The Last Boxing Days of Miguel Cotto
By Kieran Mulvaney | Photos by Ed Mulholland
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. –
It is early.
At 4:47 AM on a Monday morning, Miguel Cotto sets the timer on his iPad, places it on a chair, and presses play. Music floods the downstairs gym at the Wild Card Boxing Club, and Cotto makes his way to a stationary bike next to a wall and begins pedaling hard.
It is late.
As this particular Monday dawns, it has been 6,108 days since Cotto first entered the ring as a professional prizefighter. When it is over, just 19 days will remain until he does so for the last time, when he faces off against Sadam Ali at Madison Square Garden in New York.
He looks lean and trim, fighting fit and on weight already. At 37 years old, he is by any normal standards in the prime of his life; by the more unforgiving yardstick of professional boxing, he is old. And at times he feels it.
“Ever since 1991, I used to run on a track every day,” he offers by way of unprompted explanation of why his cardio involves pedaling instead of pounding the streets of Los Angeles. “Now, at my age, I need to protect my knees, my joints.”
It is not so much age that is prompting him to retire after his December 2 date with Ali – although it is a factor – as it is the sense of a career that has been one of achievement and satisfaction, and the realization that life is short and contains joys that can pass by unappreciated if allowed to.
“I don’t know exactly when I decided to retire, but I’ve been thinking about it since the beginning of the year,” he says. “My eldest son is 21, my youngest daughter is 11. I am grateful for boxing. Everything they have is because of boxing. But now it is time to be the best father that I can be.”
Over 16 years, Cotto has bled, sweated, suffered and exulted in 46 professional prizefights; his bout with Ali will be his 47th and, he says, his last. Those previous 46 contests have seen him adopt a multitude of guises: the cerebral assassin who impassively pounded opponents’ bodies with his thudding left hook; the Gattiesque warrior who engaged in thrilling battles with the likes of Riccardo Torres and Manny Pacquiao; the vulnerable veteran, seemingly damaged goods after his losses to Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito, who scraped past Joshua Clottey and somehow lost to Austin Trout; and finally the resurgent champion, blasting Sergio Martinez and Daniel Geale while boxing with renewed proficiency and defensive acumen.
This latter stage is coincident with his electing to work out of the Wild Card, a stone’s throw and a world away from Hollywood Boulevard, under the aegis of Hall-of-Fame trainer Freddie Roach. The move came in 2013, after the Puerto Rican had suffered that shock decision loss to Trout. His career appeared to be petering out; he had been seemingly diminished by a succession of bruising battles and was no longer deploying his most potent weaponry.
“Freddie wanted to remind him what his strengths were,” says Gavin MacMillan, who works as a strength and conditioning coach for Roach’s key fighters, as Cotto stretches in the ring. “He moves so much better now. Before, he used to walk forward and be the toughest guy in there. And now we’ve got the left hand working again. He has the best left hand in the business, but he wasn’t getting away from it, he was being coached to get away from it for some reason. Not just his hook, but his jab. He hits you with his jab” – and here MacMillan uncorks a tap to the sternum for effect – “it’s like being hit by a power punch.”
It was that left hand that set up some of his seminal victories. In 2003, when he crushed Victoriano Sosa, dropping him three times in the fourth round to win his nineteenth pro bout. (“I cut him really bad in his mouth,” says Cotto, who has now moved to a Keiser indoor bike, positioned in front of the mirror. “He was bleeding so bad that whenever I got in close, he spat blood in my eyes, trying to blind me.”) In 2006, when he brutalized a game Paulie Malignaggi, who earned plaudits for lasting the distance and indeed for ultimately being competitive despite suffering a broken orbital bone. (“Before the fight, he talked shit,” says Bryan Perez, Cotto’s longtime friend and confidante, “saying ‘I can drink water and make weight and you can’t.’ But afterward, they became friends. He always says Miguel was the best he ever fought.”) And on a June night in 2014, the apotheosis of his partnership with Roach – and, perhaps, his entire sure-to-be-Hall-of-Fame career, when he hurt Sergio Martinez with a hook in the opening 30 seconds, dropped him three times in the first round, and stopped him in the ninth to become lineal middleweight champion of the world.
