Editor’s Pick: The last fight of Miguel Cotto


Inside Miguel Cotto’s dressing room on the night that the ring career of one of boxing’s transcendent stars came to an end. By Thomas Hauser

ON Saturday, December 2, 2017, at 7:15 PM, Miguel Cotto walked into a dressing room at Madison Square Garden preparatory to fighting for the last time. In recent decades, there has been a premium in boxing on trash-talking and glitz. That was never Cotto’s way. He’s soft-spoken and polite with an aura of dignity about him. His low monotonal voice doesn’t travel far and can be reassuring, grave, even gentle, depending on the moment. As his ring career progressed, he conducted interviews with the English-speaking media without an interpreter but was more expressive when speaking in Spanish. Often, one had to lean close to hear him speak.

Hard work has been a
constant in Cotto’s life. So
have the themes of dignity and respect. His creed was always, “Work hard, don’t
cut corners, and do the best you can.” A soldier going to war would want Miguel
fighting beside him.

There’s
an aura of solemnity about Cotto. The gravity of what he once did for a living
is etched on his face. He doesn’t smile often in public and gives the
impression of being on guard at all times. One might describe him as “stoic” (a
person who endures
hardship and pain without complaint and rarely shows his true feelings). But he
has expressive
eyes that, depending on the moment, can be soft, hard, thoughtful, happy,
lonely. His smile is genuine and warm.

“No
matter what my face might say, I am a happy guy,” Miguel once said. “But
I am a shy guy. Most people don’t realise that. I don’t prefer the spotlight.”

Matt Easley/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

Cotto followed Felix Trinidad as the standard bearer for Puerto Rican boxing and is on the short list of greatest Puerto Rican fighters of all time. Touted as boxing royalty from early in his pro career, he was near the top of most pound-for-pound lists for years. At his best, he could choose between outboxing opponents and mauling them in the trenches.

Cotto turned pro in 2001 and moved quickly through the 140-pound ranks before capturing the WBO crown with a 2004 knockout of Kelson Pinto. A run of successful title defenses and natural evolution to welterweight followed. He was at his best fighting at 140 or 147 pounds, weights at which he was able to impose his size and physical strength on opponents. There were title-fight victories over Zab Judah, Shane Mosley, and others. Opponents said that his hook to the body felt like an iron wrecking ball.

On the morning of July 26, 2008, Cotto was 32-0 as a pro
with 26 knockouts. That night, he stepped into the ring
at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to face Antonio Margarito and suffered a horrific
beating. The weight of the evidence strongly suggests that Margarito’s gloves
were “loaded” that night.

Miguel wasn’t the same fighter after that. On November 14, 2009, he absorbed another beating at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. Thereafter, he fought sporadically, earning victories over Yuri Foreman, Ricardo Mayorga, and Margarito (in a rematch) before being outpointed in back-to-back losses to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout.

Miguel Cotto

At that point, Cotto’s days
as a star attraction seemed to be over. Then,
on June 7, 2014, he challenged Sergio Martinez for the middleweight
championship of the world.
Cotto knocked Martinez down three times in the first stanza. The fight was
stopped after nine lopsided rounds. That was followed by an
impressive fourth-round knockout of Daniel Geale. A loss by decision to a
younger stronger Canelo Alvarez and a decision victory over Yoshihiro Kamegai
for a vacant 154-pound WBO belt brought Miguel to Madison Square Garden on the
night of December 2, 2017.

Cotto was now 37 years old. His record stood at 41 wins against five losses with 33 knockouts. He had come a long way since 2004, when he journeyed to Las Vegas to fight Randall Bailey. On that occasion, a security guard at Mandalay Bay had seen him walking around the casino, evaluated him as an undesirable, and asked him to leave the casino floor.

The
storyline on December 2 was simple. Cotto had pledged that, win or lose, this would
be his last fight. The opponent was Sadam Ali, a 29-year-old former U.S.
Olympian who had been unable to rise to the top as a pro. One year earlier, Ali
had stepped up in class to fight Jesse Vargas for the vacant WBO welterweight
title and been stopped in the ninth round. Cotto-Ali would be Sadam’s first
fight at a contract weight of 154 pounds.

Ali
had been chosen as Cotto’s opponent on the assumption that he lacked the
essentials to pose a serious threat. It would be better to see Miguel leave
boxing on a victory over a lesser fighter than to exit in the manner of so many
great champions who lost in the final bout of their ring career.

