“The fans don’t fully understand what it means to be a fighter,” Miguel Cotto once said. “They see the fight, and most don’t understand even that. But even fewer understand the sacrifices that a fighter must make, the pain he suffers, just to get to the fight. For myself, I’m not a real big fan of boxing. I just enjoy boxing when I’m boxing.”
MIGUEL COTTO entered his dressing room at Barclays Center on June 6, 2015, at 8.25pm. He was casually dressed, wearing faded blue jeans, a well-worn gray T-shirt, a blue leather jacket, and loafers with no socks.There was a time when winning a world championship was boxing’s equivalent of a mobster becoming a made man. No more. In an era characterised by multiple sanctioning bodies and more than a hundred world “champions” at any point in time, only a handful of fighters matter to the public.
Miguel Cotto mattered. His journey through boxing began in 1992. “I was a chubby child,” he later recalled. “I weighed 162 pounds at age eleven. My sport was to sit in front of the TV and eat. I started boxing to lose weight and fell in love with it.”
Cotto turned pro in 2001. At his peak, he’d been a destructive force, devastating good fighters like Zab Judah, Carlos Quintana, and Paulie Malignaggi and outpointing great ones like Shane Mosley. Then something bad happened.
On the morning of July 26, 2008, Cotto was undefeated in 32 fights and ranked in the top five on most pound-for-pound lists. That night, he fought Antonio Margarito at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and was brutally beaten into submission. Most knowledgeable observers of the boxing scene now believe that there were illegal inserts in Margarito’s handwraps that night.
Following the loss to Margarito, Miguel wasn’t the same fighter. On November 14, 2009, he was on the receiving end of another brutal beating – this one administered by Manny Pacquiao. He fought sporadically after that, besting Yuri Foreman, Ricardo Mayorga, and Margarito (in a rematch), but was outpointed by Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout in back-to-back outings.
After the loss to Trout, Cotto’s days as a star attraction seemed to be over. On October 5, 2013, he scored a third-round knockout over Delvin Rodríguez. But Rodríguez had won only four of 11 fights dating back to 2008, so that didn’t count for much in the eyes of the boxing establishment.
Then, on June 7, 2014, Cotto challenged Sergio Martínez for the middleweight championship of the world and, defying the 2/1 odds against him, forced Martínez’ corner to call a halt to the action after nine one-sided rounds. But it was an open issue as to whether Miguel had looked good or Sergio (who’d undergone extensive knee surgery prior to the fight and would require more surgery afterward) looked bad.
The victory over Martínez brought Cotto’s record to 39 wins against four losses with 32 knockouts, and gave him renewed bargaining power. In January 2015, he signed a lucrative three-fight contract with Roc Nation that included a substantial signing bonus, a contribution to a charity created by Miguel in Puerto Rico, and an agreement that Roc Nation and Cotto Promotions co-promote a series of boxing cards and rock concerts on the island.
In the aftermath of the signing, there were harsh words from Todd DuBoef of Top Rank (Cotto’s former promoter). At a February 5, 2015, luncheon to formally announce the deal, a reporter asked Gaby Peňagarícano (Miguel’s attorney) about DuBoef’s negative comments.
“I am going to be the only one to talk about it,” Cotto interrupted. “We had a fight by fight deal with Top Rank. I expect respect, and a lot of people I knew from the beginning of my career didn’t show that.”
Later, when asked if there was any lingering bitterness between him and Top Rank, Miguel answered, “If they want to say hi to me, they have my number.”
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Cotto’s opponent at Barclay’s Center on June 6 was Daniel Geale. Geale, had been competitive in past outings against fighters like Darren Barker, Anthony Mundine, and Felix Sturm. But when last seen in New York, he’d been knocked out by Gennadiy Golovkin in three rounds in a fight that evoked images of a bug flying into the windshield of a 16-wheel truck on an interstate highway.
“I didn’t come here for a holiday,” Geale said of his impending confrontation with Cotto. “I came here to fight.”
But Daniel was a 5/1 underdog and had been brought in on the assumption that he would lose. He was a respectable but “safe” opponent. Not too fast, not too skilled, not a big puncher. He wouldn’t bring anything to the table that Miguel couldn’t deal with.
Furthering Cotto’s advantage, the fight was to be contested at a catchweight of 157 pounds although Miguel’s 160-pound title was at stake.
Barclays Center is the home of the NBA Brooklyn Nets. Cotto was treated like visiting royalty. Geale had been given an ordinary dressing room. Team Cotto was ensconsed in the Nets suite.
The dressing area was a spacious enclosure, 36 feet long and 30 feet wide with a 12-foot-high ceiling and recessed lighting above. A white Brooklyn Nets logo was woven into plush black carpet. There were 12 separate dressing stations, each one with its own vertical closet, sliding drawer, and swivel chair. The name and uniform number of a Nets player was affixed to the wall by each dressing station. The rest of the suite consisted of a lounge, lavatory, shower room, whirlpool room, and medical area.
For the first two hours after Cotto’s arrival, well-wishers came and went. Family members and friends, sanctioning body officials, representatives of Roc Nation. Through it all, the core group remained the same. Trainer Freddie Roach, assistant trainer Marvin Somodio, cutman David Martinez, strength and conditioning coach Gavin MacMillan, and Bryan Perez (Miguel’s closest and most trusted friend).
