Top Billing: Miguel Cotto Says Goodbye Against Sadam Ali

By Carlos Acevedo

There will be no tickertape, bunting, or parade floats in sight, but it will be a memorable farewell party nonetheless when Miguel Cotto ducks through the ropes for the last time on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden. After years of seeing his image flashing on Jumbotrons across the country, Cotto, closes out a distinguished career with a junior middleweight title defense against Brooklyn fringe contender Sadam Ali.

Cotto, 37, joins a slew of luminaries who have recently retired?including Timothy Bradley and Andre Ward?but none of them ever had a stranglehold on the American public the way Cotto did. If not for Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Manny Pacquiao, and Oscar De La Hoya, Cotto would have been the biggest draw of his era, a remarkable achievement too often overlooked in a sport dominated by small dreamers. After all, the first rule of prizefighting, developed during the days when municipal laws forced aficionados to board mystery trains to parts unknown for a chance to see their bruising idols, remains simple: exact a visceral response from a hardened blood sport audience. And Cotto mastered that principle?especially among his enthusiastic Puerto Rican countrymen?despite maintaining a public personality that was equal parts bland and blas�.

As if to underscore his no-frills approach to a vocation often linked, metaphorically, at least, to carnivals and professional wrestling, Cotto never bothered to adopt a nickname, a marketing tool few fighters neglect to employ. Showmanship was never in his DNA. Indeed, at times Cotto seemed to rue the fact that the bright lights of fame did not include a dimmer ? one that he could control at will. With cameras, tape recorders, and iPhones surrounding him, Cotto often seemed determined to hone his nonverbal communication skills. That such a sparing and sometimes sullen figure could retain his superstar status for a decade is extraordinary.

A converted southpaw with a crippling left hook to the body, Cotto developed into a versatile boxer-puncher whose vulnerabilities regularly sparked two-way action between the ropes. His biggest flaws remained with him throughout his career: shaky defense, limited stamina, and a susceptibility to bruises and cuts. Ironically, these same drawbacks made Cotto a crowd favorite just a few short years after turning pro in 2001. His fights against Zab Judah, Joshua Clottey, and Shane Mosley were grueling affairs and his pairing with Ricardo Torres in 2005 turned into an unforgettable free-for-all. He may have been short on pizazz and razzmatazz at the podium, but Cotto provided thrills in the ring so often that he began drawing comparisons to white-knuckle icon Arturo Gatti.

In a career that spanned 15 years, Cotto won six world titles in four divisions and routinely tangled with the elite of his era. At the heart of his 46 fights is his first defeat as a professional: a shattering KO loss to Antonio Margarito in a pay-per-view shootout in Las Vegas. On July 26, 2008, Cotto jumped to an early lead on the scorecards by boxing neatly from the perimeter and peppering a charging Margarito with combinations. But nothing could deter Margarito, a man determined to turn the ring into his own personal abattoir. His thudding shots began to take a physical toll on Cotto halfway through the fight. Finally, in the 11th, a bone-weary Cotto, who had already been knocked down earlier in the round, dropped to a knee beneath a fusillade of blows. As a bloody Cotto staggered to his feet, his trainer, white towel in hand, ended the butchery. Later, his loss to Margarito would leave him embittered and mark his last years as a demanding negotiator who insisted on catchweights and other advantageous provisos. After Margarito was caught with doctored hand wraps prior to his loss to Shane Mosley in 2009, Cotto was convinced that similar skullduggery had taken place in his own fight against ?The Tijuana Tornado.?

Less than a year and a half after losing to Margarito, Cotto squared off against the most dangerous man in boxing: Manny Pacquiao, then running roughshod across multiple divisions. Few contemporary welterweights could have beaten Pacquiao that night (which is one reason why Floyd Mayweather, Jr. waited years to mix it up with ?Pac Man?) and Cotto was no exception. Yet even after suffering his second knockdown of the fight?courtesy of a supersonic uppercut in the fourth that left him in suspended animation for a frightening millisecond?Cotto rebounded to push Pacquiao in the following round. That headlong rush into danger, as much as anything, can serve as a metaphor for his career as a whole. Eventually, Pacquiao overwhelmed Cotto, sending him backpedaling to a gruesome 12th-round TKO loss.

Unlike so many of his peers, Cotto did not find himself adrift for long. Even Shane Mosley, adored by pound-for-pound fetishists for a few short years, wound up off-trail for a while, fighting 10-rounders on pay-per-view undercards. For Cotto, it was never anything but top billing. He bounced back with stoppage wins over undefeated titleholder Yuri Foreman and faded wild man Ricard Mayorga. Then Cotto exacted revenge on Antonio Margarito, the man he openly referred to as a ?criminal,? repeatedly shaking a dogged Margarito en route to a TKO victory in a lurid rematch held in Madison Square Garden. By then, however, Margarito had been irreparably damaged following a 12-round battering at the hands of Manny Pacquiao in 2010.