It was a glorious apex to a glittering career; but soon, it will be over. And the mood in the room appears to be one of genuine contentment.
“Sure, I’m happy he’s retiring,” says Perez. “It’s the way it should be. He’s happy, he’s healthy, he has his money. It’s on his own terms.”
The iPad timer hits the 90 minute mark, and Cotto climbs off the Keiser to warm down with a brief spell of shadow boxing in the ring.
“My father did all the right things with my money,” he says. “He did everything right, made sure I am secure. He was a good father.”
Now it is his turn to be the same.
The following words are among those to have been used by writers to describe the personality of Miguel Cotto:
Those who work with him proffer a different adjective.
“He’s the most professional guy we’ve ever had here,” offers MacMillan. “When he’s gone, I doubt we’ll ever see anyone so professional again. When Freddie first took the call to work with him, I wondered why, because he had a reputation of being kind of difficult. But honestly, I just think he expects everyone to do their job and do it well and isn’t happy when they don’t.”
And therein lies the disconnect between the perception of Cotto held by those who don’t know him, and the reality – warm, generous and surprisingly humorous – attested to by those who do. The public face that Cotto displays is a professional one. The supposedly distant personality is simply a naturally dignified and laconic man going about his business as efficiently as he can, with as little drama as possible. The private face is reserved for those he knows and trusts.
That circle of trust is small; accordingly, so is the size of the team in the gym early this morning. There is no entourage, nobody to shout encouragement or praise; just four people, including Cotto and Perez, each of whom has a role and executes it with practiced efficiency. Cotto is at the center of the action, but not of the attention. He is the boss, but the star is undoubtedly Tikka, Cotto’s French bulldog.
“She has allergies,” Cotto explains as Tikka gnaws away on her paw before clambering into the lap, and licking the face, of a visiting writer. “I have to give her a pill every morning.”
While Cotto is training, Tikka’s agenda is full. There are humans to greet, snuggle with and lick. There is gym floor to be explored and sniffed. Power naps are a must. Not to forget the importance of bathroom breaks: Cotto, riding the Keiser, catches a glimpse of her tell-tale body language in the mirror and Perez quickly escorts her away before she soils the hallowed ground of the Wild Card. Her key role, however, is to help Cotto train, which she does by running into the ring when she sees him stretching on his back, and licking his head. Cotto does not shoo her away or scold her; instead, he gently reaches behind him and rubs and scratches her ears.
When the morning session is over, Cotto, Perez and team drive a few blocks to a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard, as they do every morning. And, as he does every morning, Cotto immediately sits on a window ledge, with Tikka close by. He is wearing a gray hoodie, black gym pants and socks – and slippers. Cotto estimates he has “maybe seven” pairs of slippers, none of which are demure. There are pink mice, unicorns, giant black and white cats, and even Marvin the Martian. Today’s selection, comparatively understated, is a pair of brown mice.
That is the reality of Miguel Cotto: just another millionaire, superstar, future-Hall-of-Fame boxer with an allergic French bulldog and a fierce slipper game.
By the afternoon, the gym has filled. Abel Sanchez, trainer of Gennady Golovkin, is leaning over the ring ropes; he has driven two hours from his base in Big Bear to Wild Card because it is the only place he can secure quality sparring for a light-heavyweight prospect he is training; once the session is over, he will make the return trip up the mountain. Roach, awaiting his star pupil, is meanwhile keeping a watchful eye on a young light-heavyweight from Indiana named Anthony Sims.
Cotto and his team arrive without fanfare, the only evidence of his status the fact that he alone gets to blast tunes through the room. Otherwise, he is barely noticeable, stretching in front of the mirror, doing leg lifts and jumping rope in time to the music, his quiet, compact presence contrasting with the grunting exertions of young boxers pounding the heavybag.
Slowly, the room begins to empty. Cotto sits in the ring as Marvin Somodio, Roach’s right-hand man, wraps his hands. Their voices are low and drowned out by the music, but even as Cotto watches the hand wrapping intently, they are both relaxed and smiling; occasionally Cotto breaks out into a loud laugh that echoes around the room. He seems at this moment like a man at his most content, doing what he does best, surrounded by people he knows, trusts and likes, whom he understands and who understand him. He pulls on a pair of gloves – adorned, as is the ring mat, with the logo of Miguel Cotto Promotions and the numbers 54/10: the years in which the fighter’s father, Don Miguel, was born and died.
