BY MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sports Writer
When WBA welterweight champion Miguel Cotto, of Caguas, Puerto Rico, defends his belt Saturday against former WBO 147-pound beltholder Antonio "The Tijuana Tornado" Margarito, national pride and a chance to move to the fore of the boxing's pound-for-pound rankings will be only part of what's at stake.
The winner of the 12-round bout will not only have a chance to elevate himself alongside WBC lightweight titlist Manny Pacquiao as the sport's most talented and exciting fighter, but could also earn a high-dollar matchup with Oscar De La Hoya in "The Golden Boy's" going-away bout in December.
For boxing fans that tune in to the HBO Pay Per View event, televised live from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, it's also a chance to witness a possible candidate for 2008's Fight of the Year.
The Nevada Appeal interviewed three neutral trainers for their opinion on the outcome of this latest addition to the Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry that has brought fans Wilfredo Gomez-Carlos Zarate, Gomez-Lupe Pintor, Salvador Sanchez-Gomez, Julio Cesar Chavez-Edwin Rosario, Chavez-Hector Camacho, among many other hotly contested bouts.
Teddy Atlas, who trained Michael Moorer for his victory over Evander Holyfield for the linear heavyweight championship and who is currently the color commentator for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, said many questions will be answered when the 27-year-old Cotto, 32-0 with 26 knockouts, meets the 30-year-old Margarito, 36-5 (26) with 1 no-contest.
"It will be a competitive fight, one that has a lot of danger for Cotto, being the smaller man (who, at 5-foot-7, is four inches shorter than Margarito)," Atlas said. "Margarito is an experienced guy with a good chin and can fight inside and outside.
"He can use his height and reach advantage (at 73 inches, Margarito's reach is six inches longer than Cotto's). He can go inside and to the body if he has to."
Atlas sees several factors working for Cotto, however.
"The big thing Cotto has is his amateur success and pride," Atlas said. "He also hasn't learned how to lose yet. That's a powerful thing. Cotto's chin isn't as powerful as Margarito's, so the edge goes to Margarito there.
"The thing I don't like with Margarito is the way he behaved in the Paul Williams fight (in July 2007). Margarito found a way to lose the fight. That stays with me. All the things he needed to do in the fight, he didn't use his experience to do."
"I'm not going to pick against Cotto until I'm proven wrong," Atlas said. "Cotto wins a decision."
Atlas said Cotto is capable of shifting gears from slugging to boxing, which could prove decisive in this fight.
"As we saw when he was in against (Shane) Mosley, that pure strength thing didn't work," Atlas said. "Cotto made adjustments " he boxed. He may not have been (Muhammad) Ali or Pernell Whitaker, but he adjusted and used the ring and made it work for him."
Ronnie Shields, who has trained many former world champions, including Juan Diaz, Zab Judah, Whitaker and Holyfield, also thinks versatility will be the key.
"I'm picking Miguel Cotto " I think he's a really good boxer," Shields said. "And he fights both ways " he fights when he has to fight and he can box. It impressed me the way he boxed Shane Mosley.
"Cotto has the power to hurt Margarito. If Margarito gets hurt, he won't know what to do. That could be the difference in the fight."
Jesse Reid, who has also trained several world champions, including Orlando Canizales, Johnny Tapia, Roger Mayweather and Paul Spadafora, among others, didn't say he was picking Margarito to win, but he didn't choose Cotto either, saying what happens early could influence the ultimate outcome.
"I know Cotto's the favorite, younger and the more powerful of the two, but this is going to be a very good fight," Reid said. "Margarito has a good chin. He's extremely aggressive. It will be Margarito's kind of fight if he doesn't get hurt early.
"If this gets into the late rounds, Margarito has a chance to win this fight. I like Margarito's aggressiveness. Cotto is in a real fight. If he slacks off a little bit, he just may (end up) on his a--. If he can't hurt Margarito in the first five or six rounds, he'll be in a real barnburner."
Appeal Quick Pick: This is Cotto's fight to win or lose. While he has been dropped before (by Ricardo Torres) and got into some trouble against DeMarcus Corley, Cotto showed the best trait of any boxer: He dug down deep and found a way to win " in both of these cases, by knockout.
Margarito will be on Cotto faster than a seagull on a McDonald's french fry, but he will pay a heavy price because of it. Margarito will bring it, but his machismo will also turn him into a punch sponge, soaking up the more talented and slicker Cotto's sharper, accurate shots until the referee stops the contest. Cotto via 10-round stoppage.
The telecast begins at 6 p.m.