Miguel Cotto (24-0, 20 KOs), stopped his Olympic nemesis Mohammad Abdullaev (15-2, 12 KOs), in nine rounds to successfully defend his WBO junior welterweight belt Saturday night in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Abdullaev, a gold medallist in the 2000 Olympics, started strong with very deliberate pressing attack. Although punching only sporadically, he was able to occasionally land on the moving Cotto from behind a high guard.

Despite the early difficulty in getting to Abdullaev, Cotto remained poised throughout and picked his spots, enabling him to effectively counter and deliver sharp punches of his own.

Cotto also delivered a higher volume than the 31-year-old Abdullaev, an Uzbekistani living in Germany. After capturing a couple of early rounds, Abdullaev slowly but steadily fell behind the more active and accurate Cotto.

Throughout the contest, however, Abdullaev kept the pressure on Cotto, forcing the action despite the fact that he received most of the beating.

As the fight progressed, Abdullaev’s face began to show the effects of Cotto’s hard counters in the form of extraordinary swelling especially around his right eye.

In round nine, Abdullaev, who had his eye checked after round eight, continued to catch Cotto’s barrage and, standing in ring center, signaled to the referee that he could no longer continue. Like Kostya Tszyu had the week before, another junior welterweight from a former Soviet republic had quit.

For his part, Cotto demonstrated clearly why he became so highly acclaimed as a junior welterweight prospect. With this fight, he moves from prospect to serious contender in a division as rich in talent as any in boxing.

Abdullaev represented a real threat to Cotto (as he would anyone in the division) with his strength and experience far beyond what we would normally expect of a 16-fight battler. Considering his age, Abdullaev will have to continue trying against the top competition in the division now – he cannot afford to wait if he is ever to gain a professional title to go along with his amateur riches.

Clearly Cotto, who was only 19 years old when he met the prime Abdullaev in the Olympic games, has progressed further and faster as a professional by steadily increasing the quality of his opponent and developing skills along the way. His punches have good snap and, more importantly, he has shown the ability to adapt against a variety of opponents.

Cotto’s future could very well include names such as Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather, Arturo Gatti, Vivian Harris and Kostya Tsyzu. Unifying titles and defeating the most popular fighters in the sport along the way can pave the way for riches beyond his wildest dreams.

For now it appears that he can still improve and, at 24, has time to hone his already considerable skills.

Of course marketing is equally important in the boxing game – in order to draw the best opponents interested in big paydays – and he already has a considerable fan base and this fight will only enhance his popularity.

Miguel Cotto is the real thing. For better or worse, many of the names mentioned above are also the real thing. It is rare that a division has so many young yet experienced and proven fighters at a high level at the same time. It’s up to Cotto to find his place among them.