Miguel Cotto: The professional
Thomas Hauser was in Miguel Cotto’s dressing room in the hours before and after his encounter with Canelo Alvarez and viewed fight week through the prism of Team Cotto. Here is his report.
Miguel Cotto has a good life now but he knows that life can be hard. Training camp and the fights that follow remind him of that reality.
Cotto is on the short list of great Puerto Rican fighters, a list that includes Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Benitez, Wilfredo Gomez and Felix Trinidad. But Miguel views boxing as a fistfight for money, not an allegory for civilization. Asked about the Puerto Rico vs. Mexico rivalry prior to his Nov. 21 fight against Canelo Alvarez, Cotto responded, “I fight for me, for my kids, for my family. After that comes Puerto Rico.”
“All I want,” Miguel says, “is to be Miguel Cotto.”
Dignity, pride and respect are constant themes in Cotto’s life. There’s an aura of solemnity about him. His creed is, “Work hard, don’t cut corners and do the best you can.” A soldier going to war would want Miguel fighting beside him. He’s respected by all segments of the boxing community.
Miguel has a low monotonal voice that doesn’t travel far. It can be reassuring, grave, even gentle, depending on the moment. He’s more expressive when speaking in Spanish as opposed to English because the words flow more easily. In media settings, he fully considers each question before framing an answer.
Among the thoughts that contribute to a self-portrait are:
- “My father was in the military for 25 years. In our house, everything had to be by the rules. But my father also did everything he could for us. He gave us a feeling of family. It was important to him for us to understand that family matters most. He gave us an education. He gave me desire as a fighter. But most important, my father did the best he could to create in me a good human being. Now that I’m a grown man, I understand even more what he did for me. He died on Jan. 3, 2010. I remember the day. We had some unfinished business between us. But he is my biggest hero. If I could have my father back for one day, I would say to him, ‘thank you.’ Those are just words but I would mean them.”
- “My first language was Spanish. In school, I had a required English class so I knew some English. Then I started boxing and I used a translator. People would say to me that I could make more money if I spoke English. But the bigger thing for me was, sometimes when I spoke, the translator would change what I said. That made me want to learn more English so people would hear my thoughts, not the thoughts of someone else talking for me. The work is non-stop. My English will never be perfect. But I try to improve every day.”
- “The fans don’t fully understand what it means to be a fighter. They see the fight and most don’t understand even that. But even fewer understand the sacrifices that a fighter must make, the pain he suffers, just to get to the fight. For myself, I’m not a real big fan of boxing. I just enjoy boxing when I’m boxing.”
- “No matter what my face might say, I am a happy guy. But I am a shy guy. Most people don’t realize that. I don’t prefer the spotlight.”
As an elite fighter, Cotto is frequently in the spotlight. And he was there again during fight week for his bout against Alvarez.
The WBC had previously announced that Cotto-Alvarez would be for its “diamond” middleweight world championship belt. But fight week began with the WBC stripping Miguel of his championship and declaring him ineligible to fight for the WBC title because he’d tried to negotiate the organization’s $300,000 sanctioning fee down to $125,000 and refused to pay the full amount. Shorn of his belt, Cotto then questioned why he should pay an $800,000 step-aside fee to Gennady Golovkin (who had been the sanctioning body’s “mandatory” challenger). The arrangement for that step-aside fee may, or may not, have been properly papered by Golovkin’s lawyer.
Cotto’s logic before the fight was clear. If he lost to Alvarez, he’d lose the WBC belt anyway. If he won, he wouldn’t need the belt to enhance his marketability. And he wasn’t going to fight Golovkin. So why not put the money in his bank account?
“We have four organizations,” Cotto said, explaining his decision. “That means we have four champions in each weight division. That is enough. But they want more sanctioning fees so they create a new champion every six months. I don’t need belts. I have enough belts in my house. With 1.1 million dollars I can buy any belt I want. And I can be the champion of whatever I want in my house. Canelo and I will not fight any harder or less hard because of a belt.”
There were the usual rituals of fight week with Roc Nation Sports and Golden Boy as co-promoters. At the final pre-fight press conference, Roc Nation President Michael Yormark read the names of sponsors with gravitas appropriate to the reading of “Best Picture” nominees at the Academy Awards. The Friday weigh-in was a celebration of Latino culture with dueling mariachi and salsa bands.
Trainer Freddie Roach (who Cotto has credited with reviving his career) was a magnet for media attention throughout. But Roach was struggling. In addition to Parkinson’s Syndrome, Freddie suffers from multiple back issues. Physical pain is a constant in his life. Roach’s physical therapist, Fabrice Gautier, works with him six days a week from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m.
