Shot fighter" is a fluid term born of speculative psychology and boxing's undying need to get inside the heads of its fighters. There is no real medical, technical, or even linguistic way to define who is shot and who is not, and because a fighter performs so infrequently and only for a maximum of 36 minutes at a time, evidence can be tough to find. Since taking a knee in the 11th round of his fight against Antonio Margarito and his allegedly loaded gloves back in 2008, all discussions about Miguel Cotto have begun with the question, "Is he shot?" Cotto, who was all of 27 years old when he fought Margarito the first time, has typified the sort of shot that has nothing to do with age, but rather stems from lost confidence and the fear that accompanies a brutal beating. Once a boxer is tagged as "shot," there's not much he can do to escape the speculation. It's a particularly brutal and ubiquitous label, especially because it can be applied to nearly anyone at any age or condition. In his next fight, the seemingly invincible Margarito fought Shane Mosley, who, at the shot-to-all-hell age of 37, entered the ring as a 4:1 underdog. In nine stunning and violent rounds, Mosley destroyed Margarito and set himself up for big fights against Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Margarito has never been the same and now carries the distinction of being the pound-for-pound most shot fighter in the world, a title he might have lost to Mosley on Saturday night.
At the weigh-in on Friday afternoon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, I stood next to Evander Holyfield and some very spoiled, very loud brats from Mexico City. The brats were taking photos of themselves and Holyfield was frowning and I was trying not to stare at Holyfield's ear. The crowd was mostly drunk and sunburnt and thoroughly uninterested in "Sugar" Shane Mosley. Mosley didn't seem particularly interested himself. He sort of smiled instead and chatted up Oscar De La Hoya. When it came time for Mosley to step on the scale, a few people in the crowd began chanting "Steroids! Steroids!" referencing Mosley's past connections with BALCO and performance-enhancing drugs. Just as he was going into his customary smile-and-flex, he saw that he had come in a half-pound too heavy. The crowd booed, Mosley tried to act angry and surprised, every boxing reporter took out his phone and began tweeting about the end of Sugar Shane, Holyfield shook his head in disgust, and I once again suppressed the urge to stare at his ear.
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Mosley's 21-year-old opponent, weighed in next. Last year, in a crowded movie theater in Dallas, I watched 50 Mexican-American women lose their minds as they watched Canelo beat up Alfonso Gomez. Later, in Oaxaca City, I asked a guy in a cab about Canelo and ended up listening to a 20-minute lecture on the state of boxing in Mexico and the creation of celebrity. Since then, I've gone back and watched quite a few of Canelo's old fights and watched him break down a shot Kermit Cintron. I've Google Image searched his former fiancée, Marisol Gonzalez (NSFW-ish), I've sent e-mails to friends in Mexico City asking, "Why the hell is this guy so popular?" and still haven't been able to cobble together anything resembling a satisfying explanation. A friend in Mexico City told me that Canelo has gone about his training and career in the right way and that Mexicans have responded well to his work ethic. My friend's wife said that it was mostly about the hair and Canelo's close ties with Televisa, the Mexican television station where Marisol Gonzalez works as a sports reporter. Canelo is a good-looking guy, but he fights in a slow, methodical, thudding style. He doesn't pound his chest like Margarito and yell about his Mexican warrior heart. He doesn't have Juan Manuel Marquez's smarts or his ability to finish opponents. He hasn't shown the heart of Erik Morales.
Still, when Canelo stepped onto the scale and weighed in at exactly the weight limit of 154 pounds, the crowd in the MGM Garden Arena chanted "CA-NE-LO! CA-NE-LO!" the Mexico City brats snapped some blurry iPhone photos and uploaded all of them to Facebook, and Evander Holyfield once again shook his head.
At 4:15 on Friday afternoon at a $15 blackjack table at the MGM Grand, Patrick, my old college roommate, clapped me on the back and said hello. Patrick and I lived together in a few houses in Maine. One has since been razed. Another wasn't really properly constructed for the winter and once the worst storm in however many years sat its gray ass squarely over our coastal town, the weight of the snow pried the house a few centimeters up off its foundation. After college, I went off to a silly graduate school program in creative writing. Patrick coached soccer at Bowdoin, our alma mater, before heading to Chicago for his own graduate work. For a while, we were both living in New York — me as a broke writer, and he as a comically irresponsible paralegal. Then, unexpectedly, Patrick joined the military, where he now works as member of the Special Forces.
For the next 24 hours, Patrick and I hung around the MGM and watched as the fight crowd slowly built itself up into a dense mass of miniskirts, exposed thongs, gelled hair, and $10,000 chains. In the lobby, we watched Gary Sheffield talk to Carl Everett, who looked like he was about to give birth to twins. There's no atmosphere in sports quite like fight night in Vegas — the well-designed, long throughways of the modern stadium are replaced by the crammed, low-ceilinged casino floor, replica jerseys and hats are replaced by suits and dresses that defy gravity and geometry, and pretty much everyone is blackout drunk. Some guy with a Puerto Rico flag draped around his shoulders is always yelling at someone in a Money Team tracksuit as some Mexico City skater kids smile and have their photos taken with the Corona Girls. In addition to being Fight Night, Saturday was also Derby Day and Cinco de Mayo. By the time I'll Have Another crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs, the floor of MGM looked like a particularly sinful advertisement for workplace diversity.
