Next to presidents and dressmakers on Oscar night, professional athletes form arguably the most scrutinised group on the planet. Boxing, as a niche sport with a passionate and partisan fanbase, is a magnet for aggressive hyperbole. Yet within such caustic surroundings, the extent to which professional fighters can manipulate our perceptions is often quite remarkable. It’s frequently said, for example, that when nothing happens in a round, Floyd Mayweather takes it on the cards. So masterful is his control of the audience’s understanding that it is assumed any three-minute interval not filled with furious exchanges is conclusively under his spell.
In a similar vein, we as fans are forever being told that Miguel Cotto is a first ballot Hall of Famer, right up there with the very best of his era. Many of us simply assume this to be the case, having absorbed it from countless media sources and so many of our fellow observers as to render the point effectively self-evident. Yet, when asked to name Cotto’s best win, we stumble over our words. We simply shrug and say “he’s Miguel Cotto!” as if the name in itself is enough. I’ve long found myself wondering why this might be, and find myself examining how we might have reached this point…
Miguel Cotto turned pro in February 2001, about six months before Felix Trinidad was humiliated in Madison Square Garden by Bernard Hopkins. His career effectively ended, Trinidad, the most prominent Puerto Rican fighter of his generation, would enter the ring against a handful of novelty opponents over the next five years, losing as much as he won before retiring for good in 2008. In other words, a country profoundly in love with boxing was suddenly without a bona fide star. The island was left to cope with the charisma vacuum known as John Ruiz and relative unknowns Eric Morel and Nelson Dieppa, as its sole remaining world champions.
Enter Cotto, former amateur star and Olympian, with a fearsome body attack and whirlwind offensive style. Matched relatively tough from the outset, he was facing and defeating former world title challengers as early his 12th fight, before he picked up an international belt and started to take the undefeated records of his opponents to boot. It’s easy to dismiss the likes of Carlos Maussa as opponents, but the Colombian was not merely some unorthodox joker brought in to pad the prospect’s record. He was coming off a huge upset win over the highly touted Jeffrey Resto, and would go on to secure a title of his own by knocking out Vivian Harris in 2005.
With Cotto’s stock and fanbase continuing to grow, it wasn’t long until a vacant title shot came along (be sure to take note of the word ‘vacant’ — it will come up a lot as we continue). Facing off against the fearsome Kelson Pinto, who would go on to lose to a 42-year-old Vince Phillips and never again challenge for a world title, Cotto got the job done in the style you’d expect. He then defended against fringe contenders and one-time belt holders in Randall Bailey and DeMarcus Corley, before gaining a notion of revenge against former amateur rival Muhammad Abdullaev, shutting his right eye grotesquely en route to a 9th round TKO. So far, so good.
A major test then came in the form of another Colombian, Ricardo Torres, in what would prove to be Cotto’s first real battle. Ignoring the fact that Torres had taken the fight on just three weeks’ notice, Cotto and his fans complained incessantly about Puerto Rican’s struggle to make weight, with many viewing this as an explanation for his being knocked down heavily in the 2nd round and buzzed on numerous occasions. Still, he pulled through and emerged with the win yet again, before taking the 0 of everyone’s favourite gatekeeper, Paulie Malignaggi, in the Brooklyn native’s first appearance at championship level and Cotto’s final contest at light welterweight.
Moving up to 147, where most argue he was at his peak, Cotto began as he meant to go on: with another vacant title shot. This time facing a good fighter in Carlos Quintana, Cotto would batter his fellow Puerto Rican into submission in only the 5th round, completing what I feel was perhaps his best performance and easily his most underrated win.
Report card to date: B+
Comments: No losses as yet, but the faintest of cracks starting to show. Level of competition is solid, but a step-up needs to come soon.
And so it duly arrived. A super fight, at least in name, was organised for the summer of 2007 against perennial runner up Zab Judah. Barely a month after two legitimate greats had done battle for light middleweight supremacy, with Floyd Mayweather defeating Oscar De La Hoya to cement his position as the best in the world, Cotto vs Judah was very much a battle of also-rans. Judah started fast, and visibly hurt Cotto barely a minute into the contest, before a series of flagrant low blows seemed to take the wind out of his sails. Cotto was ultimately able to take advantage of his opponent’s penchant for falling apart late in fights, beating him into near submission in the eleventh round, and claiming his first top-level scalp in the process.
Next came arguably the finest win of his career, a razor-thin decision against a 36-year-old Shane Mosley fighting two divisions above his best weight. It was a closely-fought, nip-and-tuck fight for the most part, one in which Cotto made his home advantage count and received the benefit of the doubt on the judges’ cards. Had that fight taken place anywhere outside the Puerto Rican stronghold of Madison Square Garden, it’s hard not to feel Shane Mosley would have got the nod. But it was by no means a robbery, and both men emerged with credit.
