Can Cotto buck boxing's oldest trend?
Art by Jay Connolly
Can Miguel Cotto buck one of boxing's oldest trends and leave the sport a winner on Saturday night? James Oddy examines the Puerto Rican's remarkable career and previews his final contest against Sadam Ali...
Boxing isn’t like most sports. Most sports, particularly team ones, can find a way to allow a legendary figure to bow out gracefully - a last minute substitution, the applause of a crowd, and a happy memory for fan and player alike...
Boxing, as always, is unique.
Even in other individual sports, a player may bow out with a loss but with their legacy intact. Yet, the idea of a fighter becoming ‘old overnight’ is pertinent, accurate and forever a danger.
Who can forget such icons as Joe Louis, Oscar De La Hoya and, most recently, Bernard Hopkins, diminished from their sublime primes, being brutalised in a manner that seemed inconceivable only a few years prior?
Could a similar fate befall Miguel Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs), the Puerto Rican warrior, this Saturday in his adopted home of Madison Square Garden?
Probably not. His opponent, Sadam Ali, is a fine fighter but even in his athletic prime at 29 he should not have enough to match Cotto. Not least due to the fact the Brooklyn man has spent most of his career campaigning at welterweight, a division Cotto left after his reverse to Manny Pacquiao in 2009.
At stake on Saturday is the WBO super welter strap Cotto picked up with a beat down of the brave Yoshihiro Kamegai back in August.
Many fighters and fight fans alike will be hoping Cotto does not go out on his back. He is a uniquely modern throwback fighter, encompassing all the good, bad and ugly of boxing in the 21st century.
Cotto was a great amateur fighter, an Olympian in 2000, but he was always made for the pro game. Stocky and hard hitting, he was a ferocious super lightweight and welterweight during both divisions' recent golden ages, a classic boxer-puncher who appealed to purist and casual observer alike.
Taking over from Felix Trinidad the mantle of the sport's Puerto Rican superstar, Cotto memorably broke Paulie Malignaggi's right cheekbone in what was a coming out party for both men back in 2006. In a packed MSG, both fighters brought legions of fans, creating a memorable spectacle in a city which had seen its place as the fight capital of the world slip away long ago.
Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, Lovemore N’Dou, Carlos Mausa and Carlos Quintana were among the other notable scalps Cotto claimed early in his career, while he also memorably bested Shane Mosley in 2007.
However, Cotto's career will forever be defined in 'pre-' and 'post-' Antonio Margarito terms. Continuing the eternal Puerto Rican/Mexican rivalry found in boxing, the pair engaged in an eye-watering war in 2008. Cotto hit the Mexican with everything he had, before he was sent back peddling as Margarito roared back. Exhausted, badly cut and swollen, Cotto was saved in the 11th round by his corner as he suffered his first defeat in 33 pro bouts.
As exhilarating as the fight was, it was placed under a cloud of suspicion not long after when Margarito was found to have tampered wraps ahead of a loss to Shane Mosley. Without these supposedly ‘loaded’ gloves, the Mexican seemed to lose the vast majority of the destructive punching he exhibited against Cotto.
The first loss of his career still stood on Cotto's ledger though. Worse still, the damage he suffered could have been career threatening. Indeed, when Cotto was badly cut and swollen again by Manny Pacquiao (at the Filippino's peak, it must be added) just over a year later, it seemed that the once invincible Cotto was done.
Yet, he rallied, like all true champions. Wins over Yuri Foreman and Ricardo Mayorga set up a ‘revenge’ fight against Margarito. Fighting in front of his adoring crowd in New York, Cotto took apart his old rival. Perhaps tellingly, Cotto stood up to the same shots that backed him up in he first fight. When Margarito was pulled out due to a grotesquely swollen eye before the tenth round, a visibly emotional Cotto was redeemed.
After that high point, back-to-back losses to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout suggested that, with the score evened against Margarito, the Puerto Rican had lost some fire.
Clearly coming towards the end of a magnificent career, few would have blamed him for bowing out in 2012. Instead, Cotto refined and redefined himself under the tutelage of Freddie Roach. This late career revival saw Cotto win a world title at a fourth weight, middleweight, becoming the first Puerto Rican to hold crowns in so many weight divisions. This triumph came against Sergio Martinez; a hall of fame candidate himself, albeit a version of Martinez which had slipped dramatically due to badly damaged knees.
This victory in 2014 allowed Cotto one, last, marquee opponent. Another Mexican, Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, the heir apparent to the title of boxing’s PPV King. The duo met in an engaging chess match back in 2015.
Frustratingly for many fans, despite being for the supposed lineal middleweight championship of the world, they met at a catchweight of 155lbs, a symptom of the frustrating era of boxing we live in. Despite some, including his own camp, believing Cotto had done enough to win, it was Canelo who had his hand raised and got the unanimous decision nod from the judges.
Although this weekend's fight against Ali is far from a foregone conclusion, Cotto should win. And then, inevitably, talk will turn to his legacy.
A titleholder from super-lightweight up to middleweight, Cotto fought a who’s who of modern boxing during his 16-year professional career. Although he came up short on five occasions, three of those losses were against truly elite opponents in Pacquiao, Mayweather and Canelo. Trout, meanwhile, a slippery southpaw, was all wrong stylistically for Cotto, while the Margarito loss will forever be tinged with a sense of injustice on Cotto's part.
With his jolting and accurate jab, eye watering hooks and combinations, cute defence in the pocket and nimble footwork, watching Cotto has always been a joy.
At 37, those once sublime skills have already slipped and will only continue to slip further.
Let's hope that this epitome of modern boxing, whose career defines all the glamour, exhilaration and frustrations that come with the sport, bucks boxing’s oldest trend.
Let's hope he bows out, however violently, with plenty of grace still intact.