The same question keeps coming at Miguel Cotto with the regularity of a metronomic jab. Is the 37-year-old Puerto Rican legend’s announced farewell fight, against Sadam Ali on Dec. 2 at Madison Square Garden, really the final time his many fans will see the four-division world champion in the ring? Or is his sincere-sounding intention to retire, win, lose or draw, subject to a change of heart, as is so often the case with boxers who eventually get that familiar itch that requires the kind of scratching that only another bout (or two, or three) can alleviate?
Time will tell, of course, but then Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) has always been a say-what-he-means, means-what-he-says kind of guy. His motivation for stepping away when he is still at or near the top of his Hall of Fame-level game – he’ll be defending his WBO super welterweight title against Ali (25-1, 14 KOs), Cotto’s 24th world title bout, which also marks his 24th appearance on HBO – is as pure as any good husband and father’s desire to do the right thing by a family that has missed significant chunks of his life when he was off at training camp, preparing his mind and body for the rigors of a highly demanding profession. Not that Cotto is apt to choose it as his entrance music, but the rationale for him to quit boxing cold turkey after this last dance with Ali can be found in the plaintive lyrics to 1974’s Cat’s in the Cradle, the late Harry Chapin’s folk-rock ballad about a frequently absent dad whose relationship with his son never became all that it might have been because the work-obsessed older man always had planes to catch and bills to pay.
“When are you coming home, Dad?,” the boy in the song intermittently asks. “I don’t know when,” the father replies. “But we’ll get together then, son, we’re gonna have a good time then.”
“My kids (four of them, ranging in age from 10 to 21) are in school, my wife (Melissa) has to take care of them, and communication between me and them (as a result of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 19) sometimes it’s not so easy,” Cotto said of this latest, and most worrisome, pang of homesickness he experienced while off training at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif.
And while he knows he cannot make up for lost time, Cotto is determined that all his tomorrows at home will be more personally fulfilling than some of the yesterdays spent in faraway gyms. “I’ve missed birthdays, graduations … you name it,” he tearfully said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Those moments are not coming back, but I’ll enjoy each day to the fullest. And now I won’t miss a single day of their lives.”
An admirable ambition, but one that is not entirely disappointment-proof. Although Freddie Roach, Cotto’s trainer, has vowed that his fighter is “going to be at his best” and is “getting out on top,” the perfect sendoff he envisions will require Cotto to win, preferably by knockout or dominant, one-sided decision. It is a script that the 29-year-old Ali, the Brooklyn-born son of Yemeni parents who represented the United States at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, intends to spoil with the sort of upset that party pooper Joe Smith Jr. scored against the legendary Bernard Hopkins in B-Hop’s pugilistic exit last December.
Although Ali professes to be something of a fan of the man with whom he will swap punches, inside the ropes is no place for sentimentality or hero-worship. The law of the jungle and the ring usually calls for the old to give way to the young, a generational changing of the guard as ancient as the concept of time itself.
“I followed his career and I’ve also been to some of his fights,” Ali, a natural welterweight who will be making his debut at 154 pounds, said of Cotto. “I’ve always liked his style. He fought the best. If you love boxing, you’re going to come up watching Miguel Cotto. He has great power. He has a great jab. He can come forward, and he also has learned to move a little bit, too. It’s a mix of everything. I have to be prepared for all of that.”
A man of direct action and quiet resolve, Cotto’s preference always has been to seek out the best competition available. His original plan had been to take his leave with the biggest bang possible, by squaring off against and defeating the winner of the Sept. 16 megafight between middleweight superstars Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. But that one ended in a split draw, and with other high-profile, would-be opponents said to be unavailable, Golden Boy Promotions CEO Oscar De La Hoya set his sights a tad lower before settling on Ali, a 14-to-1 opening-line underdog who likely would be an even longer longshot were this a prime-on-prime matchup. But, despite the protestations of Roach and De La Hoya, both of whom insist that Cotto is all that he ever had been, there are some who would say that, at 37 (as of Oct. 29), he is now something of a hit-or-miss proposition, apt to be spectacularly impressive on a given night or much less so on another.
Cotto was handily outpointed by Alvarez in a fight for the vacant WBC middleweight championship on Nov. 21, 2015, although the popular Puerto Rican felt he fared much better than was indicated by the official scorecards, which had Canelo winning by margins of 10, 8 and 6 points. Cotto did not fight again for 21 months, returning to action to claim the vacant WBO super welterweight belt on a crisp unanimous decision over Japan’s Yoshihiro Kamegai on Aug. 28.
There have been other peaks and valleys in recent years for Cotto, who has alternated between image-restoring successes and more pedestrian efforts that, while not exactly failures, were hardly emblematic of him at his finest. After losing on points to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (understandable), he was outboxed in losing another unanimous decision to WBA super welterweight titlist Austin Trout on Dec. 1, 2012, an outcome that prompted whispers that maybe Cotto was irretrievably on the downslide. But, two fights later and as an underdog, he systematically destroyed WBC middleweight ruler Sergio Martinez of Argentina, flooring him three times in the first round and again in the ninth before Martinez’s corner did not allow their fighter to come out for round 10. It was arguably the most impressive performance of Cotto’s career, but, again, some skeptics suggested the outcome was tainted by the fact that Martinez was fighting on a bum knee.
In some ways, Cotto’s evolution as one of the greatest of Puerto Rico champions, an elite club that includes Hall of Famers Carlos Ortiz, Wilfred Benitez, Edwin Rosario, Wilfredo Gomez, Hector “Macho” Camacho and Felix Trinidad, nearly ended before it had a real chance to begin. On Aug. 18, 2001, on his way to a 5:30 a.m. workout, the then-21-year-old, just 6-0 as a pro, fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a concrete wall. He underwent surgery during which a six-inch titanium rod was placed in his right arm. For a time, there was some doubt that he would ever be able to fight again.
“That auto accident really made me realize that this could be a short career, something I may not have for a long time,” Cotto said in 2005. “I got more serious, more focused on what I wanted to get out of boxing.”
So there was a side of Cotto that sought to squeeze every ounce out of his talent as a fighter, even as his professional demands came into conflict with the domestic bliss he has craved as much as the recognition he received in winning world titles at super lightweight, welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight. Some of the hardest battles he has waged have always been within himself as he dedicated his June 6, 2010, dethronement of WBA super welter champ Yuri Foreman to his late father, Miguel Cotto Sr., who passed away five months earlier. Now he fights to bring hope to his devastated homeland, aware as always that his fellow Puerto Ricans need someone and something to cling to when things are bad, and what could be worse than an epic natural disaster that Cotto has described as a big hurricane beating the hell out of a small island?
Madison Square Garden – any venue in New York City, really – is the ideal setting for Cotto to bathe in glory one last time, if that is what is meant to be. The Big Apple sometimes has been called “San Juan North,” an apt description when one considers that the city and its outlying areas are home to an estimated 1.5 million people of Puerto Rican descent, according to the 2016 U.S. census. This will be Cotto’s 10th fight in the Garden, and 13th at all New York venues, giving him a distinct home-arena advantage even over the Brooklyn-born Ali. He has one more gift to give to his legion of NYC backers, before he makes a Christmas present of himself to his family in Caguas that has waited so long for something more than a temporary return.
“My children have never sat down with me to ask for explanations,” Cotto said. “I’ve never sat down with them to explain all the sacrifices I’ve made in life so they can be where they are. When those questions come, I’ve got an answer to each and every one of them.”
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