Sunday November 11th, 2007

One of the loudest criticisms of boxing -- usually levied by advocates of mixed martial arts -- is that the sport is dominated by aging stars. For the most part, the critics are correct. Oscar de la Hoya (34), Floyd Mayweather (30), Wladimir Klitschko (31) and Shane Mosley (36) are all on the wrong side of 30. They are also still the biggest draws, with De La Hoya-Mayweather breaking every box office record and Klitschko leveling every young fighter left dangling in his path.

Those criticisms are beginning to lack credence, however, thanks to some impressive performances by boxing's next generation of stars. Beginning with 25-year-old Kelly Pavlik and continuing with 27-year-old Miguel Cotto, who significantly improved his status in the boxing hierarchy with a decisive victory over Mosley, boxing finally appears ready to be driven (or at least guided) by its youth.

Cotto's victory over Mosley was a microcosm for his career: impressive, yet with considerable room for improvement. For nine rounds, Cotto (31-0) dominated Mosley (44-5), landing repeated bombs to Mosley's skull while jabbing effectively enough to keep the faster Mosley from hitting him with combinations.

But whether it was fatigue or a desire to stay away from the knockout punch, Cotto morphed into a different fighter from the ninth round on. He was tentative, still landing big shots but firing them off of his back foot, as he let Mosley set the pace. He already had the fight well in hand ( scored it 116-113 for Cotto), but for a fighter known for his aggressiveness, the decision to lay back was puzzling.

Still, Cotto's performance on Saturday clearly established himself as an elite fighter. In front of 17,135 mostly pro-Cotto fans at Madison Square Garden (one gets the feeling the Puerto Rican Cotto could pack that many into the Garden every weekend), the WBA champion beat up on a boxing legend in Mosley, who had won his previous five welterweight fights since returning to the division in 2005. Questions about his chin, which Mosley called "suspect" before the fight, were answered as Cotto survived several early onslaughts from Mosley and kept coming. Roles were reversed when the ordinarily surgical Mosley began to swing wildly, while Cotto snapped Mosley's head back with crisp jabs and well placed left hooks.

With the win, Cotto's place in the welterweight pecking order is clear: Mayweather is one, Cotto is two, with fighters like Paul Williams, Kermit Cintron and Antonio Margarito nipping at their heels. If Mayweather, the recognized WBC champion, defeats Ricky Hatton in December, a Cotto-Mayweather title tilt makes perfect sense.

Cotto has slain one legend. Let's see if he can slay another.

De La Hoya announced at the post-fight press conference that he would return to the ring on May 3, 2008 against an opponent to be named later. De La Hoya indicated that he has decided who he wants to fight (the buzz on press row is that it is Cotto) but would not reveal the name until after Mayweather-Hatton. "I've given [Golden Boy CEO] Richard Schaefer his marching orders," said De La Hoya. ... Another Golden Boy exec, Bernard Hopkins, continued to blast away at Joe Calzaghe, saying he would love to fight Calzaghe at Yankee Stadium -- if the Welsh champion is willing to "cross the Red Sea" to fight him. Of course, if Calzaghe were to cross the Red Sea the fight would be taking place in either Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea or Yemen. ... Margarito rebounded from a disappointing loss to Williams in July with a brutal first-round KO of Golden Johnson. After the fight, Margarito asked for a shot at Cotto. Both fighters are promoted by Top Rank. ... On a personal note, if boxing wants to start being treated with respect, it should stop having its press conferences resemble a romper room. The first three questions asked at the post-fight press conference came from a guy holding a full beer who, by the time he had finished with his final question, couldn't stand up without nearly falling over. A rumble nearly broke out beside me between a man and a woman over who was talking too loud, with the man threatening to assault her from several feet away. I'm not trying to be elitist and God knows many fans ask sharper questions than I do (I should know, you email them to me), but imagine if I sat in the stands at Giants Stadium drinking for three hours then stumbled into the locker room to ask Eli Manning why he missed Jeremy Shockey on a slant route. It's insane.

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