As Pacquiao nears G.O.A.T. status, Cotto has golden opportunity

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Right now, that man is Manny Pacquiao, a 5-foot-7 turbine of a boxer-puncher who's as famous as Ali and Oprah put together in his native Philippines, where he's known as the Pambansang Kamao -- National Fist -- when he's not acting or recording music or politicking for a congressional seat.

Since making his pro debut at a wraith-like 106 pounds, Pacquiao has climbed the sport's weight divisions with the noble defiance of Edmund Hillary, collecting titles in a record-tying six classes from 112 to 140 pounds. Over the past 13 months, the volume-punching Pac-Man lay unequivocal claim to the pound-for-pound crown, a title left up for grabs after Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s retirement in 2007, with a three-pack of soul-stirring victories.

There was a furious ninth-round TKO of David Diaz for the lightweight championship in June 2008. There was the violent ninth-round stoppage of Oscar De La Hoya at 147 pounds in December -- Pacquiao's first outing above the 135-pound limit -- which HBO's Larry Merchant dubbed the "Death by a Thousand Left Hands" and which sent the Golden Boy meekly into retirement. And who could forget the awesome second-round knockout of Ricky Hatton in May for the junior welterweight title, when the 30-year-old became the first person in the fistic annals to win the lineal championship -- to beat the man who beat the man who beat the man -- in a fourth weight class?

Pacquiao is so fast and accurate at this stage of his career, able to fire punches from so many angles and blur the line between offense and defense so effectively, that it's hard not to love his chances against any opponent. But it hasn't always been so obvious during his precipitous ascent up the divisional ladder. I told myself I'd never again underestimate Pacquiao after the Diaz bout, yet, six months later, I picked Oscar. Oops. I swore that De La Hoya fight would be the last time I looked past Manny, but I inexplicably tipped Hatton in May. "When two champions from different weight classes enter the ring, the heavier man typically wins," wrote your faithful narrator. "Hatton wins because he's the naturally bigger guy, built to withstand more punishment, with just enough quickness to mitigate Pacquiao's technical superiority." Oops ... I did it again.

Throughout this career-defining stretch, Pacquiao has made the impossible appear effortless, raising his game to the enormity of one historic moment after another, conquering these challenges with such aplomb and self-possession that members of the fight press have openly wondered if Manny even has a natural fighting weight. How high can he go?

But as Pacquiao (49-3-2, 37 KOs) gears up for his latest challenge -- a Nov. 14 showdown with WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto (34-1, 27 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas -- I'm yet again waffling over whether Pacquiao and three-time Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach are getting reckless by moving up a couple clicks and handpicking an opponent as dangerous as Cotto at 145 pounds.

Make no mistake: Pacquiao, certain to be a comfortable favorite, is going to have his hands full with the workman-like Cotto, who could enter the ring as heavy as 160 pounds in November. A stingy puncher who carries on the legacy of Puerto Rican greats like Felix Trinidad, Wilfredo Gomez and Hector Camacho, the 28-year-old Cotto is a pressure fighter who took the hard road to the top, knocking off elite contenders Ricardo Torres, Carlos Quintana, Zab Judah, Shane Mosley and Josh Clottey.

Cotto's lone defeat in 35 pro bouts came at the dubious hands of Antonio Margarito one year ago this week, just months before the Mexican was caught with loaded gloves before his subsequent fight with Mosley and promptly excommunicated from the sport for a year. Those Plaster-of-Paris hand wraps cast grave doubts over Margarito's entire body of work, starting with his dramatic come-from-behind effort against Cotto. For this reason, Cotto remains an undefeated fighter in many eyes.

The November bout is a megafight. Cotto and Pacquiao are an accomplished, crowd-pleasing pair. They are two of the most beloved fighters in the game, modern-day folk heroes in their respective fatherlands who inspire passionate, jingoistic followings wherever they compete. But that's only where the lofty stakes of the showdown begin.

For Pacquiao, there's a chance to claim -- along with his 50th career victory -- a title in an unprecedented seventh weight class. That's a downright outrageous haul. Sure, there weren't as many divisions in the days of Henry Armstrong, Barney Ross and Sugar Ray Robinson, but not even the iterant warriors of the modern era, such as Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Pernell Whitaker or De La Hoya, managed to stamp their greatness across that many classes. To put it simply, wresting the welterweight championship from Cotto would thrust Pacquiao into legitimate G.O.A.T. discussions.

For Cotto, there's the opportunity to usurp his opponent's place atop the pound-for-pound rankings, cement his own place among the all-time greats and, perhaps most importantly, exorcise the demons from the Margarito nightmare once and for all. To defeat an international superstar like Pacquiao, one of the world's 100 most influential people according to Time magazine, could make Cotto a household name.

The great A.J. Liebling wrote, "The span between the top limit of one weight class and the next represents the margin that history has proved is almost impossible to overcome." We've almost lost count of the number of times Pacquiao has cheated this conventional wisdom. Can Cotto deliver his comeuppance, or does Pacquiao make history in his latest, greatest effort to date?