Tuesday, May 30, 2023  |


Cotto captures titles, not hearts

Fighters Network

Many of Miguel Cotto's countrymen wonder whether he'll ever fully recover from his brutal knockout loss to Antonio Margarito last July. Photo by hoganphotos.com

He was so close.

Miguel Cotto, perhaps the most hyped talent to come out of Puerto Rico since a young Hector Camacho blazed through opponents in the early 1980s, was almost there.

A victory over Antonio Margarito last July would have done it, or at least put him in position to attain the one thing that was missing from his considerable professional accomplishments: a place in the hearts of the Puerto Rican people.

Cotto had more than earned the support and loyalty of Puerto Rican fans with his decorated amateur career and 32 consecutive professional victories, which included world titles at 140 and 147 pounds, but he never made the emotional connection with his people that his predecessor Felix Trinidad had and retains even in retirement.

Cotto is respected. Trinidad is beloved. There’s a difference.

And Cotto knows it. He also had to know that the unconditional love that only comes with idol status probably was within his grasp early last year.

A victory over Margarito would have likely set up a showdown with Oscar De La Hoya, who was in the market for a high-profile opponent for his December pay-per-view date after Floyd Mayweather’s unexpected retirement.

Cotto, an undefeated proven ticket-seller on the East Coast, was the best possible option. Their potential fight was so big that Yankee Stadium was discussed as a possible site for it.

Imagine Cotto doing to De La Hoya what Manny Pacquiao did to the Golden Boy in front of 60,000 cheering Puerto Rican fans in the Bronx.

Cotto’s stoic, often guarded personality – perhaps the main thing that keeps him from attaining Trinidad’s status on the island – would have been forgiven by Puerto Rican fans after a victory of that magnitude.

It could have happened if Cotto didn’t succumb to the relentless pressure and heavy – perhaps loaded – hands of Margarito in the 11th round of their title fight.

Cotto knows he lost more than a fight that night, which is why Saturday’s bout with Michael Jennings for the vacant WBO welterweight title is so important to him.

“I’m coming off a loss,” Cotto (32-1, 26 knockouts) said on an international conference call last Wednesday. “My career was at a point that it was going very well. I want to get back to the same level. That’s what I intend to do with this fight, show everyone with a convincing win that I’m ready to get back to the level I was at before July (26).”

However, even with Margarito’s illegal hand-wrapping scandal and subsequent license revocation casting a cloud over his victory, the jury is still out on whether Cotto can get back to where he was – especially in Puerto Rico, where his star was beginning to fade for reasons outside of the prize ring.

“The level of excitement (for Cotto’s fight with Jennings) is not even close to the way it used to be before he lost to Margarito,” said Jose A. Sanchez Fourier, a columnist with Puerto Rico’s daily newspaper El Nuevo Dia. “The fight with Margarito was so brutal that people aren’t sure what Cotto has left. They aren’t getting too excited. The way Margarito looked (flat and uncompetitive) against Shane Mosley kind of confirmed fears that maybe (Cotto-Margarito) took something out of both fighters.

“People are wondering what Cotto brings to the table, if he has anything left to become an idol.”

Fourier, who has covered Cotto’s entire pro career, continued:

“His stock went down big time after the Margarito loss. Remember, there were questions about whether he really belonged at welterweight. Margarito was the first big welterweight Cotto faced, and he lost. Before Margarito, he had struggled with Ricardo Torres and DeMarcus Corley at junior welterweight, and he had rough moments against smaller welterweights like Zab Judah and Shane Mosley.

“He boxed well against Margarito in the early rounds and then he looked out of his league. That’s the truth. Before the Margarito fight, Cotto was on the borderline to becoming a superstar – he was one of the most hyped stars in Puerto Rico, ever. Even Trinidad didn’t get as much hype as Cotto got that early in his career. But the consensus among the Puerto Rican press after that fight was that Cotto is a good, tough, skilled guy, but he took Margarito seriously, tried his best, and he still lost.

“He wasn’t bad mouthed after the fight, he has everyone’s respect, but people started viewing him as a fighter that was brought up carefully with very good matchmaking by a very savvy promoter.”

That’s harsh judgment for a fighter who had done nothing but win – including victories over nine former or future titleholders and consecutive victories against RING-rated welterweight contenders Carlos Quintana, Oktay Urkal, Judah and Mosley – prior to the Margarito fight.

More than a few stateside sports journalists discount Margarito’s victory over Cotto because of the hardened gauze pads that were discovered in his hand wraps prior to the Mexican’s one-sided loss to Mosley. While there is no proof that Margarito’s trainer, Javier Capetillo, loaded his wraps for the Cotto fight, the brutal effect the Mexican’s punches had on Cotto and the bloody facial lacerations that were produced in the later stages of the fight, have casted significant doubt as to whether everything was on the up and up.

Fourier says Margarito’s hand-wrap controversy changed the opinions of some of Cotto’s critics, but not enough for the majority of Puerto Rican fans to view the fighter as the potential star he was becoming before the fight.

“The hand wrap issue did convince some people that maybe Cotto should have or could have won that fight,” he said. “Some are angry about it and think Cotto shouldn’t give Margarito a rematch if he ever gets his license back. There are definitely those who give Cotto the benefit of the doubt after Margarito’s license revocation, but you don’t hear about it as much as you might think.

“Maybe that’s because Cotto didn’t criticize Margarito that much.”

