BROOKLYN,N.Y. – If Miguel Cotto were a baseball player, his popularity in the Town That Never Sleeps might not rise to the level of, say, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays or Tom Seaver. But the WBC middleweight champion from Caguas, Puerto Rico, probably could make a case for holding his own, at least with the many Puerto Rican fight fans who have migrated to these parts, against countryman Bernie Williams, the beloved former New York Yankees centerfielder who played on four World Series championship teams and on May 23 had his No. 51 retired and a plaque honoring him placed in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.
The 34-year-old Cotto (40-4, 33 KOs) ran his record in his home-away-from-home to 11-1, with six victories inside the distance, when he defended his 160-pound strap Saturday night on a spectacularly entertaining, fourth-round stoppage of former IBF and WBA middleweight titlist Daniel Geale (31-4, 16 KOs), of Australia, before an announced attendance of 12,157 in the Barclays Center, approximately 99.5 percent of whom were there to cheer on their sort-of native son. And they did just that, lusty chants of “Cotto! Cotto!” erupting before the opening bell and periodically throughout the one-sided bout until a buzzed Geale, who went down under three times (once in the first round and twice more in the fourth) advised referee Harvey Dock that he’d prefer to take the rest of the night off. The end came after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 28 seconds.
It was Cotto’s debut not only in the Barclays Center (he previously had fought nine times in Madison Square Garden, once in Yankee Stadium and once in the Hammerstein Ballroom), but under the auspices of Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports, which signed him in March after his contract with Top Rank expired. The change of venue and promotional companies didn’t seem to affect Cotto’s appeal to his legion of NYC supporters, however, although they may be obliged to travel to Las Vegas or to purchase HBO pay-per-view subscriptions for their hero’s next bout against former WBC/WBA super welterweight champ Canelo Alvarez (45-1-1, 32 KOs) in September, as seems likely. Alvarez – who is coming off his own exclamation-point triumph, a three-round blowout of the dangerous James Kirkland on May 9, which drew 31,000 mostly pro-Alvarez spectators in Houston’s Minute Maid Park — is likely an even bigger money fight, and possibly a bit less dangerous, than a unification showdown with WBA middleweight ruler Gennady Golovkin (33-0, 30 KOs), who was at ringside and is fresh off his own latest kick-ass victory, a six-round stoppage of Willie Monroe Jr. on May 16 in Inglewood, Calif.
Given their large and devoted followings, in addition to their nationalities – the 24-year-old Alvarez is already a Mexican icon, and boxing history is rife with classic confrontations between elite Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters – Cotto-Canelo figures to be a must-see event.
“It is the biggest fight in boxing after (Floyd) Mayweather-(Manny) Pacquiao,” said Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya, who was on hand along with fellow GBP executive Bernard Hopkins on something of a scouting mission. “But the difference is with Cotto-Canelo, you will be guaranteed action.”
Michael Yormack, president of Roc Nation Sports, sounded as if the only thing holding up a Cotto-Canelo superfight was putting all the details on contracts and providing the combatants with pens.
“It’s a fight everyone wants to see,” he said, which certainly seems to be the prevailing opinion. “It’s a fight we’re going to make. We have the framework of a deal done.”
As Golovkin also holds a WBC interim championship, he is the mandatory for the more legitimate 160-pound belt held by Cotto, who also possesses the lineal and THE RING magazine titles. But Golvokin apparently is amenable to accepting a seven-figure step-aside fee, with the assurance he would be first in line for the Cotto-Canelo winner.
It is a heady time for the sweet science, with fights suddenly all over the TV dial and May-Pac shattering PPV records. But, boxing being boxing, even a feel-good moment as such transpired on a big sports Saturday, and is apt to be replicated in September should Cotto-Canelo take place, didn’t command the world’s, or even New York’s, full attention. A bit earlier in the day, just 19.7 miles away in Elmont, N.Y., a bedroom community in Nassau County just outside the Queens Borough line, American Pharoah became thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years in leading wire-to-wire to win by 5½ lengths over runner-up Frosted. Over in the Bronx, meanwhile, Bernie Williams’ old team, the American League East Division-leading Yankees, were thrashing the Los Angeles Angels, 8-2, to extend their winning streak to five games.
But the full slate of other attractions in New York and around the world (such as a flu-ridden Serena Williams’ French Open title, her 20th in a Grand Slam event, two fewer than Open Era record-holder Steffi Graf), doesn’t explain why the New York Daily News, whose pages once were graced by the elegant prose of such distinguished boxing writers as Michael Katz and Tim Smith, did not have a single word about the big fight on the day it was to take place.