Sadam
himself acknowledged during a pre-fight media conference call that it was “a
little scary” to be fighting “a legend who I grew up watching.”

Miguel Cotto
Matt Easley/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

Cotto
had more than boxing on his mind when he entered his dressing room at Madison
Square Garden on the night of his last fight. Nine weeks earlier, his Puerto
Rican homeland had been devastated by a historic hurricane that shattered the
island’s infrastructure and killed almost 3,000 people. But those thoughts
would be put on hold in the hours ahead.

The room was a large oval enclosure that housed the New York
Rangers hockey team on game nights. Locker stalls with a plaque bearing the
name and uniform number of each Ranger player ringed the room. Rolls of tape
lay scattered about, a reminder of the team’s 5-1 victory over the Carolina
Hurricanes the previous night.

Cotto was wearing black pants, a burgundy jacket over a white
T-shirt, and blue track shoes. His mother, wife, two sons, one of his two
daughters, trainer Freddie Roach, assistant trainer Marvin Somodio, cutman David
Martinez, strength and conditioning coach Gavin MacMillan, and Bryan Perez (his
closest friend) were with him.

Miguel checked his email, put on some music, and sat down on
one of two brown leather sofas that had been placed on opposite sides of the
room. Over the next 45 minutes, he texted, talked intermittently with Perez,
and ate half of a large container of fruit salad. That left Roach with time to
reflect on his six-fight tenure with Cotto.

“I’m
glad Miguel is retiring on his terms,” Freddie said. “That it’s not some
commission saying, ‘You’re all washed up, you’re done.’ I wish more fighters
made decisions like that. I know, I couldn’t do it. I fought five times after I
should have quit and lost four of them. The last fight I had was in Lowell,
Massachusetts, which was my favorite place to fight. I embarrassed myself. I
didn’t even try to win. After that, I knew it was time.”

In 2009, Roach had trained Manny Pacquiao for his brutal demolition of Cotto. Did he feel badly about that, given his fondness for Miguel?

“No,” Freddie answered. “That was my job then. But I’m on Miguel’s side now.“

Roach paused.

“You know, Miguel and Manny are the two most talented fighters I’ve had. A trainer is lucky if one fighter like that comes his way in a lifetime. I’ve had two of them. But this is a must-win fight for Miguel. After everything he’s accomplished, he doesn’t want to go out on a loss.”

Miguel Cotto
Hector Santos Guia/Miguel Cotto Promotions/Roc Nation Sports

At
8:00 o’clock, Cotto left the dressing room and
accompanied his family to their seats inside the main arena. After returning,
he chatted with Golden Boy matchmaker Robert Diaz and Cotto Promotions vice
president Hector Soto before leaving again, this time with a New York State
Athletic Commission inspector for his pre-fight physical examination and to
give a urine sample. He returned at 8:40, took off his pants, put on his boxing
shoes, and handed his watch and necklace to Bryan Perez for safekeeping. Then
he opened a sealed bottle of Fiji water he’d brought with him and began eating
the rest of his fruit salad.

New York State Athletic Commission inspector Ernie Morales
informed him that this was a problem. If Miguel ate anything more now, he’d
have to provide another urine sample. And under NYSAC rules, he could only
drink water provided by the promotion which, in this case, consisted of 24
bottles of Dasani on a table at the far end of the room.

“But I like Fiji,” Miguel protested. “Water is water.”

Morales held firm.

Robert Diaz dispatched someone from Golden Boy to buy ten
bottles of Fiji water for Cotto and ten more for Sadam Ali so each camp would
be treated equally.

Roach went down the hall to watch Ali’s hands being wrapped.

Miguel turned his attention to a large television monitor and
stretched while watching an early preliminary fight.

The ten bottles of Fiji water arrived.

Miguel Cotto

Andre Rozier (Ali’s trainer) came into the room and watched
as Somodio taped Miguel’s hands. When the wrapping was done, Cotto lay down on
the blue-carpeted floor and Marvin stretched him out. Then Miguel put on his
protective cup and trunks, shadow-boxed for a while, and circled the room offering
a kind word and physical gesture to everyone there.

Oscar De La Hoya, Golden Boy president Eric Gomez, and director of publicity Ramiro Gonzalez
came in to wish Miguel well. They were followed by referee Charlie Fitch, who
gave Cotto his pre-fight instructions.

