By Geoffrey Gray
NEW YORK -- After the ninth round, Sergio Martinez came back to his corner, the water from the cutman's sponge washing the blood from cuts over both eyes. His trainer grabbed him and screamed.
"Your knees are not working, champion," Pablo Sarmiento told him in Spanish. "They are not working."
At 39, deep into the twilight years of the middleweight's career, the promise of bigger paydays and his legacy had been at stake. Martinez could be remembered as a great champion with a few more notable victories to his name, or retire as one of boxing's great journeyman tales.
"Give me one more," Martinez protested. "One more."
Sarmiento shook him again, and when the bell for the 10th struck he raised his hands. That was the end of Martinez's middleweight championship fight with Miguel Cotto on Saturday night, and given his series of injuries over the past year -- and arguably more to treat from the beating he took at Madison Square Garden -- the talk of his retirement from boxing has already begun.
From the first minutes of the first round, Martinez struggled severely. A leaping left hook from Cotto seemed to glance of his temple, blows that disturb a fighter's sense of balance. Martinez crashed to the canvas, then twice more. The trouble, though, was not the viciousness of Cotto's blows, it seemed, but Martinez's knees. After injuries and surgeries, Martinez had not fought in more than a year. His knees seemed to have been injured as he hobbled and buckled around the ring, struggling to move from Cotto and find his footing.
In Cotto's corner, Freddie Roach, his new trainer, couldn't believe Martinez's grit. "He got up three times in the first round," Roach said. "Sergio has a lot of balls."
Martinez survived the round but never recovered. His legs seemed to stabilize underneath him, but without enough strength to throw a punch that ever seemed menacing. His punch throughout the fight was a jab, a tremendous feat considering he was the favorite to win the bout and the far bigger fighter. Martinez suffered, according to his promoter Lou DiBella, "a terrible beating."
"He hit me cold and he hit me hard in the beginning," Martinez said before going to the hospital for precautionary measures. "It was hard to recuperate from that."
Meanwhile, Miguel Cotto put on a boxing clinic and arguably the best performance of his career. He stalked Martinez with a predatory calm and premonition, almost willing his prey into range. He cut off the ring, stifling Martinez's movement. He pushed him back with right hands to Martinez's chest. Even a leaping, off-balance uppercut he threw late in the fight landed on Martinez's chin.
"Every time he came back to the corner, I told [Cotto], 'That round was better than the last one,'" Roach said.
Cotto looked fresh, almost reborn since his partnership with Roach. Known to loathe interviews and possess a rigid public demeanor, Cotto was spotted in Roach's gym doing something he rarely seems to do: smile. He was so focused and determined that he walked to the ring with no music, creating a spooky aura of suspense. Even when Martinez was injured, Cotto never lost his focus, chopping Martinez down one punch at a time.
"We had the most beautiful camp of my career," said Cotto, who split from his former trainer, an uncle he once fought in the gym after a dispute. When he teamed up with Roach, Cotto's motivation was to finish his career on a high note. He'd suffered so many ring wars he figured he had only three fights left. Now, with such a decisive victory, Roach believes Cotto, 33, could fight for far longer, and the field of opponents at present could yield the biggest paydays of his career.
A rematch with Floyd Mayweather is possibly the most lucrative route. Another major payday would be to face Canelo Alvarez. It was too early for Cotto to call out his next opponent, though at the post-fight press conference he was upbeat and decked out in what's becoming a trademark color for him. He wore neon pink Crocs shoes, a bright pink shirt. He wore a pink tie at the pre-fight press conference. The laces of boxing shoes looked pink.
"That was the color of our camp," Bryan Perez, one of Cotto's close friends and advisors, explained of all the pink that Cotto was wearing. "He likes the color a lot. It gives a personal lightnesss."
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Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female-arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.