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From THE RING Magazine: Mr. Relevant

16
Sep

COTTO VS. ALVAREZ

MR. RELEVANT

MIGUEL COTTO HAS RETAINED HIS STAR POWER BECAUSE FANS KNOW HE BRINGS IT EVERY TIME HE STEPS INTO THE RING

Although it will come as a shock to Floyd Mayweather Jr., the absence of defeat is seldom a measure of a boxer’s enduring popularity. In recent memory, there is no clearer example of this than Miguel Cotto.

In boxing, a zero at the end of your record sometimes reflects greatness, as it does in Mayweather’s case, but more often than not it reflects absence. Absence of facing the best competition. Absence of facing a true challenge. Absence of what makes great boxers great, which is overcoming great difficulties.

More often than not, an undefeated record says more about what you haven’t been willing to face than it does about who you’ve actually faced. That’s why none of the dozen or so world champions who retired undefeated are mentioned among the greatest fighters of all time, with the possible exception of Rocky Marciano, although it takes a while before his name comes up in any heavyweight debates.

Rather than The Undefeated, the names always under discussion are Sugar Ray Robinson despite his 19 defeats, Henry Armstrong despite his 21, Roberto Duran despite his 16 and Willie Pep with his 11.

No one speaks much about Mickey Walker’s 19 losses or Harry Greb’s 8 or Muhammad Ali’s 5, Marvin Hagler’s 3 or Emile Griffith’s 24. When the name Ruben Olivares comes up, who speaks of his 13 defeats? Same is true, of course, of Julio Cesar Chavez, whose six defeats seem almost now as if they never happened.

In each case the talk is always of their greatness, none of which was diminished by defeat. The same is true, it seems, of Cotto, who has tasted defeat four times yet remains, at 35, one of boxing’s most popular and respected champions.

Despite that, more and more often today fighters are measured by the unblemished standard, the appearance of a single loss somehow diminishing them in the eyes of nervous promoters and anxious television executives.

“For the last 20 years or so, everybody wants to see undefeated records,” laments Cameron Dunkin, the veteran fight manager who has handled some of the sport’s biggest names in recent years, such as Nonito Donaire, Tim Bradley and Terence Crawford. “You lose one fight and a lot of people start to say you can’t fight. It drives me crazy.

“I saw it when (Shane) Mosley first loss and when (Antonio) Tarver knocked out Roy Jones. People saying they always knew they couldn’t fight. Great fighters! My goodness, what does a guy have to do?”

Whatever it is, Cotto has apparently done it. The loyalty of his followers has remarkably remained intact even though he has lost 33 percent of his last nine fights (6-3), including a lopsided setback against Manny Pacquiao and, of all people, Austin Trout.

He has fought his way back from those disappointments just as he dramatically did against Antonio Margarito in 2011, administering a savage beating to him three years after Margarito forced him to take a knee and opt out after being badly beaten up late in a loss Cotto came to believe was a result not of Margarito’s superiority and size but of possibly tampered-with hand wraps he wore under his gloves that night.

There was never any proof of that but later Margarito’s wraps were found to be loaded before a fight with Mosley, leading to a lengthy suspension and savage payback from Cotto on Dec. 3, 2011.

When the fight was stopped on advice from the ringside physician, Margarito’s right eye shut down like a road hit by an avalanche, Cotto walked to his corner and stood in front of him, staring down at him in silent and barely contained contempt. Margarito made no move to acknowledge him and Cotto made no counter move to check on his well-being. It was a chilling moment that encapsulated the silent savagery of Cotto’s approach to his profession, an approach fans have come to deeply admire.

This was, in Cotto’s mind, a beating well administered and well deserved. It was also one of those moments that has made Cotto someone whose place in the sport has not been diminished by the defeats that followed that win.

“The people appreciate his effort and his style,” said longtime matchmaker Carl Moretti. “He fights everybody. He always comes to fight. He’s always in shape. And he always gives an honest effort.

“When has there ever been a bad Cotto fight? He’s very soft-spoken in how he lives but not in the way he fights. He gives fans what they want to see. So they want to see him again.”

Nobility in both victory and defeat is part of the reason his fans, especially the Puerto Ricans he has represented nobly throughout his career, have never fled from his side. Although those fans have never had quite the same fanaticism for Cotto that they did for the explosive-punching and personally engaging Felix Trinidad, Cotto has retained a hold on their loyalty through ups and downs and now ups again.

