By Thomas Gerbasi
The crowds are loud, the atmosphere is festive, and every night feels like a big fight, no matter who the opponent is. But to get a real sense of what a Miguel Cotto event at Madison Square Garden feels like, it pays to ask someone who knows better than almost anybody what being in that building with the Boricua bomber is truly all about:
Paulie Malignaggi, the current WBA welterweight champion and only one of three men to go the distance with Cotto in the Mecca of Boxing.
“Fighting this guy in front of his crowd in the Garden,” mused Malignaggi, “I told (renowned boxing writer) Tom Hauser this years ago and I will always use this description because it is as close to what I can say to make people really understand the feeling. It’s like fighting the devil in Hell. And I stand by that.”
Fighting the devil in Hell. You can’t get more descriptive than that, and it’s better than saying you’re fighting in a lion’s den. It’s hotter, more constrictive, more smothering, and more miserable. And that’s coming from a New Yorker who was subjected to chants of “F#$% you Paulie,” throughout his courageous 12 round stand against the then-140 pound champion.
That’s for the fighters facing the 32-year-old from Caguas, Puerto Rico. For everyone else, it’s a celebration - Mardi Gras and the Puerto Rican Day parade with a dose of Caribbean good vibes tossed in, capped off by what sometimes amounts to a public execution. And there is no more fitting executioner than the dour-faced Cotto, a fighter who is the polar opposite of the last Puerto Rican warrior to thrill New York fans – Felix Trinidad.
Where Trinidad was always smiling and almost likely as anyone to jump from the ring and party with his fans just before shouting out his own name during the pre-fight introductions, Cotto is all business, before, during, and after his bouts. But New York still loves him, something that isn’t a surprise to those close to him in the lead-up to his eight appearance in the building this Saturday against WBA junior middleweight champion Austin Trout.
“Well, I think he has delivered here,” said Cotto’s attorney and adviser Gaby Penagaricano on a recent media teleconference. “He has fought many times, all wins, all of them exciting fights. So he has delivered what the fans want, and that's why they're so thirsty to see him again this Saturday. He's just an exciting fighter, no boring fights when he steps into the ring, and it's a big, big, big attraction between the two. So I know it's very special for him.”
And though Cotto has been even more tight-lipped than usual before his 41st professional prize fight, he agrees that when he walks into that building in midtown Manhattan, it’s something special, even if he can’t pinpoint why the city’s denizens have adopted him as one of their own.
“I can't tell you exactly,” said Cotto. “I just train to be a good boxer, and then something special came when Madison Square Garden appeared in my career. People were there for Miguel Cotto. Miguel Cotto tried to do the best he could for them just to bring them an entertaining fight and I think they appreciate that a lot, and I appreciate a lot more what the people who are there for me do for me.”
7-0 in the arena with five knockouts, Cotto’s list of victims includes Malignaggi, Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, Michael Jennings, Joshua Clottey, and Antonio Margarito. But no one could have expected such a run against top-level opposition in the days before his first bout in the Garden against amateur rival Muhammad Abdullaev on June 11, 2005.
At the time, Cotto was 23-0 and making the third defense of his WBO 140-pound title. Simply put, he was a destroyer, walking down opponents and blasting them out of there with extreme prejudice. But as good as he was, the common talk went at the time, he was no Tito Trinidad. Cotto was fine with that, as he was focused on being the first Miguel Cotto, and being placed up against a Mike Tyson fight (against Kevin McBride) the night before the Puerto Rican Day parade in NYC was no issue either.
“I’m not trying to be the substitute for anyone and I’m surely not trying to be him,” said Cotto of Trinidad at the time. “And with the way I’ve been handled, I think people will know I’m my own man.”
He was, and if anything, Cotto’s performance – a punishing ninth round stoppage of Abdullaev – and the reaction to it proved that by being himself and delivering an honest night’s work, the fans would show up to watch him fight. And show up they did, to the point that at Wednesday’s final press conference, he was awarded a Golden Ticket from MSG Sports’ executive VP Joel Fisher for surpassing 100,000 tickets sold. More than seven years ago, Cotto had no idea the place would become his home away from home.
“My first opportunity here with Abdullaev, I didn't think that this arena was going to be so special for me in my entire career, but I'm happy, I'm thankful, and I'm just grateful for having such a wonderful career, and such wonderful performances here in Madison Square Garden.”
The wins over Abdullaev and Malignaggi were impressive, his wars with Mosley and Judah even more so, and perhaps nothing will top the cathartic win over his heated rival Margarito a year ago. The fights against Clottey and Jennings were relative clunkers though, and after the emotional high of the Margarito win and his competitive loss to Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas earlier this year, you have to wonder whether he is completely fired up for the relatively unknown Trout, who knows that a win over Cotto could be a star-making turn for him.
In fact, fighting the longtime superstar in what almost equates to his backyard wasn’t even an issue for the unbeaten champion from New Mexico, making you wonder if he believes Cotto is on the downside of his illustrious career at just 32 years old. Well, you won’t get any definitive answers from Cotto either way, but as far as defending his turf this weekend though, he makes no bones about it – he’s leaving the Garden with win number eight.
“I know what he (Trout) said,” declared Cotto. “He said he'd been in Panama fighting with a Panamanian guy (Nilson Tapia), he was in Mexico fighting with a Mexican guy (Rigoberto Alvarez), but Saturday he’s going to be in New York in Madison Square Garden fighting with Miguel Cotto there. That's my home, and I know nothing is going to be equal or the same as he has done before. That's a special venue, that's a special night for me, and I know he’s going to figure it out as soon as he gets in there.”
Kinda like fighting the devil in Hell.