The Unsinkable Miguel Cotto

boxingBy Julie Cockerham - No fighter today exemplifies the qualities of intensity and stoicism more aptly than Miguel Cotto. With the prominence he has achieved as a professional, he would seem destined to be on the receiving end of some of the more glorifying aspects of the sport enjoyed by his counterparts.

Yet there is nothing that seems to go smoothly for Cotto. His wins and losses share a veneer tainted either by complication or controversy. In the records, his recent successes are cluttered with aggravating and undeserved footnotes – his losses, the same. Nothing is clear-cut.

Cotto is a rare entity within boxing’s pantheon. As a man, he is reserved and respectful, never lowering himself to flamboyant, attention-seeking stunts. As a fighter, he is skilled and courageous. It seems only just that something of greater promise should be looming on the horizon for him. He has withstood the ills of battle as bravely as any, but fate has been cruel in continually dousing his wounds with salt..

Cotto has understandably chosen to launch a campaign at junior middleweight. Possibly, his motivation has to do with seeking out a change in fortune. He is, and always has been, a solid fighter. He is a boxer with impressive power. His technique in the ring is deliberate and steadfast.

The welterweight division has lately become a breeding ground for some of the most talented prospects in boxing. The two best practitioners of the sport fight in this division, and between them, speed has emerged as the element crucial to domination. While there is never a time when speed is unimportant in the ring, the modern welterweights present a decisive testament to its significance. It is among the 147 pound ranks that the tails of hares are skewered by lightning bolts.

Cotto’s last few experiences between the ropes have supported the sense that he has a willful and ominous cloud hanging over him. It began infamously with his bout in Las Vegas on July 26, 2008, against Antonio Margarito. Up until that time, he was an undefeated fighter, lauded almost unanimously by critics.

Any benefit on Cotto’s part that might be perceived regarding the suspicious manner of loss in the fight comes only through reflection. Before Naazim Richardson exposed Margarito’s team in the act, Cotto was being derided for taking a knee. Associations were being drawn to Roberto Duran’s notorious, gutting moment against Ray Leonard. Cotto’s reputation was unfairly marred by it. The state of Margarito’s hand wraps at that time is not conclusively known, but if Cotto’s instincts forced him to abandon the fight, then that in itself should serve as a powerful indication. He is not a man who just quits.

After the ugliness of the Margarito bout subsided, Cotto fought only one time before rushing back into the fire. A successful outing against the British boxer Michael Jennings provided the opportunity for Cotto to reestablish his confidence and reassert himself as a threatening presence.

On June 13, 2009, Cotto took on Joshua Clottey of Ghana. The performance should have served to redeem him, to solidify his standing as a resilient fighter for any who had doubts after the Margarito affair. But this fight, too, was not without complication. In the third round, Cotto was left with a weeping gash above his left eye after an accidental headbutt. It bled freely through the following rounds, obstructing his vision. In this case, referee Arthur Mercante, Jr., reacted commendably for allowing Cotto to fight on. He let the fighter do his job. In this case, he calculated the desire-over-damage ratio accurately.

While Clottey was no offensive demon in the bout, he was awkward and unwieldy. He punched only in spurts, spending most of his time miming prison cell bars with his forearms. Many who saw the fight believed Clottey had won; Clottey himself was the most vociferous supporter of the theory. Cotto, bloodied and agitated, had to make due with an unsatisfying split decision victory.

The result couldn’t have affected any less than a complete disappointment, but it didn’t intimidate Cotto into sailing for calmer waters. Instead, he fought recognized pound-for-pound king, Manny Pacquiao. Admiration of Pacquiao’s skills is unlimited, at this point scaling to near mythic proportions. All of the accolades have been justly earned.

Early predictions of Pacquiao’s size increase often leaned toward perceiving the larger opponent as too strong, too likely to overpower the smaller Filipino. But Pacquiao has consistently treated these opponents as trees in a forest. He blithely walks among them with his ax, chopping them at their trunks.