They will surely be out in droves for his Nov. 21 fight at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas when Cotto defends his RING and WBC middleweight titles from the expected stiff challenge of Canelo Alvarez, the former junior middleweight champion who is 10 years younger and considered by many to be the best 154-pounder in the world.

It is a fight that sold out in less than an hour and is expected to be a highly successful pay-per-view show, in part because it is a renewal of the long-existing rivalry between Puerto Rican fighters and Mexicans like Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 knockouts). But there is much more to it than that because both men have consistently posted big television numbers.

Alvarez’s third-round knockout of James Kirkland in May attracted 2.146 million viewers on HBO and Cotto’s fourth-round destruction of Daniel Geale in his first defense of the WBC 160-pound title in June at Barclays Center in Brooklyn drew 1.589 million, even though few U.S. fight fans could have told you who Daniel Geale is. They came to watch Cotto ÔǪ again.

Even after he was upset by Trout and on a two-fight losing streak after having also lost to Mayweather (despite giving Mayweather a harder-than expected time and a bloody lip), Cotto returned triumphantly on June 7, 2014, to a packed Madison Square Garden, where he stopped then-champion Sergio Martinez.

It was the ninth time Cotto (40-4, 33 KOs) had fought at the Garden, having gone 8-1 there and sold over 155,000 tickets during that stretch. As longtime New York boxing writer Wallace Matthews wrote, “Madison Square Garden, once known as the Mecca of Boxing, is no longer in the boxing business. It is in the Miguel Cotto business. ÔǪ Cotto is the closest the Garden has had to a ‘house fighter’ since the days when the likes of Emile Griffith and Joe Frazier and the late Hector Camacho fought here on a regular basis.”

Cotto richly rewarded the Garden for its loyalty. He filled it six times between 2005 and 2009 on the June weekend of Puerto Rican Day, and drew big enough crowds to convince his then-promoter, Bob Arum, to put him outdoors in Yankee Stadium against Yuri Foreman in 2010, upsetting a boy’s planned bar mitzvah celebration at the Stadium to do it. Such was the pull of Cotto that not even a religious celebration could trump one of his fights, especially when the kid got ringside seats.

What is oddest about this is that Cotto has never inspired the kind of fanatical following Trinidad commanded. His low-key persona outside the ring and the fact he has fought no more than twice a year since 2009 precluded him from becoming the kind of national icon Trinidad became. Yet he still sells, even with those four losses on his resume, including ones against Pacquiao and Margarito in which he absorbed considerable punishment.

“He has managed to keep his popularity,” marveled former HBO Sports programming executive and active fight promoter Lou DiBella, who went through hard negotiations with Cotto for the Martinez fight.

It was hard because of Cotto’s demands, which included the bulk of the money, fighting at a catchweight of 155 and an assortment of smaller concessions a challenger usually doesn’t even bother talking about.

Yet the truth was, DiBella knew Cotto had the kind of command of the marketplace that would force him to give in even though he promoted the champion at the time.

“It was a hard bargain,” DiBella admitted. “But I don’t begrudge him that. He has the leverage in negotiations now and he’s using it the way it once was used against him. He’s a businessman about it.

“What’s amazed me is Cotto remains an attraction even though he’s not beloved in Puerto Rico the way Felix is. It’s unusual in today’s marketplace that a guy has four losses of recent vintage and remains a major attraction, which Cotto is. I think the reason is he’s fought everybody. You have to give him credit for that. It’s very unusual today and people respect it.

“He’s a warrior. You couldn’t ever say Miguel Cotto didn’t rumble. He’s never been Mr. Congeniality. You wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out with him the way you would with Felix. But there’s no fear in his game.

“From what I’ve seen, and I’ve done business with him and put him on TV, I think he’s not beloved but he’s respected. He’s earned the respect of Puerto Rican fight fans and Latino fight fans and they are the backbone of the industry. He has star power because he has drawing power and he has drawing power because every fan knows if Miguel Cotto is fighting, you’re going to get your money’s worth. Whenever he fights, I know I watch.”

Hype is not Cotto’s thing. A fight is. His well-known warrior nature (with the tattoos to match these days) is what people are buying when they buy Cotto.

