The Naval Base of Miramar sits on a corner of the island of Puerto Rico. Right next to the bridge leading to Old San Juan, it’s a sprawling compound of isolated white buildings that once housed military stations and barracks, but are now used for different government offices, including several sports venues. The Juan Evangelista Venegas stadium sits right in the middle of it, a boxing facility that includes an adjoining boxing gym and a small dormitory.
When I arrived there in the late ‘90s, the first thing I saw was the silhouettes of men wrapped in black plastic bags running around in the sweltering heat, as they attempted to sweat off the last few ounces before their next weigh in. They would then rehydrate to be ready to fight in a boxing ring later that same evening.
Wrapped in those creaky black tarps, the men wore more or less the same dreadful expressions. Except for one, who was known to love even this most exhausting of boxing rituals. Back then, 16-year old Miguel Cotto was already at peace with his grueling training regime, the same one he would put himself through for the next two decades.
Fellow Puerto Rican national team member Carlos Valcárcel recalls Cotto’s attitude on those runs. “He had a phrase that he repeated in our amateur years,” Valcárcel says. “You suffer sweating and making weight, but you end up enjoying it. And at the end of the road we always see victory and light, Valca.”
Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) has faced many challenges since those days in San Juan, but staying in shape and making weight, the two most basic goals for every fighter, were never his struggle. On Saturday, December 2, Cotto will climb into the ring one last time as an active fighter to take on Sadam Ali (25-1, 14 KOs) at New York’s Madison Square Garden live on HBO World Championship Boxing. It’s the capstone to a career that made him a four-division, six-time world champion -- and he’ll be carrying a middleweight title belt until at least the opening bell on Saturday, a fitting curtain call for a fighter who always went the extra mile.
“I remember we would do a 40-minute morning run, but Cotto always ran an extra ten minutes because his own instinct forced him to do that,” reminisces Valcarcel. “And that’s when you knew he was going to make it. He was always above the rest, he trained harder because his instinct asked him for it. No one forced him, he just did it.”
Fueled by an undeniable desire to prove himself at the highest level, Cotto survived crushing defeats and multiple weight class jumps, dating even back to his years as an amateur. He was blatantly robbed in several of his most important fights, and he was eliminated in the Junior World Championship, though he was chosen as the tournament’s most technically proficient fighter. He had to change his weight class during the pre-Olympic qualification tournament, a difficult move that netted him an early defeat in the Sydney 2000 Summer Games.
But there were many more extra ten-minute runs in his tank, and Cotto persevered. “He was always a very dedicated athlete,” says Victor Bisbal, Cotto’s heavyweight counterpart on the national team. “I watched him as a kid and always tried to learn from him, and he always guided me because I was younger and he was my mentor.”
Second in seniority to only Ivan Calderón -- a part-time garbage collector who went on to an impressive career in his own right -- Cotto settled into a natural leadership role on the legendary national team. He developed his habit of speaking collectively (“We had the best training camp ever”) or in the third person (“Miguel Cotto had the best training camp ever”) in those days, almost as if his boxing career was the product of an invisible hand guiding him and putting his words and his fists to the service of a better purpose.
Cotto’s restrained demeanor also allowed his teammates to gain the measure of confidence they needed to grow into the men they would later become. “Miguel has always been the same with everyone, and especially when he was on the Puerto Rican national team,” says Orlando Cruz, another teammate, who would later come out as the first openly gay active male boxer. “I remember him as a great athlete, a great friend”.
“His personality is difficult to approach, because he thinks of his family first,” says his Olympic coach Orlando Rodriguez Zayas. “He doesn’t like tributes or honors.” If that holds true, Cotto will have a rough day on Saturday, when thousands of his Puerto Rican fans in New York will flock to his “home away from home” at Madison Square Garden to pay him tribute.
His Olympic teammates are just as supportive. “When we talk about Cotto we talk about the best Puerto Rican fighter if we look at his pure numbers, or at least he is among the very best ever,” says Rodriguez Zayas. Cruz echoes that sentiment, saying “Cotto is a great champion who gave many victories to our island, and he will be remembered forever.”
“People will always remember him for his great achievements in boxing, his passion,” sums up Bisbal. “He always came to win.”