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.”
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.
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.”
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.“
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.