Cotto’s conference call for the Jennings fight took place the day after the California State Athletic Commission revoked Margarito’s boxing license, but when Yahoo! Sports columnist Kevin Iole asked about the fighter’s thoughts on the commission’s ruling, the former two-division titleholder replied:

“I don’t have a reaction, it’s not my business. I don’t want to talk about it.”

When other reporters asked Cotto if he thought Margarito’s hands were illegally wrapped for their fight he barely elaborated on his position.

“They (Margarito and his trainer) are the only ones who can answer that question,” Cotto said. “The fans and or the press can ask that question. All I can say is that Margarito had a great night and we’ll leave it at that.”

While Cotto’s unwillingness to provide an opinion on the Margarito case frustrated some of the media, it illustrated the classy manner in which he’s carried himself throughout his professional career.

However, that image is no longer as classy or squeaky clean as it once was in Puerto Rico.

Before the Margarito fight, some members of the Puerto Rican media wondered whether Cotto’s success had begun to go to his head. It was rumored that he was no longer as dedicated to training as he once was and the on-and-off nature of his relationships with the mother of his children and his trainer/uncle raised questions about his personal life.

After the Margarito fight, some believed the loss had pushed Cotto into a state of depression as he was frequently spotted in clubs and bars, reportedly drinking heavily.

“A fighter’s first defeat always has a psychological effect; some react better than others,” said Herminio Nieves, a boxing writer and host of a San Juan-based sports radio show. “Cotto always had the image of having everything under control, but his life has been out of control lately.

“He’s been drinking a lot. The perception is that he’s either not taking his career as seriously as he once did or that his will or spirit was broken by Margarito and he’s trying to forget about it by drowning his woes. Here in Puerto Rico, it seems like everyone has their own Cotto sighting; he’s drinking here, or partying there, he’s hanging out with women, and he’s got three or four new tattoos on his body. I have nothing against tattoos, but a lot of people here think it’s a sign that he’s been a getting a little wild.”

Wild and undisciplined fighters don’t sit well with the Puerto Rican people. They’ve had their hearts broken by so many bright boxing talents in the past — from Wilfred Benitez and Wilfredo Gomez to Camacho and the late Esteban DeJesus and Edwin Rosario – that they will turn their backs on a fighter who appears to be headed down the same road rather than be hurt again.

Daniel Santos is a prime example. The two-time 154-pound titleholder is a 1996 Olympic bronze medalist and a former welterweight beltholder who holds a victory over Margarito. However, Santos also has a reputation for being a surly binge drinker prone to ugly domestic spats. Santos, who also has his share of tribal-style tattoos all over his lanky body, has been booed by Puerto Rican fans more than once.

“A lot of Puerto Rican fans cheered for Margarito when he fought Santos the second time,” Fourier said. “Margarito is actually popular in Puerto Rico because of his open personality. His humble and clean lifestyle resonated with fans. Santos is too eccentric for our fans, while Cotto is a very serious and very private guy. That never sat well with our boxing fans. It’s spoken about openly. He’s criticized for his stoic personality. They say he doesn’t even smile on his birthday.”

Trinidad’s big warm smile, gregarious nature, and family-man image is as responsible for his icon status in Puerto Rico as his hall-of-fame ring credentials.

Personality counts in Puerto Rico, which is why undefeated 122-pound KO artist Juan Manuel Lopez is hotter than ever in his homeland. The WBO super bantamweight titleholder is threatening Cotto’s place as the island’s most popular active fighter.

“Cotto used to be the guy everyone compared to Trinidad,” said Nieves. “But when Cotto first came on the scene, Tito was retiring. Cotto was alone on the world stage, but now he has competition. Now everyone compares ‘JuanMa’ Lopez to Trinidad because he has the charisma, the KO power and a stable relationship with the mother of his children. He just proposed to her on a TV show. That’s what fans are drawn to.”

That’s what drew them to Trinidad. The former three-division titleholder was so beloved that most of Puerto Rico turned a blind eye to a well-publicized extramarital affair he had before his fight with Bernard Hopkins.

“When Tito lost to Hopkins everybody’s heart was broken,” Nieves said. “Grown men cried. When Cotto lost to Margarito, some people were sad, others wondered what happened to him, but some fans thought he deserved it because of his attitude.”

Whatever changes or drama Cotto went through in the months following his first loss, he seems to have purged his demons for the time being. Cotto, who reportedly had a good training camp, sounded like his old serious and focused self when he discussed his preparation for Jennings (34-1, 16 KOs) with the media.

“I know he’ll come with all his intentions to make himself the new champion of the WBO,” Cotto said. “I saw a fight he had a month ago. He’s a very defensive fighter. He has a European style, like Urkal and (Gianluca) Branco. I’ve prepared myself right for this fight. I’m going to beat him.”

But will a victory over an unheralded British fighter be enough to get Cotto back on track?

“Nobody thinks Jennings has a chance,” Nieves said. “Fans are looking forward to a rematch with Shane Mosley. After what Mosley did to Margarito, a rematch win over Mosley would elevate him. But will it elevate him to or beyond where he was before losing to Margarito? I don’t think so. Mosley is good but he is still a 37-year-old fighter.

“Maybe a Mosley win and a win over Manny Pacquiao would do it, but he would still need to open up more, smile more and get his life more stable to be beloved by the Puerto Rican fans.”

Doug Fischer's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]