To be sure, boxing is like any other athletic endeavor in that somebody can find fault with what, at first glance, would appear to be a blemish-free performance. There are those out there (you know who you are) who contend that Cotto became the first Puerto Rican to win world titles in four separate weight classes by beating up a damaged-goods Sergio Martinez on June 7, 2014, and that he defended it Saturday night by forcing Geale, who already had been having trouble making the 160-pound middleweight limit, dangerously dehydrate himself by agreeing to a contractual catch weight of 157 lbs. Having made that weight with not an ounce to spare, Geale apparently went on a feeding frenzy like a contestant at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, gaining an almost unfathomable 25 pounds in a single day. His sluggish attempts at coming toward, or running away from, the much quicker Cotto called to mind the plight of WBC super middleweight champion James Toney, who gained, depending on which version of the story you choose to believe, 15, 19 or 24 pounds overnight in yielding his title on a wide unanimous decision to the decidedly more mobile Roy Jones Jr. on Nov. 14, 1994.
“I think the weight had an effect for sure, but that’s boxing,” Geale rationalized after a lackluster effort that lowered his stock while simultaneously elevating that of Cotto, who was all but certain to become an eventual enshrinee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame regardless of what happened Saturday night, or will happen moving forward. “I signed the contract. I have always struggled to make 160, so this was obviously much tougher.”
The mini- or maxi-weight controversy aside, give credit where credit is due. Not all that long ago, Cotto was thought to be on the downhill side of an exemplary career, but he seems to have been rejuvenated under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach, who served as his chief second for the third time. Conversely, Cotto’s latest star turn is apt to restore some of the lost luster to Roach, a seven-time Trainer of the Year honoree by the Boxing Writers Association of America who saddled up the losing entry in a pugilistic version of the Triple Crown, with Mayweather’s two 147-pound belts in addition to Pacquiao’s one at stake.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Cotto told Roach after Geale had been wolfed down like another shrimp on the Barbie.
Cotto turned away from trainer Pedro Diaz and to Roach after he dropped back-to-back unanimous decisions to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (which was no surprise) and Austin Trout (which was). It has been a mutually beneficial arrangement, not unlike the owner of a vintage sports car taking his pride and joy to an expert for the sort of restoration that turns faded glory into something as good or better than the original.
“He gave me the confidence I lost after dealing with two losses in a row for the first time in my career,” said Cotto, who has been punching for pay for 14 years. Asked what fight plan Roach had laid out against Geale, Cotto said, “The plan was to follow Freddie instructions all the time.”
Those instructions apparently called for extensive use of the left hook, which Cotto employed up and down the ladder to floor Geale in the first round and twice more in the fourth, although the hook merely served to set up the overhand right that was the capper of a flurry of punches on the last knockdown.
Now it’s on to Alvarez, a closer size fit to Cotto, who came in for the Geale fight at 153.6 pounds, a smidgeon below the super welterweight limit. Cotto said his team would probably try to set a contract weight of 155 pounds for Alvarez.
“It’s going to be just another fight,” Cotto said, matter-of-factly. “Canelo is just going to be another opponent. We’re going to be ready for him.”
If the site selected is Las Vegas, however, it won’t be just another venue. Alvarez would have the crowd on his side, with Cotto ceding home-arena advantage. Then again, true champions presumably pay little heed to such matters. Hopkins, for one, says he feeds as much or more off negative energy as he does off the positive variety. Still, Cotto is the franchise for New York City boxing, or at least the subset that has Puerto Rican roots and heritage. The only thing that might have made this latest quasi-homecoming better is if the Belmont Stakes had taken place the previous weekend, or was scheduled for the following weekend. American Pharoah wasn’t exactly the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room, deflecting attention from the 153.6-pound fighter deserving of a larger portion of the spotlight, but the 3-year-old colt was without question the 1,170-pound horse assuming that role.
“I am so thankful for New York, no matter where I’ve been in New York fighting,” Cotto said in a nod toward his most faithful followers. “People here have always been supportive of me.”
The guess here is that they will continue to be, right until Cotto crosses his career finish line. Bernie Williams, who was a Yankee Stadium favorite through his final at-bat, surely understands what it is to bask in that kind of love in a tough town that doesn’t yield its affections easily.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Hogan – Hoganphotos/Roc Nation Sports/Miguel Cotto Promotions