By Eric Raskin
Miguel Cotto is all fighter. He’s so much a fighter at his core, in fact, that the only way he knows how to announce his retirement is by signing to fight. In the same late-summer stretch that saw Wladimir Klitschko, Juan Manuel Marquez, Tim Bradley, and Shane Mosley all decide, for various reasons, to step away without entering the ring one last time, Cotto is verbally indicating that he’ll join them – but not until he gets one or two more punch-ups out of his system.
On Saturday, Cotto, closing in on his 37th birthday and more than 21 months removed from his last bout, will touch gloves at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., with Yoshihiro Kamegai in the first show of the Puerto Rican warrior’s farewell tour. It’s going to be a brief tour; Cotto has promised he’ll be retired by the time we turn the calendars over to 2018, so it’s Kamegai and maybe one more, if the right fight can be arranged by December. If not, maybe Cotto-Kamegai is goodbye. However many hooks Cotto (40-5 with 33 KOs) has left in his quiver, he’s allocating them across this Saturday and maybe one more Saturday after that, and then he’s out.
Of course, it’s a boxing retirement, so there’s always reason for skepticism. Even Cotto’s trainer, Freddie Roach, isn’t totally sold. "Miguel will retire at the end of the year, but I wonder if he will remain retired," Roach recently told BoxingScene. "If [Gennady] Golovkin beats Canelo [Alvarez] and then Cotto faces him, I think it would be a great fight, on a historic level. And if he wins that, he'll want more I think. But first, he has to deal with Kamegai."
How much of a challenge will dealing with Kamegai be? The Japanese veteran has compiled a record of 27-3-2 with 24 KOs – solid numbers, though against dramatically lower competition than what Cotto has faced. He lost a competitive decision when he stepped up to face Robert Guerrero in 2014, dropped decisions when he couldn’t match the skills of Johan Perez or Alfonso Gomez (a fighter Cotto crushed nearly a decade ago), and turned in career-best performances in two all-action fights in 2016 against Jesus Soto-Karass – the first scored a draw, the second a one-sided eighth-round stoppage that earned Kamegai this opportunity.
At age 34, coming off a career-long 350-day layoff, a dangerous offensive fighter but a subpar defensive boxer, Kamegai is a sizable underdog. But he is resilient; Kamegai has never been knocked out or even knocked down as a pro, so while Cotto figures to reach his chin early and often, there’s no guarantee said chin will notice. It’s supposed to be a get-well fight for Cotto following his 2015 points defeat to Canelo Alvarez, but he’s had fights like this go awry before. Slick southpaw Austin Trout, who upset Cotto in 2012, knows a thing or two about that.
“Of course, Miguel Cotto, if he’s motivated, you have to give him a big edge in this fight,” Trout told Inside HBO Boxing. “But the beautiful thing about boxing is everybody has a chance. Kamegai didn’t just start boxing. He’s been doing this for years. When you have experience, you have a chance. And Miguel doesn’t only lose to skilled boxers. Remember, Manny Pacquiao went straight to Cotto, took it to him. So did Antonio Margarito. He has been beaten by people who come at him. So Kamegai’s style could give him a chance.”
Then there are the matters of Cotto’s age, wear and tear, and ring rust. His latest hiatus from getting paid to fight has gone on nearly twice as long as Kamegai’s at one year, nine months, and five days. (Helping to reduce the rust: Cotto went through most of a training camp for a planned fight with James Kirkland this past spring.)
"He shouldn’t be too rusty," Trout says. With Miguel’s experience, he knows how to fight. I don’t think he’ll all of a sudden forget how to fight because he was off for almost two years. "But how old is Cotto going to be on the night of the fight? That’s the question. Cotto’s gone through some wars. He’s fought the best. How much does he have left? I’ll say this, though: He looked good against Canelo. He looked sharp, he fought well. Canelo was just younger and a little stronger, but Miguel fought well against him."
In general, Cotto has fought extremely well since joining forces with Roach immediately after his loss to Trout. He’s gone 3-1 with 3 KOs and has shown no drop-off in skill at his advancing age. Boxers who use their feet and angles, like Gomez and Perez, give Kamegai fits. Kamegai fights at a fast pace; he throws a lot, lands a lot, and gets hit a lot. In the Soto-Karass rematch, 493 of their 562 combined landed punches were power shots. If Cotto fights smart and avoids a brawl, and hasn’t lost multiple steps since the Canelo bout, Kamegai probably has not much more than the proverbial puncher’s chance.
But that isn’t dampening his enthusiasm in the least.
“For me to fight someone I’ve been a fan of since I was 20 years old is an honor,” Kamegai said. “I look forward to fighting him, and I’m out here to win this fight. I don’t speak English well, but I do speak boxing, and I plan to put on a very entertaining fight.”
But can he do more than entertain against the Hall of Fame-bound four-division titlist? We’ve seen plenty of top fighters over the years get beaten into retirement in what they thought were reasonably safe fights. Images flash to mind of Ricky Hatton stumbling against Vyacheslav Senchenko, Arturo Gatti crumbling against Alfonso Gomez, and most recently, Bernard Hopkins tumbling against Joe Smith Jr.
You’re always one punch from disaster in boxing. But in his mind, even though he knows the end is near, Miguel Cotto isn’t quite one punch, or even one fight, away just yet.
“Miguel has given the game a lot,” Trout says. “He’s a future Hall of Famer. He doesn’t have to prove anything. I’m happy for him if he’s able to retire on his own terms. That’s what you want for every boxer.”
In the co-featured bout on Saturday evening, fans will be treated to the sort of fight with the potential to extend the StubHub Center’s reputation as a magnet for magnificent warfare. Freddie Roach isn’t the only iconic trainer working a corner on this night, as Nacho Beristain’s undefeated Mexican junior featherweight Rey Vargas (29-0 with 22 KOs) meets SoCal contender Ronny Rios (28-1 with 13 KOs), who’s won five in a row since an upset loss to Robinson Castellanos that looks better with every subsequent Castellanos appearance. It’s essentially a pick-’em fight and a high-class clash of styles between aggressive puncher Vargas and skillful boxer Rios.
"I am thankful that Golden Boy Promotions has gotten this fight for me," said Rios, "and I expect a tough, tough war from Rey." The respect is largely mutual. "I know Ronny Rios is an extremely tough challenger," Vargas said. "But he has never tasted power like mine, and I am confident I will come away with the victory."