There was more shadow-boxing.

Shortly after 10:00 PM, Miguel went into an adjacent room
with Perez and Soto for a brief prayer.

Somodio gloved him up.

More shadow boxing.

Cotto hit the pads with Roach for five minutes, took a minute
off, and did it for five minutes more.

Another break . . . More padwork.

Rey Vargas vs Oscar Negrete (the co-featured fight of the
evening) ended.

Miguel put on his robe, left the room, and walked to a
boxing ring as an active professional fighter for the forty-seventh and final
time.

Cotto-Ali
was Miguel’s tenth fight at Madison Square Garden. Ticket sales had been hurt by an attractive slate of televised college
football conference championship games that evening. More significantly, the
core of Miguel’s fan base in New York was the city’s Puerto Rican community.
And many would-be ticket buyers in that demographic were sending whatever
discretionary income they had to relatives on the island who’d been hard hit by
the hurricane. Still, a better-than-expected walk-up sale coupled with
promotional giveaways had lifted fight night attendance to 12,391.

Cotto had weighed in for the bout at 151.6 pounds, his lowest weight since fighting Floyd Mayweather in 2012. Ali weighed in at 153, his highest weight ever.

Miguel
was the heartfelt favorite of almost everyone in the arena. But there’s no room for sentiment in a boxing ring.

In
the early going, Ali’s handspeed and elusive footwork gave Cotto more than a
bit of trouble. Sadam had come to win and was getting off first, while Miguel
moved methodically forward but was unable to land effectively. Cotto was also
having difficulty getting out of the way of punches, which happens to fighters
when they get old. A sharp right to the ear followed by a right to the temple
wobbled Miguel in round two.

Miguel Cotto vs Sadam Ali
Tom Hogan/Golden Boy Promotions

Then
Cotto began using his jab effectively and landing hooks to the body. By round
six, Ali was tiring. There was swelling around his right eye. And Miguel’s
bodywork was taking a toll.

One
moment can change everything in boxing.

Early
in the second half of the fight, most likely in round seven or eight, Cotto
tore a tendon in his left biceps.

As
Bart Barry wrote long ago, “There’s
the pain of torn flesh or cramped muscles or wheezing breathlessness. And then
there’s injury. Injury is a non-negotiable signal sent to the central nervous
system. One doesn’t make his living in athletics without knowing the
difference.”

The
torn tendon was an injury. It caused acute pain and rendered Cotto unable to
effectively jab or hook. After eight rounds, Miguel was leading on two of the
judges’ scorecards and was even on the third. But now he was a one-armed
fighter.

Ali
continued to fight a disciplined fight, following the formula of getting off
first and not waiting for a receipt. As Sadam’s confidence grew, he fought more
aggressively and won the last four rounds on each of the judges’ scorecards.
The judges got the final tally right: 116-112, 115-113, 115-113 in Ali’s favour.

It
wasn’t supposed to end this way. But boxing is rarely about happy endings.

Sadam
Ali was thought to have been a “safe” opponent. But Father Time isn’t.

Cotto
was in obvious pain in his dressing room after the fight. New York State
Athletic Commission chief medical officer Dr. Nitin Sethi and Dr. Kevin Wright
(an orthopedic surgeon) examined his left arm and confirmed that he’d suffered
a torn tendon in his left biceps. Worse, the tendon had been torn away from the
bone. It was impossible to separate the injury from the outcome of the fight.

“Sadam
caught Miguel with a good right hand in the second round,” Roach acknowledged.
“He was more explosive than I thought he’d be. But Miguel’s jab was working
well and he was doing good body work with the hook until he tore his biceps. He
came back to the corner with a look on his face like he was in pain. I asked
what was wrong, and he told me his arm was killing him. I’ve see that injury
before. It takes your power away. And it hurts like hell.”

Miguel Cotto
Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

Meanwhile,
Cotto was philosophical about the night’s events.

“This was the last chapter of my book on boxing,” he said.
“Now I have another book to write that will be more about my family.”

One can argue that there’s nothing noble about one man trying to render another man unconscious by inflicting concussive blows to the brain. But Miguel Cotto ennobled boxing. His legacy is that of a warrior who carried himself with dignity and grace in and out of the ring. His motto was simple: “I do my best every time I fight.” He would have been respected as a fighter in any era.

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored him with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. Next year, Hauser will be officially inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.



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