Tuesday October 27th, 2009

In boxing, a fighter's relationship with his trainer, is either his biggest asset or greatest liability. The bond between the two can't be measured, but its effects can certainly be seen.

Juan Manuel Marquez developed into a three-division champion under a lifetime of guidance from Nacho Beristain. Wladimir Klitschko only emerged as boxing's top heavyweight after Emanuel Steward took over in his corner. And Manny Pacquiao, who has, perhaps, the most successful fighter-trainer relationship, has worked his way to the top of boxing's pound-for-pound rankings after eight years with Freddie Roach. Together, they've forged a bond that Steward says is "unlike any I have ever seen."

Miguel Cotto doesn't have that luxury, or anything remotely close to it. When Cotto steps into the ring to defend his WBO welterweight title against Pacquiao next month, the man dispensing the advice will be Joe Santiago, a longtime member of Cotto's team who will be making his second appearance as lead trainer. The Cotto-Santiago merger was a marriage of necessity: Last April, Cotto and his uncle, Evangelista, who had trained Cotto for the last 18 years, reportedly came to blows after Cotto fired him for refusing to move the training camp from Caguas, Puerto Rico, to Tampa Bay. The fight continued at Cotto's home, when Evangelista allegedly threw a brick at Cotto, which smashed through the window of champion's 2009 Jaguar.

"The trainers could be a factor," said Steward. "Going down the stretch in these types of fights, [the corner] could swing it. Having your longtime trainer there is definitely an advantage."

Trainer-less for the first time in his career, Cotto asked his promoter, Bob Arum, for a list of potential replacements. After reviewing the list, Cotto elected to go with Santiago, a longtime protégé of Evangelista who has played a variety of roles in his training over the past seven years.

"I think Miguel feels comfortable with Joe," said Arum. "You have to understand [my] position. As the promoters, we're not responsible for the fighter getting into shape. That's up to the fighter and his team. We went along with whatever they decided ... whether Santiago is the right trainer for him is hard to tell."

The uncertainty surrounding the choice stems from Santiago's shaky performance in Cotto's fight against Joshua Clottey last June. In the third round, an accidental head butt opened up a grotesque cut on Cotto's left eyelid. A more seasoned trainer might have lobbied for the fight to be stopped. But Santiago allowed the fight to continue and watched helplessly as a blinded Cotto absorbed a beating from Clottey. Only a late rally saved Cotto from an embarrassing and costly defeat.

"I think [dealing with the cut] was a very dicey moment," said Arum. "Miguel was winning the fight quite handily and the eye was severely cut. I don't think Joe made any mistakes. I don't know if any trainer would have handled it different."

Added Santiago, "There were really no mistakes about the way we wanted to do the fight. I think the strategy was fine. I have known [Cotto] for seven years and I know they had talked about bringing in well-known trainers, but I think the fact that I have known him a long time and he feels comfortable with me gave me an advantage over all those guys. I think it's just a question of getting everybody on the same page and I think we've done that."

Those that argue that the change in trainers won't impact Cotto when he faces Pacquiao point to the estranged relationship between the fighter and his uncle. The problems between the two date back to 2007, when Cotto confronted Evangelista after he berated Cotto's brother, Jose, during Jose's world title fight against Prawet Singwancha. The confrontation was caught by the Telefutura cameras.

Because their relationship has been so bad for so long, the argument goes, Cotto has effectively been training himself.

"Cotto and his uncle were like a married couple that just grew apart," Steward told SI.com. "You could feel the distance between them. They went years barely speaking. And Cotto makes great adjustments on his own. When he fought Muhammad Abdullaev [in 2005], I was amazed at how he got on his toes and boxed beautifully. And against Zab Judah [in 2007], he got very physical. He's just an adaptable and adjustable guy."

Still, both Arum and Steward agree that in a fight that is predicted to be as closely contested as Cotto-Pacquiao, having an experienced and familiar voice in your corner is a tremendous advantage.

"Chemistry between the trainer and fighter is very important," said Arum. "Manny and Freddie are a finely tuned team. That doesn't mean that Joe can't do a good job for Miguel, but in the nitty gritty, I'd like to have Freddie."

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