As strategists go, they don't get much better than Freddie Roach. The mastermind behind 24 world champions, Roach devises winning game plans the way Adrian Peterson scores touchdowns or Ray Allen buries jump shots. And no one has benefited more from Roach's skills than Manny Pacquiao. In just the past two years, Pacquiao has defeated a skilled counterpuncher (Juan ManuelMarquez), knocked off a physically superior hook artist (Oscar De La Hoya) and routed a bulldogging slugger (Ricky Hatton). Each victory propelled Pacquiao to a new level. Each came under Roach's watchful eye.
Still, the cliche "the next-opponent-is-the-best-opponent" may ring true for Pacquiao and Roach. Miguel Cotto, whom Pacquiao will face at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 p.m.), is a chameleon. With a hard left hook and a devastating body attack, Cotto can brawl. His knockout victories over Ricardo Torres, Zab Judah and Michael Jennings -- all title fights -- attest to that.
And more so in recent years, Cotto has proven he can be an effective boxer. In 2007, he scored a career-defining victory over Shane Mosley. In a fight dominated by stinging jabs, Cotto was the more precise puncher, winning by at least two points on each of the judge's scorecards.
"He's so adaptable," said Hall of Fame trainer Emmanuel Steward. "He makes adjustments in the ring as well as anyone I've seen in a while."
Adapting to an adapter like Cotto will be Pacquiao's biggest challenge to date. But rest assured, Roach has a strategy.
"There's a Plan A and B," said Roach. Either [Cotto] is going to use his strength and come forward and show us he's the bigger or stronger guy, or he's going to try to be like Marquez and be a counterpuncher. A lot of people like to do that because it gave us trouble. But you can't become somebody else in eight weeks. Once he gets hit, he will revert back to what he does best.
"Cotto has got a great left hook, and when he gets you on the ropes he's very effective. Our job is not to be on the ropes at all in this fight. Obviously, Cotto will pressure us at times during this fight, but Manny's speed is too much. Foot-speed -- that's where the fight is won. And Manny excels in that department."
Roach says the game plan calls for Pacquiao to be aggressive early and keep Cotto out of his comfort zone.
"In the first round of this fight, I'm going to have Pacquiao make a statement," said Roach. "We're not going to give [Cotto] momentum, because if you give him momentum, he's going to get stronger. We're going to start quick. We're going to show him our power in the first round. We're going to hit him. We're not going to go in and just start swinging on him. We're going to do it smart. Pacquiao knows exactly what to do. We'll walk Cotto into a fight, because he follows. And when he follows, we're going to take advantage of that."
• Several HBO executives I spoke with are thrilled with the early numbers for the pay-per-view buys. Though they didn't reveal any figures, there is a quiet confidence that this fight will exceed the 1 million buys generated by FloydMayweather-Juan Manuel Marquez in September.
• Golden Boy plans on capitalizing on the throng of boxing media present for this fight by holding a press conference Saturday to announce January's fight between Shane Mosley and Andre Berto. Also present at this event will be newly crowned WBA heavyweight champion David Haye. For Haye, the biggest question is how he will operate as a champion. Ex-champ Nikolai Valuev avoided dangerous fights in order to hold onto his belt. The outspoken Haye has a chance to revitalize the division if he agrees to unification fights with either Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko.
• An interesting nugget from Roach at Thursday's press conference: He considered training Cotto after the champ split with his long-time trainer and uncle, Evangelista Cotto, earlier this year. According to Roach, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum approached him once and asked if he was interested in training Cotto. "I told him sure," said Roach. "He's a talented guy. [Arum] asked me if I was interested and that was the last I heard of it." Arum told SI.com recently that the reason he didn't push Roach to Cotto was because he forecasted an inevitable Pacquiao-Cotto meeting.
• Early reports say that once the pay-per-view numbers are counted, Pacquiao will come away with close to $18 million (with $7.5 million guaranteed) after this fight, with Cotto picking up around $10 million. That leads to the inevitable question: How much would be in it for the winner against Floyd Mayweather?
• Weigh-ins are usually anticlimactic, but this one could be interesting. That's because Roach believes if Cotto comes in one pound over the agreed-upon 145-pound catchweight, he will push to cancel the fight. Weight was an issue in the Marquez-Mayweather fight after Mayweather came in two pounds over the agreed limit. That fight went forward after Mayweather paid Marquez an extra $600,000. Roach says money won't be enough if Cotto doesn't make the weight. "I'd tell him to go lose it," said Roach.
• The only mildly interesting fight in an otherwise atrocious undercard features middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who will face journeyman Troy Rowland. Chavez Jr., the son of Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez, has built a 40-0-1 record against light competition. Interestingly, while Chavez Sr. is revered in Mexico, his son is considered by some in the Mexican boxing community to be a fraud. I spent some time in Mexico recently reporting a story on Mexican boxing, and several fighters, unprompted, disparaged Chavez as a fighter who had done nothing to earn his high profile status.
• How confident is Pacquiao that he will emerge unscathed? His band is scheduled to perform at Mandalay Bay a couple of hours after the fight.
• Inside the press room at the MGM Grand is a poster-sized print of Pacquiao's TIME Asia cover. That cover was so popular that an extra 50,000 copies had to be printed to meet the demand.
• The prediction here: Cotto in a razor-thin decision