Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK, N.Y. – Throughout the build-up to Miguel Cotto’s farewell fight at Madison Square Garden, one of the observations frequently repeated was the rarity with which even the very best boxers are able to end their careers on their own terms. Cotto, it appeared, was proving the exception to the rule, not only picking the time and date of his departure but selecting as his final opponent a foe who, it was generally considered, was good enough to be competitive but not likely to win.
But that opponent, Sadam Ali, didn’t read the script. Or he read it, hated it, ripped it up and rewrote his part. Either way, in putting together the best performance of his career, Ali showed why boxing lives so infrequently have happy endings. Boxing may be a mug’s game, but it is specifically a young mug’s game; and in the end the 37-year-old Cotto could not prevent the 29-year-old Ali from emerging with a deserved decision victory, sending the Puerto Rican into retirement on a wave of goodwill, but not with the final win the partisan crowd craved.
But to ascribe this result solely to age – or to the fact that Cotto appeared, at the very least, to perhaps be more focused on the end of his career than the fight that stood in the way of its conclusion – would be a grave disservice to Ali. The Brooklynite had a game plan, and he executed it to perfection, showing greater hand speed, movement and intensity, picking his spots and landing big shots, and working his way through a difficult stage in the middle rounds to finish strongly and secure a famous victory. (It may, nonetheless, have been a victory that was at least marginally aided by an injury to the older man, Cotto’s biceps seemingly rolling up in the seventh and leaving him effectively a one-armed fighter down the stretch.)
Ali’s intent was signaled as early as the second, when a big right sent Cotto’s legs into a dance and an even bigger right sent him staggering into the ropes. Cotto (41-6, 33 KOs) held on, recovered and began to assert himself later in the round; but already, he looked slower than his opponent and his punches were landing with less authority.
In addition to an unexpected power in his punches, Ali (26-1, 14 KOs) was displaying effective defense, his evasive upper body movement giving Cotto pause and leaving him reluctant to commit fully to his punches. His jab did begin landing with thudding force in the fourth, but an Ali hook wobbled him again, and the New Yorker’s footwork prevented a stalking Cotto from regaining momentum. It was much the same in the fifth: Cotto pressing forward, Ali slipping, moving, not allowing the Puerto Rican to cut off the ring, and firing off combinations.
In the sixth and seventh, however, Cotto seemingly found his range. A straight right hand in the sixth knocked Ali into the ropes, Cotto following up with a flurry and a hard three-punch combination in the corner. Ali would not be broken and emerged from that sequence with a smile; but Cotto caught him again with another straight right in the seventh, a round he finished with a stiff jab and a scoring hook, and the older fighter appeared to have the wind in his sails. It was at this point, however, that he suffered his injury.
“Something happened to my left bicep, seventh round,” he said, before adding: “I don’t want to make excuses, Sadam won the fight.”
Ali secured that victory over the next four rounds, showing increasing dominance down the stretch, looking comfortable and light on his feet, and beating an increasingly beleaguered Cotto to the punch. By the tenth, it looked as if Cotto might be ready to go, and a big right hand and left hook from Ali wobbled him to underline that impression. Ali came out for the eleventh looking to end the fight, but after Cotto withstood that initial assault, Ali looked as if he dialed back his offense a bit, content to once more pick his spots and look for a decision win.
It was almost a risky move; the gap was not quite as wide on the scorecards as it may have seemed to Ali, and Cotto may have eked out the final frame with a gutsy effort that drained his tank of every ounce of remaining energy. Even so, when the final bell rang, it was hard to imagine any result other than an Ali win, and the three scores of 116-112 and 115-113 (twice) were right on the money.
“I worked hard for it,” said Ali. “I took advantage of this fight, and I made sure to make it count. Good things happen to good people. I have been training since I was 8 years old, and I am glad I got this win at MSG, in my hometown.”
With the victory, great opportunities open up for Ali. But even in defeat, the night still belonged to Cotto, who exited the ring with the cheers of 12,371 fans ringing in his ears. And lest anyone might think that defeat might cause him to alter the script further and keep his career going, Cotto soon disabused everyone of that notion.
“I’m feeling good. Feeling good with the performance. It is my last fight. I am good, and I want to be happy in my home with my family. Thank you for all the fans. I had the opportunity to provide the best for my family because of the sport.”
In the co-main event, Mexico’s Rey Vargas (31-0, 22 KOs) utilized his height and reach advantages, and also demonstrated greatly superior punch output, ring generalship and defense to hand Oscar Negrete his first professional defeat via lopsided unanimous decision in a super bantamweight contest. With the exception of a couple of rounds when he was able to break through with wild haymaker right hands and leaping left hooks, Negrete’s offense was largely impotent: Vargas strafed him with hooks, right hands and uppercuts from distance and was largely able to smother, block or step away from his punches in close. But Negrete (17-1, 7 KOs) never stopped coming, although his most potent weapon was his head, which opened a cut above each of Vargas’s eyes in the seventh and eighth rounds. The scores of 120-108 and 119-109 (twice) accurately reflected events in the ring, but Vargas will know he was in a fight when he looks in a mirror tomorrow.