For one round — the first — Shane Mosley didn't look quite so shot. He walked down Canelo and got off a couple combinations. Canelo, for his part, backed up and tried to find the range to throw his slow, powerful uppercuts and straight lefts. But in the second round, Canelo began throwing overhand lefts and hard shots to Mosley's body. A pattern emerged that would continue throughout the fight — Shane would throw his jab to try and break up Canelo's defense and Canelo would just sort of stand there and block the shots with his arms. Neither fighter moved his head much, and most of the action took place at the center of the ring. The only really exciting moments in the fight came when Canelo would hop back, plant his feet, and unload a heavy combination of punches into Shane's head and body. But really, all that happened was what everyone had expected — a shot old fighter was slowly getting beat up by a younger, stronger fighter. From the sixth round till the end of the fight, the crowd was mostly just waiting to see if Canelo could drop Shane. Patrick texted me from his seat up in the nosebleeds: "This is kind of sad." The knockout never came — the only apparent vestige of Shane's former greatness is his chin — and although Canelo won the fight convincingly, he didn't show anything that convinced me that he could fight a top-tier fighter in the headliner of a pay-per-view card.
After the fight, Michael Buffer implored the crowd to give one last round of applause for First Ballot Hall of Fame Legend Sugar Shane Mosley. It was as good a eulogy as any other — when all that can be said about you is your surefire candidacy for a Hall of Fame that nobody cares about, it's probably time to hang up the gloves.
On his way down the tunnel, Mosley smiled wanly and waved at the crowd, many of whom shouted, "We love you, Shane!" I've always been drawn to boxing because of these scenes of dignified uselessness. The sport is brutal and it is beautiful, sure, but the reason why it translates so well to screen and print is because the spectacle of a battered, old man coming to grips with his inability to fight so perfectly mirrors our own never-ending negotiations with mortality. Shane Mosley is undeniably and thoroughly shot. He will probably fight again.
At some point over the past couple of months, somebody on the Money Team must have said, "Hey, what if we had Justin Bieber walk with us to the ring?" And after everyone had a good laugh, somebody made a phone call to Bieber's people and set it up. That's what separates Floyd from everyone else in boxing — more than any other athlete I've seen in person, save Kobe Bryant, Floyd has a motherfucking aura. Boxing fans mostly know of him from his staged antics on HBO's 24/7, but after seeing him up close, I wonder if all those histrionics might be doing Money a disservice. His entrances and his brilliance in the ring should be enough.
And what brilliance! Floyd fights at a different speed than everyone else on the planet. He's more comfortable at close range than anyone since Pernell Whitaker. And his punches are so accurate that it seems impossible that a human brain could instruct a human fist to travel in such a well-coordinated flight path. We've come to expect those things out of Floyd, but it's been a while since he's had an opponent who forced him to bring out every bit of his training and intelligence in the ring. Perhaps Mosley's last great moment was in the second round of his 2010 fight against Floyd, when he nearly knocked Floyd out with two right hands. After wobbling around the ring for a solid minute, Floyd turned on one of the most impressive displays of boxing in his career and barely got touched for the rest of the fight.
But that was just two punches in an early round of an otherwise lopsided fight. What Floyd faced on Saturday against Miguel Cotto was different. I've always admired the way Cotto handles himself, both with the media and inside the ring. Boxing is filled with fighters who, in their way, are all doing bad Muhammad Ali impersonations. Cotto, by contrast, stays quiet and seems to live his life with a seriousness and a sense of responsibility that puts the brutality of his chosen profession into something resembling a proper perspective. He, more than any current fighter, lets his fighting do the talking for him, and perhaps the real tragedy of the first Margarito fight was that it felt like a truly bad motherfucker had been taken away from us. Cotto, who seemed unbeatable before he took that knee, was officially shot and it didn't really matter if he put in a respectable eleven rounds against Pacquiao or if he beat up Margarito in their rematch, the question hovering over his career would always be, "How great could he have been if Margarito hadn't cheated?"
For nine rounds, despite being down on the cards, Cotto crouched down low, moved forward, and continually pushed Mayweather up against the ropes. Several fighters have tried to employ this strategy against Floyd. Every one of them has ultimately been broken down by his precision counterpunches. Cotto ate some of those same punches, sure, but unlike Victor Ortiz, who wildly flailed at Floyd, or Shane, who mostly seemed confused, Cotto steadily battered Mayweather with body shots and punches that got up over Mayweather's defense. By the eighth round, this strategy seemed to be wearing down Floyd, who, for the first time in years, looked to be affected by the punishment. From the seventh round to the final bell, the crowd, most of whom were rooting for Cotto, stayed on their feet. When the ringside camera caught a close-up shot of Floyd's bloodied face, the cheering rose to a deafening level.
Floyd woke up in the ninth, got off the ropes, and his training technique and precision began to carry the fight. By the start of the 12th and final round, it became obvious to everyone in the arena that Cotto was going to have to knock out Mayweather to win the fight. He tried, gamely, but almost got himself knocked out by one of Floyd's combinations.
That combination came after 11 of the toughest rounds of Floyd's career, and more than anything else I saw on Saturday night, the speed and accuracy of those three punches convinced me that what I was watching was one of the great moments of one of the greatest fighters of all time. It was humbling to watch. Floyd might play boxing's villain, but after watching him get pushed to his limit by a fighter he truly respected, I think he might be miscast. At every break, in every clinch, and with every touch of the gloves to restart action, Floyd showed Cotto the respect he deserved. It was a refreshing and strange insight into Floyd: Above all things, he respects the sport and the challengers who put in the same hard work and dedication as he does.
After the decision was handed down, a member of the Money Team stood on his chair and yelled at the rows of reporters sitting ringside. "Did any of you have Cotto winning the fight?" Later, I saw the same guy in the hallway outside the arena. He was talking to a friend and said, "Man, Cotto fought his ass off. He didn't win the fight, but he fought his ass off. He's not the same guy he was before."
It's true. Cotto's legacy, which once started and ended with the image of him shaking his bloodied and battered head after taking a knee in the corner of the ring, has been revitalized. The term "shot" no longer applies.