Roach, who had been talkative earlier, is now quiet and pensive. He puts on a body protector and a pair of mitts and stands in one corner of the ring. Cotto paces around the ring, waiting for the round timer to sound. When it does, he walks toward Roach, taps his mitt with his glove and gets to work.
Instantly, he becomes the Miguel Cotto with whom the world is familiar, his stance immediately and easily identifiable: hands up, chin tucked, head forward. He fires shots at Roach’s padded body, his fabled jab and hook thudding into his trainer’s chest and side. He is constantly on his toes, bouncing as he moves, and the two men talk back and forth as they work, Roach offering instructions and Cotto responding. At one stage, a Roach suggestion gives Cotto pause.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he smiles, but Roach nods his assent and Cotto resumes his assault. At one stage, Roach does appear to blow out his cheeks and take a step back after a particularly fierce combination; Cotto smiles and musses Roach’s hair apologetically.
After five rounds, Roach calls a halt; Cotto climbs out of the ring and moves to the bags. He spends two rounds on a teardrop bag, another two on a double-end bag, and a round shadow boxing in front of the mirror before Somodio removes his gloves. Again, he and Cotto exchange laughs and then the boxer moves to the speed bag in the corner and begins drilling it metronomically. Left, left, right, right, he pounds out a rhythm, seemingly disappearing into a trance as he does so, as Somodio periodically counts down the minutes. For a quarter of an hour or so he is in his own world, the rest of those assembled in the gym talking – primarily about him – while he works away in the corner. Left, left, right, right. Left, left, right, right. He finishes the session by jumping rope some more and then, quietly, he heads into and emerges from the shower. He is almost ready to leave, but not before he shares some pictures: of another of his dogs, back in Puerto Rico, that has just birthed a litter of three puppies.
And then he is done. He and Perez shake everyone’s hands, the team exits the gym, and day 6,108 is over.
It is fitting that his final fight will be his tenth at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of Boxing and the site of some of his greatest successes.
It was at the Garden that he dethroned Martinez and broke Malignaggi’s face. It was there also that he avenged a loss to Muhammad Abdullaev in the 2000 Olympics, and where he scored back-to-back victories over Zab Judah and Shane Mosley in 2007, when he was unbeaten and at his absolute peak. But perhaps the single greatest Cotto night at the Garden was December 3, 2011, when a highly partisan crowd bayed for the blood of Antonio Margarito and Cotto delivered. Alone among all his opponents, Cotto detested Margarito – who had handed him his first career defeat in violent and ultimately controversial circumstances – and the feeling was mutual. When the ringside physician ordered the contest halted after the ninth round, Cotto walked across the ring and glowered at his beaten foe as the Garden erupted into a primal roar of vengeance.
“Margarito was different, because of the situation,” Cotto admits, looking down at the floor. “But every other time, all my career I try to conduct myself with dignity, with respect toward my opponent, to be the best I can be for boxing and for the fans.”
And on December 2, he will have the opportunity to do so one last time, at the venue with which his career has become almost synonymous. It will be an emotional and bittersweet occasion for thousands of fans, but one man who will likely remain unmoved by the emotion is the fighter at the heart of it.
“I guarantee you, just like every other time, he’ll be out of his hotel and on his way home by 7 AM on Sunday morning,” predicts MacMillan.
Boxers often struggle to leave the sport behind; many are those who claim to have retired but are unable to resist the lure to return, drawn back not just by the money but by the limelight, the fanfare, the adrenaline, the competition.
Cotto gives no indication that he will follow that same path, that he is anything other than a man who happens to have been very good at boxing but who knows that he has to stop at some point and that that point might as well be now.
As he sits in the coffee shop, the rising Hollywood sun streaming through the window, he is asked if he will miss boxing, and all those things that repeatedly draw so many back into its embrace.
“Oh, probably,” he says, surprisingly emphatically.
Then he pauses and shrugs.
“But I have more important things to do now.”
Read more about Miguel Cotto's final fight with Sadam Ali here.