By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Sadam Ali did it again Saturday night, this time on a huge stage.
Three years after stopping heavily favored Luis Abregu in Atlantic City, the Brooklyn native ruined Miguel Cotto’s farewell fight by upsetting the Puerto Rican legend in their 154-pound championship match at Madison Square Garden. Ali, who moved up from welterweight to super welterweight to challenge Cotto, hurt Cotto in the second and fourth rounds, came back from some trouble in the middle rounds and won the final four rounds on all three scorecards to earn a unanimous decision.
The 29-year-old Ali (26-1, 14 KOs), a 2008 Olympian, won the WBO super welterweight title from Cotto (41-6, 33 KOs) in his first fight as a full-fledged 154-pounder.
All three judges – Julie Lederman (115-113), Eric Marlinski (116-112) and Steve Weisfeld (115-113) – scored the 12-round fight for Ali. The 37-year-old Cotto went off as an 11-1 favorite and was widely expected to stop Ali, who lost by technical knockout to light-punching former welterweight champion Jessie Vargas in their March 2016 title bout.
“I worked hard for it,” Ali said. “I took advantage of this fight, and I made sure to make it count. I want to thank God, and also thank Team Cotto. They could have taken an easier fight if they wanted to.”
Cotto came on in the middle rounds, but Ali was able to regain his composure and pressed the action over the final four rounds to score by far the biggest victory of his eight-year pro career.
Cotto told HBO’s Max Kellerman after the fight that he suffered a left biceps injury in the seventh round. He also said he remains committed to retirement, despite his surprising loss.
“[I’m] feeling good with the performance,” Cotto said. “Something happened to my left bicep, seventh round. I don’t want to make excuses. Sadam won the fight. It is my last fight. I am good, and I want to be happy in my home with my family.
“Thank you for all the fans. I am proud to call MSG my second home. I had the opportunity to provide the best for my family because of the sport.”
Even though he lost a fight he was supposed to win, the decidedly pro-Cotto crowd of 12,391 cheered the retiring champion wildly after the decision was announced. A video tribute to Cotto also was played on the enormous Madison Square Garden video screen following his defeat in a famed building where he fought for the 10th time.
Several minutes earlier, Ali put the finishing touches on an impressive performance that completely changed the course of his career.
The newly crowned champion traded with Cotto in the 12th round and won it on all three scorecards. That capped a successful stretch for Ali, who won each of the final four rounds on all three scorecards.
Before finishing strong, Ali was down on the scorecards of Lederman (77-75) and Weisfeld (77-75) through eight rounds. Marlinski had it even (76-76) after the eighth round.
“I had him hurt here or there in the first couple of rounds,” Ali said. “I knew I had to do something, or he would have dug in. By the 11th, I thought the fight was close.”
Ali aggressively went after Cotto to start the 11th round, but Cotto’s reflexes allowed him to slip several power punches near the center of the ring. Ali landed a counter left hook in the 10th round that stunned Cotto and spent much of that round as the aggressor.
Cotto tried to bully Ali at the beginning of the eighth round, but Ali came firing back to keep Cotto off of him.
After getting hurt in the sixth round, Ali started the seventh round strong to let Cotto know he was still in the fight. Cotto drilled Ali with a left hook to the body that made Ali retreat later in the seventh round.
With about 55 seconds left in the sixth round, Cotto hurt Ali with a straight right hand to the side of his head that knocked the challenger against the ropes. Ali wisely tied up Cotto long enough to survive the trouble and made it to the end of the round.
For the second time in the fight, Ali buzzed Cotto early in the fourth round. Cotto recovered quickly again, as he did when Ali stunned him with a right hand in the second round.
By then, Ali’s confidence appeared to be growing because he knew he could hurt the heavily favored legend.
Cotto connected with a solid overhand right when there were 53 seconds to go in the third round.
An overhand right by Ali staggered Cotto approximately 50 seconds into the second round. Cotto regained his footing pretty quickly, though, and Ali couldn’t capitalize on that surprising punch.
Ali went down later in the second round, after swinging wildly and missing Cotto with a left hook.
Ali landed a right hand just before the bell sounded to end the first round. Ali looked tentative during much of the first round and mostly moved out of Cotto’s punching range.
That was not an indication, however, of what was to come.
Before their fight, Cotto repeatedly stated that this will be the last fight of a 16-year pro career in which he became the first Puerto Rican fighter to win world titles in four weight classes. The 2000 Olympian won world titles at junior welterweight, welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight.
Upsetting Sergio Martinez to win the WBC middleweight title in June 2014 at The Garden was one of the highlights of a career that’ll eventually earn Cotto a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Martinez had a knee injury entering that bout. Cotto still was an underdog before he floored Martinez three times in the first round and stopped the Argentine southpaw following nine one-sided rounds.
He wanted to face a more appealing opponent in his farewell fight. Several high-profile fighters – most notably IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. (22-0, 19 KOs) and WBC lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (37-0, 30 KOs) – turned down the opportunity to challenge Cotto, though, because they didn’t want to sign long-term contracts with Golden Boy Promotions, Cotto’s promoter, to get the fight.
Ali, also promoted by Golden Boy, jumped at the opportunity. Though a career welterweight, Ali was confident he could upset Cotto to jumpstart his stagnant career.
The last time he was a big underdog, Ali stopped the hard-hitting Abregu in the ninth round on the Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins undercard three years ago at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. He lost to Vargas thereafter, but more than atoned for that defeat Saturday night.
“Good things happen to good people,” Ali said. “I have been training since I was 8 years old, and I am glad I got this win at MSG, in my hometown.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.