He will not engage very often in pre-fight histrionics. He will not expend much effort in promotion, either self-promotion or fight promotion. He will disappear for long stretches between fights. He thinks Twitter is a sound a bird makes.

Often at major press conferences, he seems to sleepwalk through the entire affair. But what he does is give you the assassin’s dead-eyed look when you ask him about Canelo Alvarez before saying, “Boxing, at this stage of my career, is a battle with myself. After facing everybody of my generation, this is going to be just another victory.

“In my era, Canelo is just another name. Brings another big name to my record. That’s what I see.”

He isn’t smiling when he says this. Nor is he snarling. For Miguel Cotto, it’s just how life is.

Since Cotto joined forces with trainer Freddie Roach three fights ago following his problems with Mayweather and particularly Trout, he has seemed a new man. He has won three times by knockout, became the first Puerto Rican-born fighter to win the middleweight championship and is in what many feel will be the second biggest pay-per-view show of the year behind Mayweather-Pacquiao.

He also received a big number to sign on with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, the former rap star’s promotional arm. It is difficult to think of another fighter who is 6-3 in his last nine fights who could have made such a deal, yet Roc Nation paid Cotto millions in guarantees to give their fledgling company a jolt of validity.

“He’s a world-class fighter,” said Michael Yormark, who runs Roc Nation’s marketing and promotional efforts, not long after signing Cotto in March. “He’s a legend and a four-time champion. He’s someone who gives our boxing division instant credibility. He allows us to make big fights on HBO and PPV.”

Did Jay-Z care about those four losses or that his 6-3 mark in his last nine fights? Apparently not.

After his lackluster showing against Trout, there was, for a time, talk about Cotto in the past tense but he came back 10 months later and defeated journeyman Delvin Rodriguez and then destroyed Martinez in that triumphant return to New York on another Puerto Rican Day weekend.

Longtime matchmaker Bruce Trampler, who has worked with Cotto through nearly all of his career when he was promoted by Arum, admits no one was quite sure what the reception would be when he returned to his second home one more time because no one was sure what the effect of back-to-back losses might be. Normally it’s not good.

As things turned out, there was no effect. Cotto was what he’d always been. He was a drawing card.

“When he got trounced by Trout in his own arena it seemed almost too much to overcome,” Trampler said. “But when he came back to New York to fight Martinez the arena showed he had a true following.

“The pay-per-view was disappointing (an estimated 315,000 buys when 450,000 or more was predicted) but there was a lot going on that weekend. The Belmont Stakes had a potential Triple Crown horse and the Rangers, I believe, were in the NHL playoffs.

“But the live gate saved us and that was about Cotto. Filling the Garden that night was a great testament to him. He’s the opposite of Floyd. He’s a blue-collar worker, a humble guy whose body of work speaks for itself.

“Cotto isn’t hung up on his record or his legacy. The guys who never lost, you have to question who they fought and when they fought them. He’s laid it out there. He’s fought everybody. People have come to respect him for that. They know when Miguel Cotto fights, he goes out and does it or at least he tries to do it.”

Come Nov. 21, he’ll try to do it again against a young opponent whose only loss was to Mayweather, a fighter whose style he could not handle. Alvarez is young, strong and did with Trout what Cotto could not, dropping him in the seventh round on his way to winning a decision by a comfortable margin.

He believes in himself. Yet Alvarez, too, seems to understand what Cotto’s fans have long come to expect: When the bell rings, it’s on.

“This is a guarantee,” Alvarez said. “Without a doubt this is a fight. We are both coming to fight. We are both going to lay it on the line. Without a doubt, this is a fight for real.”

You don’t have to tell Miguel Cotto’s fans that. It’s why they keep coming back, win or lose.

“Look at his record and how brave he’s been,” Dunkin said. “He took a vicious beating against Margarito and went back in with him and gave it back to him. People don’t leave you when you act like that.

“He had a bad night against Trout. Most guys aren’t allowed to have a bad night any more. But what Cotto’s done is go right back into the fire. He did it with Margarito. Now he’s bugging Mayweather’s people about a rematch.

“He fights tough guys and he gets in their face. He’s there to fight. That’s why he has such a great following. People appreciate that. They know, win or lose, what they’re going to get is his best. And Miguel Cotto’s best is still pretty damn good.”

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