There are just as many debate-sparking polarizing elements to Miguel Cotto’s legendary 17-year career as there are indisputable facts.
But regardless of where exactly Cotto might fall historically from fans to experts alike, it won’t be his sure-fire Hall of Fame skill or incredible box office appeal that we’ll remember most about the Puerto Rican icon.
As Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) enters the self-proclaimed final bout of his career on Saturday in his de-facto home of New York’s Madison Square Garden (HBO, 10 p.m. ET), he is set to exit the sport as the most honest fighter of his generation.
Cotto, who will defend his WBO junior middleweight title against former welterweight title challenger Sadam Ali (25-1, 14 KOs), has never been a reporter’s dream when it comes to filling notebooks with thoughtful quotes. But he more than made up for that by how he displayed his heart and emotions inside the ring — directly on his sleeve.
For some, the love affair began when Cotto rose from the canvas in 2005 to rally past Ricardo Torres (celebrating wildly as HBO’s Larry Merchant dubbed him “the Puerto Rican Arturo Gatti”). But every step of the way that followed, through the highs and lows that come with constantly facing the best, Cotto’s refreshing honesty has prevented even his dissenters from losing respect.
The 37-year-old not only never ducked a fighter in his prime, he was honest once he finally did in recent years, openly wanting no part of full-sized middleweight destroyer Gennady Golovkin. Even his choice of Ali for his swan song, which was understandably derided by many for its lack of danger or sexiness, was handled with transparency from Cotto’s side.
A body-punching destroyer (particularly at 140 and 147 pounds) who never strayed too far from his pedigree as a boxer when it mattered most, Cotto could brawl when he had to and was rarely unwilling to enter the place all boxers need to go in order to find out how great they can be: true vulnerability. In fact, it’s Cotto’s constant flirtation with being vulnerable that went a long way in making him such a huge ticket seller and attraction.
He was not only relatable but both victory and defeat always seemed to be close at hand.
For the record, Cotto might be best dubbed the strongest pay-per-view B-side of his era, having lent his name to the marquee of high-grossing super fights against the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez. He was also a consistent draw of his own as the A-side of many HBO and smaller PPV cards.
But the moment Cotto became most relatable to the boxing public was the most vulnerable and dangerous result of his career: an 11th-round TKO loss to Antonio Margarito in 2008. Many believe, based upon the reveal before Margarito’s next fight against Shane Mosley, that the Mexican brawler used hand wraps soaked in plaster to turn the tide and beat Cotto’s will out of him in such violent fashion.
If true, the traumatic nature of the loss would’ve understandably ruined most careers. And to a large degree, it’s still fair to debate just how much of Cotto’s longterm potential was taken from him that night.
True to his character, however, Cotto walked out of the aftermath to the defeat in such transparent (and often vulnerable) fashion. Visually not the same fighter, he finished his welterweight run with a pair of bloody brawls against Joshua Clottey (a disputed split-decision win) and Pacquiao (a demoralizing 12th-round TKO) that had many wondering if he was finished before turning 30.
But instead of packing it in, Cotto embarked on a pair of career reinventions (at both 154 and 160 pounds) which went a long way in cementing his Hall of Fame credentials.
Joining forces with Cuban trainer Pedro Diaz, the junior middleweight version of Cotto was a much more thoughtful and defensive boxer who packaged a trio of come-backing title wins (including a redemptive 2011 TKO against Margarito) to secure the biggest fight of his career against Mayweather in 2012. Feared by experts he was past his prime and four years too late to contend at his best, Cotto went on to give the top boxer of his own era one of his most difficult nights until a late fade.
In full disclosure, the second half of Cotto’s career offers opportunities for his resume to be picked apart with a critical eye in terms of just how prime the versions of his opponents were that he faced. His victory over a one-legged Sergio Martinez to claim the lineal middleweight championship in 2014 at a catchweight is among them.
The criticism never robbed, however, from the danger Cotto faced in moving up in weight or the continued willingness to make big fights that he showed when facing Alvarez in their 2015 showdown (also at a catchweight) for the 160-pound crown. The end of his career also saw a strong and fruitful marriage with Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach that saw Cotto seemingly at his happiest as a professional prizefighter.
Cotto will be remembered for the honest effort he gave in his biggest fights and the consistency of the entertainment in which he regularly provided. A noted family man outside the ring, he was as human and real of a fighter inside it as his generation had to offer and a refreshing boxer-businessman who went a long way in making sure, along with securing big paydays for himself, that the fans still received what they wanted most.
A champion in four divisions and a legend in both the sport and his native island, which routinely turned the backdrop of Madison Square Garden into an annual party on Puerto Rican Day weekend in New York, Cotto will enter his home-away-from-home for the final time on Saturday with his head held high and his legacy intact. That’s about as good as it gets.