Former New York Yankee great Bernie Williams (who’d been asked by Miguel to walk him to the ring) sat quietly to the side.
The mood was relaxed, almost festive. Cotto smiles more in the dressing room on fight night than he does at press conferences and other media events. As time passed, he chatted casually with Perez, Somodio, and others as though he were circulating at a cocktail party. Other times, he sat alone with his thoughts or paced wordlessly with his arms folded, sipping from a bottle of water.
Referee Harvey Dock gave Cotto his pre-fight instructions.
Miguel applied underarm deodorant before putting on his boxing gear and checked his smart phone for messages. Times have changed. It’s hard to imagine Rocky Marciano applying underarm deodorant and checking a smart phone for messages in the dressing room before a fight.
At 9pm, the salsa music of Ismael Miranda wafted through the air, adding to the festive aura.
Roach stood off to the side. Cotto-Geale was the third fight that he and Miguel had prepared for together.
In an earlier incarnation, Roach had compiled a 39-13 ring record as a combatant. He’s still every bit as much a fighter as the men he trains. But now he’s fighting a different kind of battle, against the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.
Miguel had called Freddie “the best thing that ever happened to my career” and said, “Freddie brought confidence back to me. He comes every day to the gym and gives his best. The only way you can pay a person like that back is to give your best.”
Now Roach was reflecting on the time he’d spent with Cotto.
“Miguel has a great work ethic,” Freddie said. “Once he’s in the gym, it’s all work. He’s one of the most disciplined fighters I’ve seen in my life. He’s very quiet. Every now and then, he tells a joke. He’s a pleasure to work with.
“The biggest thing when I started with Miguel,” Roach continued, “was, I said to him, ‘When you were an amateur, you were a boxer. Why are you throwing every punch now like you want to kill the other guy? It’s not enough to have skills. It’s not enough to have heart. You have to fight smart.’ And Miguel listened. He tries to do what I tell him to do. You’ll see that tonight. I don’t know if Geale will come at us and try to impose his size or run all night. Either way, he’ll keep his hands high. That’s what he always does, so we’ll attack the body.”
Roach went down the hall to watch Geale’s hands being wrapped.
Cotto began stretching his upper body and leg muscles.
At 9.30, Marvin Somodio started wrapping Miguel’s hands, right hand first.
Miguel whistled in tune with the music as Somodio worked.
“Miguel loves fight night,” Bryan Perez said. “He’s enjoying the moment.”
“Geale got a terrible handwrap,” Freddie announced. “I don’t think his guy knows how to wrap hands. The way he did it, there’s not much protection or strength.”
That led to Roach reminiscing about an oddity that had occurred years earlier when he was training Virgil Hill.
“I went in to watch the opponent getting his hands wrapped, and the guy who was wrapping had no idea what he was doing. Finally, the fighter said, ‘Freddie, will you wrap my hands?’ I said, ‘I can’t. You’re fighting my guy.’ He said, ‘Please!’ So I did it.”
At 9.50, Cotto lay down on a towel on the floor and Somodio began stretching him out.
Miguel shadow-boxed briefly.
Somodio gloved him up.
At 10.27, Miguel began hitting the pads with Roach. It was his first real physical exertion of the night. Four minutes later, they stopped.
At 10.40, a voice sounded: “Okay, guys.”
It was time to fight.
This was Cotto’s first fight at Barclays Center. Previously, he had fought nine times at Madison Square Garden and once at Yankee Stadium.
Geale had a decided size advantage. One day earlier, Miguel had weighed in at 153.6 pounds while Daniel tipped the scales at 157. During the ensuing 30 hours, Geale had gained approximately 20 pounds. He weighed 182 in street clothes on fight night. But size was his only edge.
Cotto-Geale was a craftsman versus an ordinary fighter. It was clear from the start that Miguel was faster and the better boxer.
For the first three rounds, Cotto piled up points with his jab and did damage with hard hooks to the body. Thirty-two seconds into round four, a picture-perfect left hook up top smashed Geale to the canvas and left him on his back with his upper torso stretched beneath the bottom ring rope.
Daniel rose on unsteady legs at the count of nine and managed to stay upright for another 30 seconds before a barrage of punches punctuated by a short right hand deposited him on the floor for the second time.
Once again, he beat the count.
“Are you okay?” referee Harvey Dock asked.
Geale shook his head.
“No,” he said.
Dock appropriately stopped the fight.
There was joy in Cotto’s dressing room after the fight. It wasn’t that he’d beaten Geale as much as the way he beat him that impressed.
“Miguel boxed very well tonight,” Roach said. “The angles were good. He got off first and went to the body a lot.” Freddie smiled. “It’s a lot easier when the fight happens the way you planned it.”
Cotto showered and put on the same faded blue jeans, gray T-shirt, blue leather jacket, and loafers without socks that he’d worn earlier. He looked like a factory worker getting ready to go home after an honest night’s work. How many more fights he had left in him would depend on how much punishment he took in those fights and how much each training camp took out of him. He was much closer to the end of his ring career than the beginning.
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame