Wednesday, November 29, 2017
MIGUEL COTTO'S NEW YORK
The news that Miguel Cotto will retire after this weekend's New York bout against Sadam Ali is bringing back memories. They're all good, I must say. There was the time Freddie Prinze Jr chatted with me about how Cotto could probably run for governor of Puerto Rico and win. I also remember the time Jose Torres, the great Puerto Rican champion of the 1960s, confessed that he admired Cotto even more than another recent star from the island, Felix Trinidad. "I don't know what it is," Torres said to me as his eyes moistened, "but I love this kid."
Perhaps the most unique take on Cotto came from a New York cab driver. I'd rushed out of Madison Square Garden after one of Cotto's bouts, skipping the post fight presser because nothing useful ever happens at those things, and jumped into a taxi back to the hotel. The driver, a young Puerto Rican male, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked if I'd seen the fight. I gave him a brief rundown. He shrugged, satisfied. "Cotto is good for the city," the driver said, as if the fight itself didn't matter. "It's party time. And I'll make extra money taking these people home."
Cotto's promoter in those days, Bob Arum, usually booked him in New York on the weekend of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade. If you've never seen it, it's a colorful rolling festival that takes place one Sunday in June and sets Manhattan aglow with music and dancing. Pity the person who has to drive in the city that day, because for miles the streets are jammed. I viewed the spectacle from the sidewalk a few times; it was impressive, joyous. Cotto was grand marshal at least once or twice.
Watching Cotto at Madison Square Garden was always special. The crowd sounded different on those nights. When he made his entrance, an incredible noise erupted across the highest points of the arena, like restless, dangerous winds coming in from the Atlantic. It swirled around the building, reminding me of the old movie theaters that were fitted with cinema shaking "Sensurround" systems. It was unforgettable.
Cotto may or may not be the best fighter to come from Puerto Rico. He was damned good, though. Serious as a brick, and nearly as hard. He did some major damage in New York.
Paulie Malignaggi stood up to Cotto's best shots at the Garden, but when that bout was over, the entire ring was spattered with red blotches the size of quarters: Paulie's blood. I'd gone into the Garden that night not sure about Cotto, but came out a believer.
There was also the night Cotto beat up Zab Judah. That was possibly the best Cotto we'd ever see, fast and mean and strong. The replay on TV did no justice to the power of Cotto's punches. When he hit Judah, it sounded like a hammer on a pumpkin.
He had many good nights in New York. He beat Shane Mosley at the Garden, and on a humid June night in 2010, he beat Yuri Foreman at Yankee Stadium. It wasn't quite like the stadium bouts of boxing's golden era, but it was a tasty appetizer for the Sunday festivities. And the festival atmosphere, as my taxi driver explained, was what it was really all about.
"Let me tell you about Cotto's fans," the driver said. "Puerto Rican people wait all year for something like this. They will go without groceries or food for a month. They'll save up all their money for the ticket, just so they can be there. They love it. They don't care what it costs, or who the opponent is. They're going to represent."
They certainly did, even on nights when Cotto wasn't at his best, like the time he suffered a nasty cut in a Garden bout with Joshua Clottey. Clottey was an awkward fighter with a forehead shaped like a gourd. After a head clash, Cotto started bleeding buckets. He struggled for the rest of the bout, but rallied to win a split decision. Not his best work, but his fans whistled and the parade rolled along on schedule the next morning.
In Las Vegas, Cotto suffered a punishing loss to Antonio Margarito. It was later revealed that Margarito was likely fighting with something extra in his gloves. A rematch was demanded, and there was no better place for it than Madison Square Garden in New York. In front of a sellout crowd of 21,239, a vengeful Cotto handed out the sort of prolonged beating usually seen in mafia movies, making sure Margarito tasted every punch.
From there, Cotto began losing more often - he even lost one in New York, to Austin Trout - and we realized his best days were behind him. Yet, he could still find magic in Manhattan, like the night in 2014 when he whipped Sergio Martinez. Nearly 15 years had passed since Cotto made his New York debut, winning a four rounder at the Hammerstein Ballroom, but still vibrant was the love affair between Cotto and the city. His fans were still saving their money, filling the seats, representing.
He's 37 now. He'd be smart to retire after this weekend's bout. He's one of the few fighters of recent times who was never boring in the ring, never coasted, never mailed one in. We'll all look back on Cotto and agree that boxing benefited from his presence.
Cotto fights Ali on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. It's the perfect place to end Cotto's story. His unbreakable spirit was best displayed in the city of New York, where Puerto Rican fans filled the air with unforgettable sounds, where blood colored the ring, where cabbies raked in the extra fares, where a long retired champ was nearly brought to tears by his love for the kid, and the victory celebration almost always included a parade.
New York was Cotto's town and always will be.
- Don Stradley