Cotto, for all his well-rounded skills, is not remarkably fast. When he’d try to mount an offense against Pacquiao, he would be riddled with power punches. Most victims fall to Pacquiao by these same means, and so it is an honorable and honest loss on his record. With Pacquiao, he waged battle at the pinnacle of the division. The speed was too much; and if it was so with Pacquiao, so it would be again against Floyd Mayweather.

Moving up in weight seemed an invitation to greener pastures. If speed is usually less of a factor as the pounds are packed on, Cotto could seem only to benefit. An elite fighter forged in the fires of the welterweight division, testing his mettle at junior middleweight would potentially present a prime opportunity for him.

Let it be said first: Cotto won the fight against Yuri Foreman decisively. Regardless of the bizarre spectacle that ensued, Cotto would not have lost. But here again is the necessity for the asterisk, the footnote that always seems to prevent him from savoring a definitive victory.

That cloud finds its way to Cotto, and spreads itself over the ring.

Yuri Foreman arrived at Yankee Stadium with an undefeated record. But of his 28 wins, only eight had been by knockout. It was safe to assume that Foreman would not have the capability to stop Cotto, even considering the natural size advantage. Assumedly, his only option would have been to outbox Cotto. He proved to be swift on his feet, for as long as he had his legs under him.

In the 7th round, Foreman slipped and appeared to twist his knee. He had entered the ring already sporting a brace around his knee, implying that he was favoring some injury.

Immediately after he rose from the canvas, it was clear that he had lost his mobility. He was limping, and was obviously not able to set up. It presented a host of problems for Foreman. Up until that time, he had been moving around the ring actively. It was his principal measure of defense against Cotto’s punches. He could not return Cotto’s firepower as it was; paper would have reinforced that before any shots had ever been thrown.

If Foreman was going to box, he needed to be able to move, to use foot speed to launch combinations and then get out of the line of Cotto’s counterpunching. Even if the combinations weren’t packed with power, it would suggest some semblance of aggression. He would look like he was competitively in the fight. This worked to an extent, until the moment of the fall.

Referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. kept instructing Foreman to “suck it up.” For his part, Foreman showed tremendous heart. He could not possibly have struggled more emphatically against his limitation. He wanted to continue, even wounded. Sensing it, his corner mercifully tried to stop the inevitable. They threw in the towel. In that moment, the fight looked and felt over. Cotto raised his arms in certain victory. The corners entered the ring.

But Mercante didn’t take to the towel idea. He wanted Foreman to “suck it up.” He treated the corner’s gesture as suggestion rather than imperative. Everyone was dismissed from the ring. And Cotto had to face the fact that he was going to have to finish a disadvantaged opponent.

He did what he had to do, securing a technical knockout in the 9th round. But here again for Cotto was complication. The diamond clarity of wins and losses that would seem commensurate with a fighter of Cotto’s ability escaped him once again. He found himself as he has of late, celebrating or grieving with footnotes attached to the record.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Cotto’s father passed away in January. Before the fight with Foreman, the first without his father with him, Cotto said, “I miss him a lot…I’m always with him in my mind.”

The two had a close bond, and more than once Cotto claimed to have derived strength from his father. Earlier, Cotto had severed ties with his uncle, his original trainer. It created a rift in the family, polarizing sides.

Now as his mentor, Cotto is fortunate to have Emanuel Steward. He should do well in guiding his student into this new territory. And while Cotto may not have his father with him physically, spiritually there could be no stronger ally bent on parting the cloud above his son’s head.

So often, focus on a fighter’s character is reserved to those who are exceptionally gifted, those who wear crowns. But the fighters who toil away at their craft just as passionately, just as proudly, also deserve to be honored in that light. Miguel Cotto is part of this exceptional breed. No better example exists of a man who has overcome trials and retained uncompromised integrity through them. Superficial glories may elude him, but he is driven forward nonetheless by a higher principle. He is the substance of a true champion.

Article posted on 12.06.2010

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