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 aconstant in Cotto’s life. Sohave the themes of dignity and respect. His creed was always, “Work hard, don’tcut corners, and do the best you can.” A soldier going to war would want Miguelfighting beside him.
There’san aura of solemnity about Cotto. The gravity of what he once did for a livingis etched on his face. He doesn’t smile often in public and gives theimpression of being on guard at all times. One might describe him as “stoic” (aperson who endureshardship and pain without complaint and rarely shows his true feelings). But hehas expressiveeyes that, depending on the moment, can be soft, hard, thoughtful, happy,lonely. His smile is genuine and warm.
“Nomatter what my face might say, I am a happy guy,” Miguel once said. “ButI am a shy guy. Most people don’t realise that. I don’t prefer the spotlight.”
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 prowith 26 knockouts. That night, he stepped into the ringat the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to face Antonio Margarito and suffered a horrificbeating. The weight of the evidence strongly suggests that Margarito’s gloveswere “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.
At that point, Cotto’s daysas a star attraction seemed to be over. Then,on June 7, 2014, he challenged Sergio Martinez for the middleweightchampionship of the world.Cotto knocked Martinez down three times in the first stanza. The fight wasstopped after nine lopsided rounds. That was followed by animpressive fourth-round knockout of Daniel Geale. A loss by decision to ayounger stronger Canelo Alvarez and a decision victory over Yoshihiro Kamegaifor a vacant 154-pound WBO belt brought Miguel to Madison Square Garden on thenight 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.
Thestoryline on December 2 was simple. Cotto had pledged that, win or lose, this wouldbe 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, Alihad stepped up in class to fight Jesse Vargas for the vacant WBO welterweighttitle and been stopped in the ninth round. Cotto-Ali would be Sadam’s firstfight at a contract weight of 154 pounds.
Alihad been chosen as Cotto’s opponent on the assumption that he lacked theessentials to pose a serious threat. It would be better to see Miguel leaveboxing on a victory over a lesser fighter than to exit in the manner of so manygreat champions who lost in the final bout of their ring career.
Sadamhimself acknowledged during a pre-fight media conference call that it was “alittle scary” to be fighting “a legend who I grew up watching.”
Cottohad more than boxing on his mind when he entered his dressing room at MadisonSquare Garden on the night of his last fight. Nine weeks earlier, his PuertoRican homeland had been devastated by a historic hurricane that shattered theisland’s infrastructure and killed almost 3,000 people. But those thoughtswould be put on hold in the hours ahead.
The room was a large oval enclosure that housed the New YorkRangers hockey team on game nights. Locker stalls with a plaque bearing thename and uniform number of each Ranger player ringed the room. Rolls of tapelay scattered about, a reminder of the team’s 5-1 victory over the CarolinaHurricanes the previous night.
Cotto was wearing black pants, a burgundy jacket over a whiteT-shirt, and blue track shoes. His mother, wife, two sons, one of his twodaughters, trainer Freddie Roach, assistant trainer Marvin Somodio, cutman DavidMartinez, strength and conditioning coach Gavin MacMillan, and Bryan Perez (hisclosest friend) were with him.
Miguel checked his email, put on some music, and sat down onone of two brown leather sofas that had been placed on opposite sides of theroom. 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 toreflect on his six-fight tenure with Cotto.
“I’mglad Miguel is retiring on his terms,” Freddie said. “That it’s not somecommission saying, ‘You’re all washed up, you’re done.’ I wish more fightersmade decisions like that. I know, I couldn’t do it. I fought five times after Ishould 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. Ididn’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.“
“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.”
At8:00 o’clock, Cotto left the dressing room andaccompanied his family to their seats inside the main arena. After returning,he chatted with Golden Boy matchmaker Robert Diaz and Cotto Promotions vicepresident Hector Soto before leaving again, this time with a New York StateAthletic Commission inspector for his pre-fight physical examination and togive a urine sample. He returned at 8:40, took off his pants, put on his boxingshoes, and handed his watch and necklace to Bryan Perez for safekeeping. Thenhe opened a sealed bottle of Fiji water he’d brought with him and began eatingthe rest of his fruit salad.