One stay-busy victory over Alfonso Gomez later, we find ourselves progressing to the main course, and what is unquestionably the defining moment in Miguel Cotto’s career. A TKO loss to Antonio Margarito is one thing, but this titantic battle (literally ‘La Batalla’), in which Cotto was beaten up to the point where he voluntarily quit after taking a knee twice in the 11th round, was something else entirely. Whatever your allegiances, it was a truly epic contest, one that I still enjoy watching now, given the multiple shifts in momentum and suitably brutal ending to what was essentially a Mexico vs Puerto Rico grudge match.
But we’re forgetting something, and I would do my argument no favours if I neglected to mention the elephant in the room. You know, the one all Cotto fans fall over themselves to bring up the moment his first career loss is mentioned. Let’s lay the facts out first: Antonio Margarito and his trainer, Javier Capatillo, were caught trying to cheat prior to his fight with Shane Mosley six months after the Cotto fight. What’s more, Margarito was almost certainly aware that illegal pads had been inserted into his handwraps (this despite the fact that numerous esteemed coaches, including Robert Garcia, Freddy Roach, and Floyd Mayweather, Sr., admitted in the aftermath that if they had a mind to they could easily slip such items onto their fighter’s person without arousing suspicion).
The events outlined above are disgraceful, and cannot be condoned on any level by a true fan of the sport. However, they have nothing to do with Miguel Cotto, who fought Margarito six months earlier under totally different circumstances. Supporters of Cotto are quick to claim a vicarious triumph here, as if Margarito’s actions against Mosley somehow vindicate their man crumbling and wilting under the pressure. The complete lack of evidence — and make no mistake, if Cotto and his team had even a shred of evidence, Margarito would have been sued and that fight would have been ruled a no contest — doesn’t seem to trouble their case. They have no proof whatsoever, yet instead of seeking to move on and accept the fact that they fully inspected and were satisfied with the handwraps prior to the opening bell, they continue to cast doubt over Margarito’s win in the most back-handed and disingenuous way.
Report card to date: B
Comments: Proven himself on a par with the top contenders of his era, but nothing beyond that. Badly needs to regroup in the wake of a mental capitulation in his first career defeat.
Following such a disheartening loss, it was only right that Cotto refocused on his priorities and got back to what he did best: challenging for vacant titles against grossly overmatched opponents. This time it was the turn of England’s Michael Jennings to get thoroughly beaten up, as Cotto regained a belt at welterweight and positioned himself for bigger and better things. A controversial points win over Joshua Clottey (a man who also fought everyone and lost to the best, yet strangely doesn’t get the same recognition) was next, before Cotto was thoroughly outclassed and dominated by Manny Pacquiao, in an exhibition that would starkly illuminate the differences between the ‘great’ and merely ‘very good’ of the century to date.
Moving up to junior middleweight — after once more blaming a battle with the scales on his poor performance — Cotto faced relatively unknown Yuri Foreman, a man with no one on his record besides gatekeeper Cornelius Bundrage, and only one working knee. An inevitable victory followed before Cotto challenged an ancient Ricardo Mayorga, who had fought once in the preceding two and a half years, defeating him via a bizarre 12th round TKO that saw the Nicaraguan complaining of a damaged hand and choosing not to hear the final bell.
In the wake of this unedifying sight, Cotto and his fans made much of their quest for redemption against the now-returned Margarito, who had just taken one of the worst beatings in recent memory against Pacquiao in his return from a lengthy and fully justified suspension from the sport. The build-up to the fight was mired in bitterness and controversy, both in terms of the constant accusations levelled at Margarito by both Cotto and the boxing public, famously culminating in the only piece of evidence the Puerto Rican has ever managed to produce: a grainy image on an iPad purportedly showing slight discolouration of Margarito’s wrapped hands after their first fight.
Despite this complete lack of proof, the Mexican was convicted in the court of public opinion long before the opening bell sounded, and the narrative of the fight centred firmly around Cotto’s quest to right these alleged wrongs. All that remained was to get his opponent medically cleared — no easy task given the gruesome damage the Mexican’s eye had sustained. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, Margarito was granted passage by the state of New York and was permitted to enter the ring despite his four separate injuries, each of which had been enough to deny fighters a license in the past.
Vitreous detachment, a cataract, a giant retinal tear and an orbital floor fracture. Margarito’s eyeball was injected with silicone oil as well as a lens implant after the defeat to Pacquiao. He was judged to have extremely poor peripheral vision, and to be at significant risk of reoccurrence and infection during training, let alone a fight . Despite all this, archaic language from the medical board (‘contraindication’, rather than ‘prohibition’) paved the way for a license to be granted via a semantic loophole, and somewhat inevitably Miguel Cotto was able gain a semblance of revenge via lateral movement and relentless jabs to the injured eye socket. As expected, Margarito’s lack of sight made a rapid reappearance, forcing the doctor to stop the fight in the 9th round, against both the fighter and referee’s wishes.
In the wake of this ostensible rejuvenation, Cotto swept into a perennially mooted clash with Floyd Mayweather, who took a few shots from him in the mid rounds before pulling away in the second half of the fight, once again illustrating the gulf in class between the ‘great’ and the merely ‘very good’. Cotto was then embarrassed by Austin Trout in his next fight — the one his fans never speak of. It was his second loss in a row, against the second opponent he had faced who was, by some remarkable coincidence, both injury free and relatively young.
