IT was either going to be a celebration or a funeral. There could be no middle ground when Miguel Cotto stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 7, 2014, to face WBC middleweight champion Sergio Martinez.
Sure, history was on the line as Cotto attempted to become the first Puerto Rican to win world titles in four weight classes, but the most important thing up for grabs was the then 33-year-old’s career. It may have seemed like forever, but ever since his 2008 loss to Antonio Margarito, an 11th round stoppage loss tainted by the insinuation (never proven) that the Mexican may have had loaded gloves in the fight, many believed that Cotto was never the same fighter.
There were changes in the corner, with Cotto going from his uncle Evangelista Cotto to Joe Santiago to Emanuel Steward to Pedro Diaz to Freddie Roach. There were losses, most notably to Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, but there were titles and victories as well, including a cathartic ninth-round stoppage of Margarito in their 2011 rematch.
Yet after getting dominated by Austin Trout over 12 rounds in the Garden in 2012, Cotto had some serious thinking to do. He would take nearly a year off, and when he came back in October of 2013 against a tailor-made foe in Delvin Rodriguez, he did so with Roach in the corner. Some saw it as a last-ditch effort to salvage his career’s twilight years, but for Cotto, it was the perfect fit at the perfect time.
“We have a lot of respect between each other,” he said. “I just follow his game plan and do everything he says. We have a great relationship based on mutual trust.”
Roach, who had led Pacquiao to a clear-cut decision victory over Cotto in 2009, came on board with no concerns about his fighter’s past merry-go-round of trainers. All he cared about was the present and fixing any technical errors that he noticed four years earlier.
“I don’t know what the problem was he had with his old trainer,” said Roach. “I didn’t care so I didn’t ask. I just wanted to improve him. I saw some of the mistakes that he made against Pacquiao studying for that fight and we took advantage of it. I knew him pretty well so I knew what he needed to improve on.”
Cotto’s blistering third-round win over Rodriguez was a commercial, critical, and aesthetic success, not just exciting the sport’s power brokers, but fight fans as well. No one may have been happier than the poker-faced Puerto Rican, who, while not saying any of his past decisions were mistakes, agreed that the partnership with Roach was long overdue.
“We made decisions and I support all of them all the way,” he said. “But now I can say that Freddie was what I needed in my corner to have success.”
Not surprisingly, Roach was more loquacious when it came to describing how this odd couple made it work, and it all started with something as simple as being at the right weight at the right time.
“We let him fight at a weight that he’s comfortable with,” said Roach. “Someone asked me the other day, ‘How’d you make him smile? He used to be the meanest prick in the world!’ I said, when people make weight they become mean. I was one of them. My dad wouldn’t be around me when I was making weight because I was nasty.
“Making weight is really hard, and fighters suffer with that,” the 53-fight veteran continued. “I put him at a weight where he’s more natural and he makes it very easy. He can eat breakfast before the weigh-in and he feels good. Making weight is the most overrated thing in the world. If you can’t make the weight, put yourself at a weight where you’re most comfortable. You’ll become another fighter, I feel.”
Cotto did look rejuvenated at the light-middleweight limit, but when a middleweight title fight against Argentina’s Martinez was announced, sceptics wondered if this was a mountain too high for the three-division champion to climb. But Cotto had Roach by his side and he was fighting in the Garden, where he won seven times without a loss before the defeat against Trout. And he never lost in the building when fighting in his traditional spot the Saturday before New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day parade.
“The Garden is my second home,” said Cotto. “I feel like I’m fighting inside my house. It feels great to be there and it’s a great ambiance.”
His fans would pack the place, but would Cotto – the real Cotto – show up? Before the fight, the media would focus on the gamesmanship of the Caguas native, as he gained several concessions at the negotiation table, from significant (the fight being set at 159 pounds and not 160) to those which just rankled the Martinez camp (the bout being titled Cotto-Martinez despite Martinez being the champion.
Martinez would get the chance to answer any slights in the ring, and the oddsmakers tabbed him as the favourite to do so. If he did, Cotto – who weighed in at 155 pounds for the bout – could always go back to light-middleweight, and he would always be a big name that could sell tickets, but three losses in four fights would be a warning flag few, if any, could ignore.
But then the bell rang, and a minute in, Cotto rocked Martinez, who staggered into the ropes. Twenty seconds later, “Maravilla” was on the canvas, one of three trips the champion made to the deck in the opening round. It was already a deep hole for the Argentine to climb out of, but Cotto continued to pour it on. Ahead 90-77 on all three scorecards, Cotto got the definitive finish he wanted when trainer Pablo Sarmiento didn’t let Martinez out for the 10th round.
Celebration… no funeral… and the band played on.
“We had a great camp and a great game plan,” said Cotto of his 39th professional victory. “When you are committed to yourself you will definitely achieve your goals. We trained enough to have that kind of performance that night. Freddie and I work like a team and we had success.”
A native of an island that already produced greats such as Felix Trinidad, Wilfredo Gomez, and Wilfred Benitez, Cotto’s title-winning effort cemented his Hall of Fame credentials as well as his place in Puerto Rican fight lore. And even though he doesn’t have Trinidad’s charisma, Gomez’ concussive power, or Benitez’ boxing wizardry, Cotto’s quiet excellence has put him right up there with that trio, and, though it might not have been a bad idea for him to walk off into the sunset on top, he still has the fire to compete.
“Boxing is all about sacrifice, discipline, dedication and commitment to yourself,” he said. “Every boxer wants to become world champion, but not all boxers want to pay the price to be a world champion. I still feel good and I’m pleased with myself. So I just want to make the biggest fights and fight the best. Like always.”
The middleweight titlist is also in control of his own career, leaving himself open to work with whoever he needs to in order to make those aforementioned big fights. It’s a perk of being one of boxing’s reigning – and rejuvenated – superstars.
“Having this opportunity to handle myself is a blessing,” said Cotto. “I have worked really hard to get to this point. I have the control of all my decisions and I am always looking for the best benefits.”
The first big decision post-Martinez? To take the rest of 2014 off. His choice surprised some, but it was the best move considering that Roach had to prepare Pacquiao for Chris Algieri in the Philippines while Cotto preferred not to make the trip there at the same time and lose out on the necessary one-on-one time with his coach.
“I have no rush to fight at all,” he said. “Freddie was committed initially to be with Manny in Asia and logistics-wise it was going to be hard, so we all decided to rest and enjoy the time off. I want Freddie to be focused on Manny.”
He is, but Roach still finds time to talk about his latest champion, who he describes as “one of the best students I’ve ever had.” And when it comes to that student, Roach is confident of putting him in with anyone at this point, whether it’s Saul Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin, or even with Mayweather a second time.
“I talked to [Cotto adviser] Gaby [Penagaricano] a little bit, he’s the negotiator and he’s the one that will make the fight,” said Roach. “I think Canelo Alvarez is obviously our number one choice, and then I would love to go fight GGG [Golovkin] after we win that fight. Of course there’s Mayweather out there.
“He beat Cotto once and I don’t know if he wants to fight us but that’s a pretty interesting fight for me.
Like Cotto told me after our first fight together, ‘If I was in this kind of shape when I fought Mayweather I would’ve knocked him out.’ I like his confidence there.”
It’s almost part of Cotto’s charm when you throw names like Alvarez and Golovkin at him and he simply responds with “As I always have said, I am here to fight the biggest names and the best challenges in boxing. [This] year will be a big year for Miguel Cotto.”