The Last Super Fight of 2012?

Could Saturday's bout between "Money" Mayweather and Miguel Cotto be the only marquee pay-per-view card of the year?

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(JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Floyd Mayweather (L) faces Miguel Cotto (R) during their press conference on May 2, 2012 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mayweather takes on Cotto for the WBA Super World Light Middleweight Championship on Cinco de Mayo, Saturday, May 5, 2012.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. constantly refers to his on-screen performances, both inside and outside the ring, as “You Must Watch TV.” And with a cadre of HBO’s 24/7 cameras rolling on Mayweather’s spectacle of a life, why not? But fights that register in the public as appointment viewing are rarer than “Money” likes to admit. Saturday’s square-off with Miguel Cotto is an exception, a veritable “super fight” and easily the biggest bout of the still-young year.

Mayweather’s focus is equal parts perfection and history. The Grand Rapids native is wagering his undefeated record and status as best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. A victory would preserve both, add another title belt to Mayweather’s collection and grow Floyd’s legacy as one of the best boxers in the sport’s long history.

Cotto is chasing redemption and reclamation. He will enter the ring an overwhelming underdog against Mayweather, even though he is the younger man and fighting at his natural weight. He admits this fight should have happened “four, five, six years ago.” It could have happened too, if it were not for Cotto’s much-discussed, much-maligned, much-questioned knockout loss to Antonio Margarito in 2008. That fight robbed Cotto of that invincibility all premier fighters enjoy, and temporarily derailed his career.

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For the next three years, Cotto became somewhat of a boxing has-been, scoring victories over inferior opponents and turning in a timid, sputtering performance against boxing’s other mega-star, Manny Pacquiao. But Cotto, who hails from Puerto Rico, says his boxing career has come back from the dead, given new life thanks to his December win over Margarito in a rematch.

“I have everything I took from Margarito’s victory — things he stole from me, things he grabbed from me,” Cotto, 31, told reporters. “I have it back, and I feel much better right now.”

His trainer, Cuban-defector Pedro Diaz, tells reporters the world will see “a new Miguel Cotto” Saturday night. Yet Cotto’s quest is not to showcase something new. His task is to prove he is again what he once was. “I want to feel like the Miguel of the beginning,” Cotto said. “This Miguel you’re going to see again on May 5. I feel better right now. I think this is the right moment for this fight.”

A different kind of future lurks in the background as Mayweather gets ready to swap one ring for another. Mayweather will trade in his wraps and trunks for an orange jumpsuit in June, when the boxer is set to report to Las Vegas’ Clark County Detention Center. A judge sentenced Mayweather to an 87-day prison sentence back in December, stemming from a court-brokered plea agreement to avoid a trial on domestic battery charges. When Manny Pacquiao fights Timothy Bradley in the boxing calendar’s next notable event, on June 9, Floyd will be locked tightly in a 10-by-6 foot cell, unable to watch.

He’s kept relatively mum about jail, talking quietly about it  an interview with the New York Times. When he has discussed it, Mayweather has managed to hide any worry over his impending incarceration somewhere deep inside himself.

“June 1 is just June 1,” Mayweather said, shrugging off that particular day’s significance. “Me going to jail is just another day. It’s just another day.”

With the sport’s marquee name about to disappear from its ranks for the summer – hasn’t boxing suffered enough indignity over the past two decades? – the fight calendar becomes increasingly uncertain. A super fight is a fragile spectacle. The ingredients required to make one are all analogous: fighters with major-league skill and big-time fan bases. But constructing these bouts isn’t as simple as replacing cogs in the wheel. The sport’s marginalized status produces a business model best described as a feedback loop. Unlike the four major sports, enterprises that rely on vast networks of youth and collegiate athletes to churn out their future stars, boxing has a limited stable from which to choose its future elite. Without a ready supply of young fighters, boxers rely on established commodities, who, more often than not, are well past their physical peaks. There is a reason Mayweather will receive boxing’s biggest payout in history — a staggering $32 million — win, loss or draw come Saturday night. He is a champion that not only brings a marketable name to an event, but also shows no signs of fading.

“It’s pay-per-view. This thing has to be done, of course in a correct fashion,” Mayweather said on a Thursday conference call with reporters. “This is not just a sport. See, [at] this level, it’s a business.”

Mayweather’s remarks hint at a deeper truth about the sport: the business side always prevails. Unfortunately for fight-geeks, that means they will go the rest of the year without an event capable of netting two superstars. There are other names out there being bandied about as potential opponents for Mayweather. One of them, the fire-haired Mexican banger Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, could make significant strides in Mayweather’s personal power rankings by soundly beating “Sugar Shane” Mosley on the undercard of Saturday’s match-up. Because boxing’s audience largely consists of generational fans and immigrant populations, Canelo represents an attractive opponent, one that could bring Mexico‘s fight-crazed legions flooding through the gates of Cowboy Stadium should Mayweather settle on Alvarez as his next conquest. But in reality, the one true super fight yet un-fought is Pacquaio versus Mayweather.

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Pacquiao is intensely popular and the Filipino hurricane could propel his next fight’s pay-per-view numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of this weekend’s final dollar total. But Freddie Roach’s premiere fighter looked vulnerable at times in his last bout, a controversial decision win against Juan Manuel Marquez. Bradley, another southpaw, presents very real match-up problems for Pacquaio and it’s not entirely inconceivable he could lose that fight. If he were to emerge relatively unscathed, conventional wisdom dictates that a narrow Pacquiao win over Bradley would set-up the long sought after Floyd-Manny bonanza sometime in late November. The mind-blowing financial prospects of a fight of that magnitude would tempt both camps and provide promoters Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya enough impetus to overcome their mutual disdain and agree to terms.

But Mayweather is his own matchmaker, and the roadblock that stopped this fight from happening back in 2009 will likely rear its ugly head again: mandatory, Olympic-style drug testing. Even more than money, Mayweather cares about his health. Arguably the greatest study of the fight-game currently in the sport, Mayweather more than knows the cautionary tales of fighters who stayed too long and took too many punches. It was no surprise when he declared earlier this week that he plans to retire at 37, a mere two years away. He tells anyone who will listen that his kids and his commitment to be there for his family are more important than the cult of money he’s cultivated on TV. And I believe him. And until Pacquiao can give Mayweather what he wants — his consent to be drug tested and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the fighter is clean — a fight between the two will never happen.

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