New York State Athletic Commission inspector Ernie Moralesinformed him that this was a problem. If Miguel ate anything more now, he’dhave to provide another urine sample. And under NYSAC rules, he could onlydrink water provided by the promotion which, in this case, consisted of 24bottles 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 tenbottles of Fiji water for Cotto and ten more for Sadam Ali so each camp wouldbe treated equally.
Roach went down the hall to watch Ali’s hands being wrapped.
Miguel turned his attention to a large television monitor andstretched while watching an early preliminary fight.
The ten bottles of Fiji water arrived.
Andre Rozier (Ali’s trainer) came into the room and watchedas Somodio taped Miguel’s hands. When the wrapping was done, Cotto lay down onthe blue-carpeted floor and Marvin stretched him out. Then Miguel put on hisprotective cup and trunks, shadow-boxed for a while, and circled the room offeringa kind word and physical gesture to everyone there.
Oscar De La Hoya, Golden Boy president Eric Gomez, and director of publicity Ramiro Gonzalezcame in to wish Miguel well. They were followed by referee Charlie Fitch, whogave Cotto his pre-fight instructions.
There was more shadow-boxing.
Shortly after 10:00 PM, Miguel went into an adjacent roomwith 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 minuteoff, and did it for five minutes more.
Another break . . . More padwork.
Rey Vargas vs Oscar Negrete (the co-featured fight of theevening) ended.
Miguel put on his robe, left the room, and walked to aboxing ring as an active professional fighter for the forty-seventh and finaltime.
Cotto-Aliwas Miguel’s tenth fight at Madison Square Garden. Ticket sales had been hurt by an attractive slate of televised collegefootball conference championship games that evening. More significantly, thecore 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 whateverdiscretionary income they had to relatives on the island who’d been hard hit bythe hurricane. Still, a better-than-expected walk-up sale coupled withpromotional 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.
Miguelwas the heartfelt favorite of almost everyone in the arena. But there’s no room for sentiment in a boxing ring.
Inthe early going, Ali’s handspeed and elusive footwork gave Cotto more than abit of trouble. Sadam had come to win and was getting off first, while Miguelmoved methodically forward but was unable to land effectively. Cotto was alsohaving difficulty getting out of the way of punches, which happens to fighterswhen they get old. A sharp right to the ear followed by a right to the templewobbled Miguel in round two.
ThenCotto began using his jab effectively and landing hooks to the body. By roundsix, Ali was tiring. There was swelling around his right eye. And Miguel’sbodywork was taking a toll.
Onemoment can change everything in boxing.
Earlyin the second half of the fight, most likely in round seven or eight, Cottotore a tendon in his left biceps.
AsBart Barry wrote long ago, “There’sthe pain of torn flesh or cramped muscles or wheezing breathlessness. And thenthere’s injury. Injury is a non-negotiable signal sent to the central nervoussystem. One doesn’t make his living in athletics without knowing thedifference.”
Thetorn tendon was an injury. It caused acute pain and rendered Cotto unable toeffectively jab or hook. After eight rounds, Miguel was leading on two of thejudges’ scorecards and was even on the third. But now he was a one-armedfighter.
Alicontinued to fight a disciplined fight, following the formula of getting offfirst and not waiting for a receipt. As Sadam’s confidence grew, he fought moreaggressively 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.
Itwasn’t supposed to end this way. But boxing is rarely about happy endings.
SadamAli was thought to have been a “safe” opponent. But Father Time isn’t.
Cottowas in obvious pain in his dressing room after the fight. New York StateAthletic Commission chief medical officer Dr. Nitin Sethi and Dr. Kevin Wright(an orthopedic surgeon) examined his left arm and confirmed that he’d suffereda torn tendon in his left biceps. Worse, the tendon had been torn away from thebone. It was impossible to separate the injury from the outcome of the fight.
“Sadamcaught 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 workingwell and he was doing good body work with the hook until he tore his biceps. Hecame back to the corner with a look on his face like he was in pain. I askedwhat was wrong, and he told me his arm was killing him. I’ve see that injurybefore. It takes your power away. And it hurts like hell.”
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.