“Freddie is the toughest patient I’ve ever worked with,” Gautier said.
“Everything I ask of my fighters, I give to Fabrice,” Roach said. “It’s tough getting out of bed in the morning but he gets me through the day.”
On Tuesday of fight week, Roach was working the pads with Cotto at the IBA Gym when Cotto threw a left hook to the body followed by another to the chin.
“I called the punch and then I got careless,” Freddie said afterward. “I was looking at the pivot to make sure Cotto did it right. So I wasn’t properly focused and missed the hook up top with my pad and it landed. My knees buckled for the first time since I got sloppy once when I was training Tyson.”
“I always believe in my heart that my guy will win,” Roach said of the impending fight. “And if he doesn’t, I blame myself. I ask myself, ‘What did I do wrong and how can I change it so it doesn’t happen again?'”
Then Roach elaborated on his plan for the fight ahead.
“The keys to Miguel winning are simple,” he said. “Canelo gets frustrated. Miguel can outbox him and take him to school. I’d be surprised if that doesn’t happen. This is a boxing match for us, not a fight. Miguel has to set up his big punches rather than always be looking for them. And he has to stay off the ropes. Canelo isn’t a great boxer but he’s heavy with the right hand. And he’ll land it if Miguel is on the ropes, which would be a problem. Of course, that’s all easy for me to say. When the bell rings, I sit down and Miguel is the one who has to fight.”
Meanwhile, Cotto (who’d lost two fights in a row before uniting with Roach in 2013) appeared to believe in himself again. The self-doubt that had crept in with the losses was gone.
“This is the best time of my career,” Cotto said.
But the questions remained.
Had Roach really halted Cotto’s decline and turned him around as a fighter?
Could Cotto take Alvarez to school? After all, Canelo isn’t a kid anymore. He has been fighting professionally for 10 years. Both Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout had tried to outbox him and couldn’t.
On fight night, Alvarez was a 14-to-5 betting favorite. At 25 years old, 10 years younger than Cotto, he was intent upon adding many more chapters to his ring history. Cotto’s ring career, by his own admission, was nearing an end.
Cotto entered locker room No. 1 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center at 5:45 on Saturday evening. He was stylishly dressed in burgundy slacks with a black turtleneck and black loafers. Roach, assistant trainer Marvin Somodio, cutman David Martinez, strength and conditioning coach Gavin MacMillan, Bryan Perez (Cotto’s closest and most trusted friend), and Rob Peters (who handles security for Roach) were with him. Gaby Penagaricano (Cotto’s attorney) and Hector Soto (vice president of Miguel Cotto Promotions) joined them.
The room was 20-feet-squared with a charcoal-gray-and-gold industrial carpet and walls that had once been cream-colored but now had a layer of grime on them. Wood benches were built into the walls on three sides of the room. Ten metal-framed cushioned chairs were scattered around the floor. There were no lockers, only hooks and shelves for clothes and personal belongings. A smaller room with four shower heads and three toilet stalls was off to the side.
Cotto took off his turtleneck and slacks, folded them neatly, and put them in a small suitcase. Salsa music wafted through the air.
Ricardo Jimenez (a friend from Cotto’s days with Top Rank) came in to wish him well. Cotto’s face lit up and the two men embraced.
Cotto and Bryan Perez stacked seven of the chairs in a corner of the room to increase the open area for warming up later on. Then Cotto stood, arms folded across his chest, and watched as the first pay-per-view fight of the evening – Jayson Velez vs. Ronnie Rios – played on a TV monitor.
Alvarez was shown on screen arriving at the arena during a break between rounds. Cotto smiled.
At 6:30, Cotto sat on the floor in front of the monitor and stretched briefly. Then he rose, sat on a chair and watched the conclusion of the fight while Marvin Somodio taped his hands.
There was more stretching.
Referee Robert Byrd entered and gave Cotto his pre-fight instructions. When that was done, Cotto’s attention returned to the TV monitor where Guillermo Rigondeaux vs. Drian Francisco was underway.
It was 7:35. HBO had instructed the main event fighters to be ready to walk by 7:55.
“There’s no way I’m gloving Miguel up now and having him warm up,” Roach said. “All he’ll do is sit around with his gloves on and have to warm up all over again. We’ll be ready when they need us. And if we’re not ready, they aren’t starting the fight without Miguel.”
Cotto sipped from a bottle of Gatorade. Rigondeaux-Francisco drew to a close and then put on his protective cup and pink-and-white boxing trunks.
