NEW YORK – It ended the way many had expected it would. There was Ali, moving well, landing crisp, clean shots, putting on the kind of performance the naysayers didn’t believe he was capable of delivering. Shortly after the final bell had rung, his hand was raised in victory in a historic bout that marked the conclusion of a legendary, Hall of Fame career.
Except that this was not Dec. 11, 1981, and the setting was not the Queen Elizabeth Sports
Centre in Nassau, the Bahamas. On that occasion, the surnamed Ali was Muhammad, not Sadam, and the man whom many consider to be the greatest heavyweight of all time looked to be every bit of his nearly 40 years. “The Greatest” was a paunchy and career-high 236¼ pounds, his once-wondrous hand and foot speed perceptibly diminished. His 10-round, unanimous-decision loss in his final ring appearance to a pretty good but hardly exceptional opponent, Trevor Berbick, was not a celebration of what had been, but justifiable cause for fear of what the future might hold.
In truth, what took place here Saturday night in Madison Square Garden was not really history repeating itself. The iconic boxer unwittingly assuming the role of Muhammad Ali, WBO junior middleweight champion and Puerto Rican icon Miguel Cotto (41-6, 33 KOs), was lean and fit at 151.6 pounds, 2.4 below the division limit. In his announced farewell fight, and before a raucously pro-Cotto crowd of 12,391 that desperately wanted him to step away on a high note, the six-time world titlist in four weight classes appeared reasonably mobile for a 37-year-old veteran with 16 years of hard labor in the professional ranks. He pressed the action, or attempted to, most of the way, and punch statistics furnished by CompuBox (a useful but frequently inconclusive way of judging what takes place in the ring) revealed that he had outlanded 29-year-old challenger Sadam Ali (26-1, 14 KOs) both in terms of volume (163 to 139) and connect percentage (30 percent to 21 percent). But the eye test should and usually does supersede statistics. Even had Cotto managed to win a controversial decision (two judges had Ali winning by 115-113, the third by 116-112) or get a consolation draw, it was plain to see that this was not the vintage model who five years hence will be a first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
And therein lay an immutable truth of boxing. Age and attrition, the twin thieves of any magnificent fighter’s special gifts, do not always show up as obviously as they did the night when the remnants of Muhammad Ali were embarrassed by an opponent who could never have come close to defeating him in his prime. Sometimes the burglars sneak up incrementally, taking advantage of an older fighter’s loss of reaction time that can be measured in tenths, if not hundredths, of seconds. The punch that he once would have landed now misses by inches, and the punch the other guy would have missed now finds the target.
Exacerbating Cotto’s dilemma was the injury to his left bicep, an apparent tear he incurred in the seventh round, effectively rendering him a one-armed fighter the rest of the way. Take your choice, Cotto lost the last four rounds or Ali won them, but that closing spurt by the 11-to-1 underdog proved the difference.
“I am feeling good with the performance,” the always classy Cotto, as dignified in disappointment as he always had been gracious in victory, said in reaffirming his intention to enter retirement and enjoy the remainder of his life with his beautiful wife Melissa and the couple’s two children. “Something happened to my left bicep in the seventh round, but I don’t want to make excuses. Sadam won the fight. It is my last fight. I am good and I want to be happy in my home with my family.
“Thank you to all the fans. I am proud to call Madison Square Garden my second home. I had the opportunity to provide the best for my family because of the sport.”
It was the sort of no-frills, refreshingly honest pronouncement that the boxing world has come to expect from a serious man whose only concession to the look-at-me mindset that is so prevalent in the sport is the extensive body art that presumably has made his favorite tattoo artist wealthy. Unlike another Puerto Rican of much accomplishment, Hector “Macho” Camacho, who strutted and bragged his way through life in a continuous crusade for attention, Cotto smiled infrequently, mirroring his intense approach to his craft, and always parsed his words as if they needed to meet rationing restrictions. He sort of grew on you, but once observers took to him their affection was deep and unwavering.
In his 10th bout in the Garden’s main arena or the smaller Theater at MSG, and 13th overall at all venues in the Big Apple, Cotto had become something akin to New York City’s house fighter. Four of his MSG fights came during Puerto Rican Day weekend, and sellout crowds became the rule and not the exception whenever he came north from his residence in Caguas, P.R., to a place he considered to be his pugilistic home away from home.
Although officials with Cotto’s present promoter, Golden Boy, insisted that Ali was the best available opponent for the locked-in Dec. 2 date, there was at least some suspicion that the 2008 U.S. Olympian was considered a safer choice than some other perceived party-poopers. Ali, who was rated No. 9 by the WBO, is not renowned for his punching power, and his chin has been suspect ever since he was stopped in nine rounds in his previous shot at a world title, against Jessie Vargas on March 5, 2016, in Washington, D.C., with the vacant WBO welterweight belt on the line. To date, Vargas has only 10 KOs among his 27 pro wins. With Ali widely viewed as a designated victim, that might have contributed to Cotto’s farewell fight playing to more empty seats than he has been accustomed to in a city that has more residents of Puerto Rican descent than San Juan. But however many Cotto partisans were in the house, they were loud enough to out-chant his name whenever fans of Ali – a native of Brooklyn who was, after all, fighting in his hometown – deemed to offer their own vocal support.
From the outset, Cotto seemed determined to put an exclamation point to his valedictory effort. He rushed at Ali as if he were channeling some inner Mike Tyson, but Ali responded channeling bits and pieces of, well, his inner Muhammad Ali, spinning away and countering effectively. And when Ali wobbled the guest of honor with a lead right hand in the second round, suspicion began to spread that the script that most had expected to be followed was undergoing a rewrite.
Cotto again appeared to be hurt in the fourth round, by a left hook, but he regrouped enough to connect with his best punch of the night, an overhand right, in the sixth, which he caused Ali to take a bunny hop backward. But Cotto was unable to press his momentary advantage, his left bicep tore a round later and that basically was that. Previously the aggressor, Cotto began to fight backing up, which had the effect of emboldening Ali to increasingly turn up the pressure. Still, for all that, Cotto would have emerged with a majority draw and his title intact had he won the 12th round on the scorecards submitted by judges Steve Weisfeld and Julie Lederman.
Unless Cotto yields to some unforeseen urge to withdraw his pledge to stay retired, his legacy shall forever remain beyond reproach or cause for sympathetic tsk-tsks. Documents filed with the New York State Athletic Commission reveal that he received a base $750,000 for his night’s work (to Ali’s $600,000), a nice going-away present in any case but a figure that is apt to rise to seven figures once revenue sources are factored in. Frugal with his money and mindful of his health and well-being, he steps away far better off than many champions who only considered the present and were never mindful of the potential pitfalls of the future were they to linger too long in an unforgiving game.
As for Ali, he now has a world title, a signature victory and momentum heading into 2018. How that translates into future success, or not, is anyone’s guess, but some moments in any fighter’s career are to be forever cherished and this figures to be at the top of his list for now.
“Good things happen to good people,” Ali said, meaning himself, but he could have been speaking about Cotto, a fighter he has long admired, as well.
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