By Jake Donovan, photo by Hoganphotos
Once upon a time, Miguel Cotto was a lock to headline an event at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City.
At the time, nobody represented the island prouder than the soft-spoken Caguas native, undefeated at the time who did virtually all of his talking with his fists.
Fast forward to this Saturday, where Cotto (37-2, 30KO) won’t necessarily be the enemy but also isn’t exactly fighting in familiar surroundings. The current 154 lb. titlist heads to Las Vegas on Cinco de Mayo, where he will face the very best fighter in the world today in Floyd Mayweather, Jr. (42-0, 26KO) in their HBO PPV headliner at the MGM Grand.
There’s no question that Cotto will still represent all of Puerto Rico when he steps into the ring. Only this time, it will come against the backdrop of a Mexican-themed evening. The boxing weekend itself has been dominated for the past several years by Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Neither of the two is very Mexican, but their ethnicity has hardly mattered when it comes to booking dates in Vegas.
Cotto himself a distant third in terms of fighters who can pack ‘em in at U.S. box offices, but still miles ahead of the next guy in line. It’s for that reason that makes this weekend’s showdown the second-best fight that could have been made strictly from a salesman’s standpoint.
All of it still makes Cotto a massive underdog as well as the B-side as he fights in Mayweather Jr’s adopted hometown of Las Vegas.
Yet for a man who once upon a time would never offer much more beyond ‘I fight who my promoter puts in front of me,’ Cotto is brimming with confidence as fight night nears.
“I’m not afraid of anything that Floyd Mayweather brings to the table,” Cotto insists. “I worked very hard for 11 weeks to get this victory.”
It goes without saying that a victory this weekend would be by far the biggest in an already stellar career for the 31-year old. A three-division champion and a member of the 2000 Puerto Rico Olympic boxing team, Cotto has racked up quite a few accolades in the amateurs and pros. There was a point where no fighter in the sport consistently faced divisional Top 10 opposition, as his resume and fighting style are proof that Cotto has never backed down from a challenge.
Still, missing from the lot is that true career-defining victory.
Wins over Zab Judah and Shane Mosley came when both were past their best, both taking place at Madison Square Garden in back-to-back events during Cotto’s 2007 campaign. A slew of quality wins came about while rising through the 140 lb. ranks, though never managing to land showdowns with Kostya Tszyu or Ricky Hatton during their respective stays atop the division.
The same can be said of his welterweight run, where all of his wins have come against fighters either towards the bottom of the Top 10 or just outside. It can be argued that for a seven-month period in ‘08 – the start of Mayweather Jr’s 21-month ring hiatus – that Cotto was the man at welterweight.
What can’t be argued is that he ever faced and defeated the best fighter right behind him to lay claim as the undisputed best of the division.
Paul Williams stood in the way of that, thanks to his upset win over Antonio Margarito in July ’07. That fight came about only because Williams was the mandatory challenger to the alphabet belt Margarito held at the time. There was no chance of promoter Bob Arum matching him up with the then-undefeated Cotto, instead opting for a showdown with the loser of the aforementioned fight.
The move proved disastrous for Cotto – and also served as the beginning of a strained relationship between his team and Top Rank.
Margarito overcame a rough start to rally back hard and stop Cotto in the 11th round of an instant classic in their July ’08 bout. Not much was thought of Margarito’s effort at the time other than it being a career-best performance, the very career-defining win that Cotto lacked.
Then came the next fight.
An hour or so before his Jan. ’09 showdown with Mosley, plaster-like substance was found in Margarito’s handwraps. His inept performance that evening – coupled with still pictures of how his wraps appeared at the end of the Cotto fight – have led to the industry-wide speculation that his wraps were possibly doctored on that July ’08 night as well.
It took Cotto more than three years to properly cope with the loss, including suffering a second career loss when he faced Pacquiao at a catchweight in Nov. ’09. Two losses in the span of four fights – which also included a 12-round war with Joshua Clottey – left many to believe that Cotto was dangerously close to the end of his career,
A stoppage win over Yuri Foreman seven months post-Pacquiao in June ’10 showed that there was still some air left in Cotto’s tires. Preservation proved to be the Puerto Rican’s greatest ally, taking off for the remainder of the year and not returning for another nine months when he faced Ricardo Mayorga in Las Vegas.
The gap between fights served as the longest layoff of Cotto’s 12-year career, though matched when he sat out another nine months before arriving at his long-awaited revenge-fueled rematch with Margarito in New York City.
Cotto was at his most vocal during the promotion for this fight. The combination of his ever-improving English and desire to exorcise three-year old demons saw a confident and borderline-defiant 154 lb. titlist heading into Fight Week.
All of his frustration was taken out on Margarito, who was nearly medically DQ’d from participating to a damaged eye that required surgery in order to get boxing ready. Cotto – who to this day believes Margarito used doctored wraps in their first fight – treated the eye injury as a bullseye, targeting it until leaving the ringside physician no choice but the stop the fight as the 10th round was set to begin.
There wasn’t a shred of guilt to be found in Cotto’s demeanor immediately afterward or even to this day. Quite the contrary, as a more focused fighter is evident as he prepares for the biggest fight of his life on Saturday evening.
“When you find peace, when the people around you bring you peace, you live in a peaceful atmosphere,” Cotto says of the feeling he secured the moment Margarito was declared a TKO loser. “That is where I’m at right now. Everything I have in life and everything I am going to do, I will it do it peacefully. That made me work better, comfortable and (better) concentrate on my work.”
Avenging the loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise in terms of when Cotto opted to take on Mayweather Jr. The fight has been discussed as far back as 2005, when both were undefeated 140 lb. titlists still fighting under the Top Rank banner. Mayweather Jr. pushed for the fight at the time, only for Arum to instead attempt to shove a Margarito fight down his throat.
The move was one of the final straws in their love-hate relationship, as Mayweather would fight just once more for Top Rank – defeating Zab Judah in Apr’ 06 – before leaving the company for good.
Cotto fought for the Las Vegas-based outfit for his entire career before his renegotiated contract ran out after the Margarito rematch last December. There were no hard feelings between fighter and promoter as they went their separate ways. Cotto knew it was the right move, if he had any chance at securing the fight he believes comes at the perfect time in his career.
“Everything happens in life for a reason,” Cotto explains. “The fight could’ve happened 4, 5, 6 years ago, but it happens now. I feel better right now. I feel that after Margarito’s fight on December 3. I feel much better about myself. I think this is the right moment for this fight.”
The oddsmakers – and most objective industry experts - believe otherwise, as Cotto is a considerable underdog heading into this weekend’s pay-per-view headliner.
Win, lose or draw, Cotto has already led an amazing career. The proud Puerto Rican carries the reputation as a fighter who always leaves it all in the ring, which has made him a crowd-pleasing favorite for more than a decade.
But don’t mistake the confidence and newfound gift for gab as evidence of a career makeover. While no longer letting a promoter do the talking for him, Cotto still refuses to speak much on future opportunities – especially when the biggest one of all is still days ahead.
What you will get out of him, though, is the guarantee of not disappointing his fans – at least those who don’t obsess over what awaits the superstar beyond May 5.
“When I beat Mayweather on May 5, the only thing that is going to happen is that I will rest for a couple of weeks. After that, I will sit with my team and decide what’s best.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]