Though it was nearly a decade ago, Miguel Cotto can remember his first fight at Madison Square Garden as if it was yesterday.
“That night I fought the guy who beat me in the (2000) Olympic Games and it was my second title defense. It was a memorable night for me," Cotto said.
Cotto stopped Muhammad Abdullaev on a ninth-round TKO to retain the WBO junior welterweight title. [Note: Abdullaev was Cotto’s third defense; the first two were Randall Bailey in 2004 and DeMarcus Corley in 2005.] But more importantly he branded himself a straight-ahead wrecking machine worthy of picking up the mantle of fellow Puerto Rican superstar Felix Trinidad, and he became a certified star at Madison Square Garden.
Cotto has fought eight times at the Garden, posting a sterling 7-1 record. And while he has had championship fights in other places like Las Vegas, and even Yankee Stadium, Cotto has an affinity for the “Mecca of Boxing.”
“It's my second home. I feel great fighting inside this magical arena. Being in New York City is like being in Puerto Rico," Cotto said.
Cotto is returning to the Garden for another special moment – a historical one – as he takes on Sergio Martinez for the WBC and RING Magazine championships in a 12-round match on HBO Pay Per View on Saturday night. If Cotto defeats Martinez he will become the first Puerto Rican boxer to win world titles in four different weight classes.
It would be an achievement that Trinidad, Wilfred Benitez and Wilfredo Gomez – all Hall of Famers – never attained. It would definitely cement his legacy as one of the greatest boxers from Puerto Rico.
Todd duBoef, who conceived the idea of having Cotto fight at Madison Square Garden during the National Puerto Rican Day Parade week, thinks the arena will be rocking on Saturday night.
“The culture associated with Cotto creates an environment in that building that is a unique experience," duBoef said. “They’re passionate and vocal and it’s mayhem. It’s a party of explosiveness. They’re energized and they’re wearing their patriotic colors all over them. It makes it a unique experience. It likes going to a Man-U (Manchester United Soccer Club) game. There’s something about connecting with not only the athlete and the team, but the environment, that’s incredible. That compounds it with Cotto."
Some of Cotto’s most thrilling matches, and victories, have happened at the Garden. He scored a stunning 11th-round TKO victory over Zab Judah, a Brooklyn-born boxer, to retain the WBA welterweight title on June 9, 2007. Five months later, he successfully defended the title by doing something that no one thought he could do: He out-boxed Shane Mosley to win a 12-round decision.
Perhaps one of Cotto’s sweetest victories at the Garden came when he defeated Antonio Margarito in a revenge-tinged rematch in 2011. Margarito had battered Cotto bloody and stopped him on an 11th-round TKO the first time the two met, in Las Vegas in 2008. Cotto suspected that Margarito had used loaded gloves in that match, because he was caught trying to use illegal hand wraps in a match against Mosley in 2009.
With the crowd chanting his name, Cotto destroyed Margarito in the rematch, battering him so badly that Margarito had to quit in the ninth round because of a badly swollen right eye. Margarito has not fought since.
Cotto’s 13-year career has taken some twists and turns since that first fight at the Garden in 2005. He has suffered some personal losses. He and his uncle and longtime trainer, Evangelista, parted ways over a difference in training philosophy in 2009. It culminated in a physical altercation between the two men and Evangelista throwing a brick through the windshield of Cotto’s sports car.
The next year Cotto’s lost his father, Miguel Sr., to a sudden heart attack, leaving him emotionally adrift for a while. Since 2009 Cotto has gone through a string of trainers, including the late Emanuel Steward.
At 33 years old and in the twilight of his career Cotto is now working with Freddie Roach, the veteran trainer who helped mold Manny Pacquiao into one of boxing’s pound-for-pound best.
Roach said he isn’t trying to remake Cotto as much as he is trying to get him to go back to the things that worked so well for him earlier in his career. They had a dynamite start in their first fight together, with Cotto pounding Delvin Rodriguez with a relentless body attack before knocking him out in the third round last October.
DuBoef thinks Cotto has finally found a trainer to whom he relates.
“He was lost for years because he didn’t have a real trainer," duBoef said. “Then he was just cheap and grabbing different guys. Freddie has added something to him. He’s being spoken to for the first time while he’s being trained. He was never being really schooled. It was just trainers telling him to do this and do that."
Cotto and Roach will have to make a dynamic team to beat Martinez, who is coming off a year-long layoff because of a third knee surgery and battling an infection which was the result of that surgery.
The last time Cotto fought at the Garden, two years ago, he lost to Austin Trout. It didn’t seem that he was able to decipher Trout who, like Martinez, is a southpaw. He couldn’t get inside Trout’s jab and lost a lopsided 12-round decision.
Martinez is tricky with a twist. He has sneaky, explosive power and his right hand can travel from odd angles. Martinez knocked out Paul Williams with a right hand that started at the South Pole, looped around the North Pole and landed somewhere near the Equator.
Cotto sees differences between Trout and Martinez.
“You have Austin Trout, who is a gym fighter who has a lot of mobility," Cotto said. “And you have Sergio Martínez, who is not a gym guy who moves around a lot but he has a couple issues with his knees. We are going to do our best. I know how I am going to fight Sergio and I can guarantee you we are going to win this fight."
Cotto is moving up to middleweight for the first time in his career. Roach said the additional weight has not been a problem and thinks he’ll be able to easily stand in against Martinez.
“I think he may actually be taller and he will be stronger on the inside and much more physical on the inside than Martínez is, and we are going to push him around with no problem," Roach said. “I think on the inside we are the bigger, stronger fighter.”
It could shape up to be a strategic matchup for the first few rounds. But count on fireworks and an energized crowd at the Garden.
“No one can say that Miguel Cotto is in a bad fight," duBoef said. “He’s exciting to watch.”