prospect. Make no mistake: Maussa was not expected to win, or else he would not have been given the assignment. But, again on paper, his awkwardness, toughness, and experience seemed likely to give Ortiz a real test.
But fights aren't fought on paper, and in the event, so dominant was Ortiz that it seems unlikely Maussa can even make a claim for himself to be any kind of gatekeeper in the future.
As expected, the former champ came out swinging wide, looping punches at the head of the younger man. Some of them landed, the sheer unconventionality of the offense almost guaranteeing an occasional success. But most of the time Ortiz, demonstrating the poise of a far more seasoned boxer, slipped and parried the incoming artillery, and looked for an opportunity to counter.
Halfway through the opening round, he found that opportunity and took perfect advantage. As a swarming Maussa backed him to the ropes, Ortiz slipped under his punches, turned him around and followed a southpaw right hook with a stinging straight left that caught Maussa on the cheekbone, drawing blood and sending him tumbling to the canvas.
Maussa thought about getting up, making it as far as his hands and knees but no further, and Ortiz leapt triumphantly into the air as the referee completed the count. Ironically, victory had been so emphatic and complete as to lose a little of its patina, the suspicion arising that Maussa is a spent force as much as Ortiz is an irresistible one. But a boxer can only beat the opponents put in front of him, and Ortiz did that with eye-catching style.
If Maussa's health is better served by seeking alternate employment, the fistic future for young Victor Ortiz looks bright indeed, his skills and temperament marking him as a candidate for the very top tier of his chosen profession.
Miguel Cotto is there already. He had already passed tests of the kind that still lie ahead of Ortiz. Cotto has taken advantage of veterans who have seen better days and handed the first defeats to fellow contenders (Kelson Pinto, Ricardo Torres, Paul Malignaggi, and Carlos Quintana). Moreover, he has rallied from adversity (knocked down by Torres; wobbled by DeMarcus Corley and Zab Judah) to score ultimately emphatic victories. But Saturday night was his final examination, his first clash with a guaranteed, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, his first championship defense against a man whose trophy cabinet dwarfs his own.
Cotto would be the younger man in the ring by nine years, but unlike Maussa against Ortiz, Shane Mosley was no sacrificial lamb. He brought to the table not only greater experience, but also faster hands, arguably superior boxing skills and a solid punch. Going in, this was a pick 'em fight: The veteran, in this case, was more than capable of upsetting the young champion and more than a few observers expected him to do so.
Mosley himself had been in Cotto's position before. It seems hard to believe, but it's been 10 years since he ripped the IBF lightweight crown from Philip Holiday. He defended it five times the following year, making eight defenses of the crown in total, all within the distance. He was among an elite group of boxers contending for the title of best in the world, pound-for-pound, before stepping up to welterweight and inflicting the first clear defeat on Oscar De La Hoya.
The world was at his feet then, but two defeats to Vernon Forrest, a contested rematch victory over De La Hoya, and a pair of defeats to Winky Wright took at least some of the luster off what once had promised to be not just a very good career, but perhaps one of the all-time great ones.
Slowly, however, he rebuilt himself, dropping back down from the junior middleweight division for which he was less suited, showing anew the fast hands and flashy combinations that had first brought him fame and glory. Against a younger but slower opponent, the opportunity seemed ripe for the rebirth to be completed with a second welterweight championship, more than seven years after he won his first.
It was not to be. Mosley started brightly enough, raking Cotto with body punches -- even though the Puerto Rican boasted the more celebrated body attack -- and hurling right hands at Cotto's head. But whereas Mosley's jabs were fast and stinging, Cotto's were concussive. By the sixth and seventh rounds, the defending champion's heavy hands seemed to have all but taken the fight out of the older man. Mosley seemed weary and reluctant to engage, and as he circled his foe in an attempt to keep himself at a comfortable distance, the previously boisterous crowd began to turn restive for the first time.
Then suddenly, Mosley summoned up one last reserve of the energy and determination that had served him so well throughout his storied ring career, letting rip with powerful combinations, even stunning Cotto, and flying across the ring at the start of the 10th in an attempt to finish his foe.
But the champion withstood the storm. By the end of the round the momentum had once more begun to shift back toward the man from Caguas, and Mosley's chance was gone. A strong 11th round sealed it for Cotto, and the 12th, by which point neither man seemed keen to risk further punishment, was merely a final punctuation mark.
Mosley suggested afterward that he may retire. If he does so, it will not be because he can no longer compete; he demonstrated quite convincingly that he still can. But at this point in life, why should he? His legacy is secure, as his financial well-being; and as he said himself, he isn't getting any younger.
For Cotto, however, there is no shortage of options. There is little time to relax and enjoy the spoils of victory; there rarely is. Barely had the last echoes of the final bell subsided than the questions were of who would be next.
There will always be somebody. Even if he were to defeat the present crop of champions and contenders, the likes of Kermit Cintron and Paul Williams, Antonio Margarito and even Floyd Mayweather, there will still be somebody else, ready to throw down a challenge.
It will be the same for Ortiz, should he fulfill the prophecies and achieve the championship glory many now predict. Eventually he, too, will become the veteran, desperately fending off the challengers until he finally meets someone who is younger and hungrier and, on that particular night, better.
And then the cycle will begin all over again. In boxing, it always does.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.