This mini-streak vaulted Cotto into a blockbuster pay-per-view against the reigning box-office king and anti-hero extraordinaire Floyd Mayweather, Jr. On May 5, 2012, Cotto drew first blood but found himself outfoxed down the stretch by as pure a virtuoso as has been seen in the ring since the heyday of Pernell Whitaker. Even so, Cotto managed to spur a rarity in boxing: a lively fight involving Floyd Mayweather. Unfortunately, losing to Mayweather marked Cotto as a choke artist to some, and the peanut gallery (now a 24/7 concern) never failed to let its displeasure known.

Even Cotto?s most significant victory, an upset TKO win over Sergio Martinez in 2014, triggered his critics, who believed that ?Maravilla,? the legitimate middleweight champion of the world, had entered the ring hobbled. A recurring knee injury had hampered the footloose Martinez for a couple of years, but it was the knockdown he suffered within a minute of touching gloves with Cotto that aggravated it. No matter?Cotto ignored his nitpickers and two fights later co-starred in the last Big Time event of his career: an entertaining points loss to formidable Saul ?Canelo? Alvarez in Las Vegas.

Whether or not one believes Cotto is overrated or underrated, the fact is he will be voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. To some, Cotto, with a dedicated following along the Eastern Seaboard, was more popular than he was accomplished. There are plenty of fighters in the Hall of Fame whose feats did not match their celebrity?Ray Mancini and Barry McGuigan, for example?but Cotto had clear wins over at least two future Hall of Fame candidates: Shane Mosley and Sergio Martinez. He also rates high in longevity and quality of opposition. Among the world-class fighters Cotto defeated were Mosley, Martinez, Carlos Quintana, Ricardo Torres, Paulie Malignaggi, Zab Judah, and Joshua Clottey. He also topped a number of contenders and titlists, including Foreman, DeMarcus ?Chop Chop? Corley, Cesar Bazan, and Randall Bailey. In addition, Cotto reached a unique milestone when he became the first Puerto Rican fighter in history to win titles in four different weight classes.

If his overall standing is hurt by KO losses to Margarito and Pacquiao, then his legacy ought to reflect a simple fact no record book can ever reveal: Miguel Cotto separated himself from his peers by consistently chasing dangerous assignment after dangerous assignment and?this is the key?without having to. Unlike, say, Orlando Salido or Ray Beltran, fighters whose limited options forced them into repeatedly accepting disadvantageous matchups, Cotto could sell a dumpster full of tickets in New York City and produce solid television ratings whenever he gloved up. In other words, Cotto could have avoided some of his conquerors and still have gotten paid handsomely.

To Cotto, however, facing long odds was nothing more than a professional obligation. Every 18 months or so, Cotto popped up, usually as an underdog, in an extravaganza: Margarito, Pacquiao, Mayweather, Martinez, Alvarez. This is a man whose reserved persona belied a steely gambler beneath it all ? Doc Holliday without the repartee or a Colt Lightning; Stu Ungar without the loathsomeness or cocaine. His lo-fi persona and willingness to answer the bell against anyone gave Cotto a retro-chic air seldom found among the newfangled breed. Ultimately, this is what makes Cotto special. And this is why he was a credit to his sport.

Under normal circumstances, Sadam Ali could be dismissed as an unseasoned pro whose limitations are ripe for violent exploitation at the hands of a dangerous veteran looking to make a final indelible statement. And this, in fact, is what is likely to happen on Saturday night. But Cotto found his original hopes for a memorable swansong scotched by the mystifying draw between Saul ?Canelo? Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin last September. In the end, his wish for a final chance at glory went unfulfilled. Instead of reaching for tomorrow, then, Cotto will have to settle for today, something he was rarely comfortable doing as a world-class professional for nearly fifteen years.

***

On the undercard, windmilling Rey Vargas from Mexico City defends his super bantamweight title against Oscar ?El Jaguar? Negrete. Last August, Vargas (30-0, 22 KOs) outpointed former super-prospect Ronny Rios in his first title defense in a mild upset and is now looking to extend his undefeated record against the untested Negrete. Although Negrete (17-0, 7 KOs) is Colombian, he is now based out of Rosemead, California, and has been a staple on Golden Boy cards staged at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles for years. That means Negrete, who until recently has been fighting 8-rounders, might not be ready for his first step up. Neither man is world-class, but Vargas has faced better competition, wields an educated left hand, and has a high-octane style that should keep Negrete on the defensive for long stretches of each round. Since both men like to mix it up from time to time, there should be a few sparks before Vargas pulls away for a unanimous decision or a late TKO.