Report card to date: B-
Comments: Moral victories no substitute for getting over the hump. Still missing that signature win against a top opponent in their prime, alongside two more clear losses.
A period of reflection would follow, before Freddie Roach arrived to steady the revolving door of trainers Cotto had worked with in recent years. Roach quickly helped Cotto to blow out Delvin Rodriguez, who was not much more than a club fighter by that stage, providing fans with a glimmer of hope that an unlikely return could be on the cards. Next came the finest example of matchmaking this era has seen. Suddenly Cotto was the lineal middleweight champion after deposing longtime king Sergio Martinez in June 2014 via a vicious barrage of left hooks and a creaking kneecap or two.
Martinez was a phenomenal fighter at his peak, but aged 39 and with his body failing him he simply couldn’t stand up to Cotto’s pressure. Having begun the negotiations for the fight on crutches, still nursing a serious knee injury, Martinez was barely able to spar in the build-up and had multiple requests for specialist braces and supportive equipment turned down. He took one shot to the temple in the 1st round and that was that; his legs gave way and he was barely able to stand for the remainder of the fight. A fighter to the last, the Argentine steadfastly refused to make excuses, even after his corner had seen their man suffer four knockdowns and waved off the contest at the end of the 9th round, recognising that he had absolutely nothing left.
Eighteen months on, and we have ultimately gone full circle. Cotto has held the crown for well over a year, yet has managed just one defence against a severely drained Daniel Geale at an absurd catchweight of 157 pounds. He now finds himself stripped of the title just days before he is due to face Canelo Alvarez, having refused to pay the required sanctioning fees to the WBC. If his era at middleweight began with the borderline farce of squaring off against an opponent unable to walk, it has ended much the same way, with the fate of Puerto Rico’s first middleweight champion sealed in some alphabet boardroom after compensation and figures for step-aside money proved irreconcilable.
Report card to date: B
Comments: One moment of cynical genius sandwiched between unworthy opponents and an elaborate game of cat and mouse to avoid true tests in his newfound division.
Now, it’s important to note that most of the above doesn’t really matter to Cotto’s legions of fans — and they are legion, in both the media and the cheap seats alike. His supporters are only too happy to reel off his list of accomplishments when pressed on the thornier issues. “Four weight world champion!” they declare, all the while disparaging the likes of Adrien Broner for their level of competition when picking up multiple titles.
“The first ever Puerto Rican middleweight king!” they exclaim, ignoring the state of Martinez’s knee and the fact that Cotto has subsequently refused to defend his title at the full divisional limit. Obviously his ducking of Gennady Golovkin, the figure widely accepted to be the #1 middleweight contender, goes unmentioned.
In a way, they’re right to ignore all that. The last thing the timeline above equates to is an average career. Even if it lacks a signature victory, Cotto’s run is not insignificant when taken as a whole, and by no means deserves to be brushed aside or relegated to the role of footnote in the #MayPac epoch. Cotto has achieved a lot in the ring, the sum of which adds up to a full and exciting career. It points to a couple of very good wins, and more than a few memorable battles. But it does no more than that.
Crucially, all of the above does nothing to indicate a talent that deserves to enter the Hall of Fame and sit alongside the Sugar Ray Robinsons and Harry Grebs of the world. Certainly not on the first ballot, accompanied by the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Juan Manuel Marquez and Bernard Hopkins. Putting Cotto in this company not only serves to undermine the truly great fighters of his era, but so brazenly overplays his achievements so as to make it difficult to appreciate all that he actually did accomplish in the ring. Being a worthy contender for a really long time does not suddenly transport you to the top table. Boxing is brutal, and simply doesn’t work like that.
To give just one example, the 2014 class inducted to Canastota was comprised of Joe Calzaghe, Oscar De la Hoya, and Felix Trinidad. These men ruled undisputed over multiple divisions, decisively beating great challengers and picking apart those not of the highest calibre. Cotto might have similar name value, but anyone arguing that his accomplishments in the ring are on a par with true greats like these simply doesn’t know the sport. A fighter can give us numerous exciting nights in the ring, and largely fight the best opponents on offer, but that doesn’t qualify him to stand alongside giants and stride to immortality as one of the chosen few.
If Cotto emerges victorious on Saturday when he faces Canelo Alvarez, it will be the single greatest victory of his career, and I will personally give him enormous credit for beating a healthy, younger opponent for the first time in almost a decade. Yet this speaks as much to his lack of truly elite victories as it does to the magnitude of the task at hand. Canelo is on the verge of becoming an excellent fighter and is fast approaching his prime, but we’ve seen what happens when he faces someone truly great. The fight is intriguing, and opinions are almost completely split, precisely because Miguel Cotto is no more than ‘very good.;
2001 – 2015
Report card to date: B
Comments: Has applied himself well at times, but lacks the talent of many in his class and consequently struggles to keep up. Perhaps a transfer to a lower stream would be of benefit.