There was a musical interlude in the arena followed by the last undercard fight. Cotto alternated between sitting, stretching and pacing. At 8 o’clock, Somodio gloved him up.
At 8:05, Roach put on protective body padding and mitts and began warming up his fighter, giving instructions as they worked.
“Body shots early … hook off the jab … fight smart … he does the same thing over and over again … walk him into shots,” Roach said.
After five minutes, Cotto sat and returned his attention to the television monitor. Somodio gave him a sip of water. From time to time, Cotto rose, circled the room, smiled and reached out to tap a member of his team on the shoulder.
Roach warmed Cotto up for three more minutes.
“That’s it … there you go … step to the side … good! I like that a lot … remember, fight smart … he’ll come right to you.”
The national anthems of Mexico, Puerto Rico and the United States sounded in the background. Cheers were heard as Alvarez entered the arena.
At 8:53, an HBO production assistant entered the room: “Alright, guys. We’re ready.”
Once a fight begins, the story-line of the fight is the fight. The determining factors in this fight were that Alvarez was bigger, stronger and younger. One day earlier, Alvarez had weighed in at the contractual limit of 155 pounds to Cotto’s 153.5. Now he outweighed Cotto by at least 10 pounds and was the aggressor from the opening bell.
In the early going, Cotto circled and tried to get off first, but was unable to land the punishing body blows that Roach had hoped would tire Canelo as the fight wore on. More importantly, the differential in hand speed that Team Cotto had expected wasn’t there.
At the final pre-fight press conference, Chepo Reynoso, Alvarez’s manager, had declared, “Fights are won in the gym. In the ring, they just raise your hand.”
One might add, “Fighters don’t get old in the gym. They get old in the ring.”
Age creeps in.
As the fight progressed, Alvarez was able to find the right distance between them. Early in Round 8, there was a heated exchange. Alvarez got the better of it. From that point on, he was the hunter and Cotto was the hunted. Cotto was no longer moving side to side for a better angle of attack as much as he was circling away to escape Alvarez’s assault. Alvarez was fighting to win while Cotto was fighting to win and survive.
There were a lot of close rounds that the judges could have scored any way they wanted to. Apparently, they wanted to score them for Alvarez. Their final tally of 119-109, 118-110 and 117-111 was wide of the mark. This writer scored the bout 116-113 for Alvarez, which was in line with the general consensus that Alvarez won but it was a reasonably close encounter.
After the fight, Cotto returned to his locker room and retreated to the shower area, where he sat on a chair while collecting his thoughts. His family and the members of Team Cotto waited in the dressing area. Only Bryan Perez was with him.
“I’m proud of Miguel,” Roach said. “And I thought the judges’ scores were ridiculous. Let’s just say that it was in the best interests of Las Vegas for Canelo to win. Anything more than that and I’ll get myself in trouble.”
The door to the dressing room opened and Alvarez walked in. One by one, he shook hands with each member of Cotto’s family. Then he walked into the shower area where Cotto was sitting, leaned over and patted Cotto on the cheek.
There was a brief conversation in Spanish. “You will always have my admiration,” Canelo told him.
A cut that Cotto had suffered on his right eyelid in the final round was stitched up. There were some abrasions on his nose and bruises on his face but relatively little swelling.
Earlier this year, Cotto acknowledged, “I am 35 years old and in the last stage of my career. I want to finish my career in the best way possible and retire myself. I plan to be in boxing no longer than a year from now.”
Cotto has one fight left on a lucrative three-fight contract with Roc Nation Sports. It’s likely that he’ll fight that fight, possibly at Madison Square Garden the night before the June 12, 2016, Puerto Rican Day Parade.
That would be a good way to end.
Cotto has competed honorably as a professional athlete for 15 years. In some ways, he evokes memories of another proud Puerto Rican sports hero: Roberto Clemente.
Clemente came up to the major leagues in 1955 and played right field for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 seasons. He was a 12-time All-Star, won four batting titles and 12 gold glove awards, and was honored as the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1971. He died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972, while delivering emergency supplies to the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. He was the first Latin player inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
In Clemente’s early years with the Pirates, he was socially marginalized because he was black and spoke little English. Many baseball teams still had all-white rosters. Baseball cards referenced him as “Bob Clemente.”
As it became clear that Clemente was great, time and again, people likened his play to that of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Often, Clemente would respond, “Yes, but I also play like Roberto Clemente.”
There have been many great Puerto Rican fighters. But Miguel Cotto fights like Miguel Cotto.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hurting Sport – has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.