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Cotto, Nurtured and Groomed for this Moment

By Luis A. Cortes III
(Photo © Will Hart / HBO)

From the moment Miguel Angel Cotto decided to turn professional after the summer Olympic Games in 2000, there was no mistake what the goal was for the former amateur standout. When Cotto signed with the promotional giant that is Top Rank, there formula for success would become the young pupil’s new journey towards superstardom. It’s a formula that has been used to create some of the brightest and biggest stars the sport has recently seen.


Before fighters like Floyd Maywather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya were mainstream stars, they were learning both how to fight as a professional and how to deal with all things that surround the sport on its largest stage. From the press conferences, to the interviews with both boxing and mainstream media, to dealing with television and how one’s image can both attract or detract from fan bases. All of these aspects were dealt with during the early parts of their careers. All former Olympians, each fighter possessed the natural talent to handle these different avenues, while learning inside of the ring. This is something that rarely is done anymore throughout the sport. To many times we are seeing young talent that has yet to be nurtured being streamlined towards the spotlight for the sake of a coveted television date. Frankly, the results speak for themselves.


In the case of Cotto, he was seen as not only the next investment by Top Rank, but along with the surprise retirement of the island’s biggest sports star, Felix Trinidad, Cotto was instantly thrust into the driver seat in terms of carrying on the island’s proud boxing tradition.


A quick look at the early part of Cotto’s career and one can see just how the long journey towards mainstream stardom is started. Before he reached his tenth professional fight, Cotto already weeded his way through the journey man, part time fighter opponent. This is the opponent who has basically shown up to collect one last nice pay check, but is a guy who can still bring the heat if the chance presents itself. Cotto like the aforementioned names was simply too talented to get side tracked by this type of fighter. His natural abilities along with his background guided him to dominate victories.


While he was defeating these types of opponents in impressive fashion, he was doing so on small local shows in Puerto Rico. He also played to small crowds on the mainland and although the shows were at best part of the ESPN family, they were in key market areas where there is a large Hispanic presence. Places like Austin, Texas (his professional debut) and the Hammerstein Ball Room in New York City.


Next up for the Cotto express was his introduction on the main stage of the boxing world. This meant fighting on undercards of some of the biggest events in Las Vegas. Events like the Morales – Barrera rematch where Cotto took on Justin Juuko. Or the De La Hoya – Vargas fight, where again Cotto took on a former lightweight contender in John Brown. Along with gaining an education for dealing with big events and the bright lights of television and Vegas, Cotto was getting hands on education with what being a professional fighter is all about.


Fighters like Juuko, Brown, and Cesar Bazan are key fighters in the early construction of Miguel Cotto. These are all fighters who had accomplished careers by the time they met the young Cotto. They had challenged for championships and in the case of Bazan had claimed a portion of the lightweight crown. However the one key was that these were smaller men who during their best days were fighting in lighter weight classes.


They were given these pay dates due to the fact that they are the type of fighter that can teach your guy the intangibles of the sport. On several occasions in his fight with Brown, Cotto became aggravated with Brown and the way he would dive in for his attack head first. He learned that heads although are illegal to use, are used anyway. Cotto had to deal with a fighter in Bazan who tasted his best and continued to attack and move forward. Once Cotto was able to adjust to his climate and tone of the fight, again his natural talent and improving skill level would guide him to victory.


Let’s fast forward to 2004, a key year in the development of Miguel Cotto turning from prospect to young champion. His year started well with a HBO date, something that already was becoming a norm for Cotto. Fighter interviews, accommodating for the network while dealing with the natural nervousness of the spectacle that is a HBO date had become second nature for Cotto by this point. After each impressive victory, Cotto had the same response for the questions dealing with the direction of his career. It was always, “ask Bob” or “I leave that up to the company, they pick the fights and I fight them.”


He started his year with an impressive knockout over Victoriano Sosa, another former lightweight who had proven his worth as a banger and tough out with hard fights against both Spadafora and Mayweather. Cotto was once again was simply too big and strong for the smaller Sosa who couldn’t deal with the body attack he was assaulted with. Next up was a tough fight against a legit light welterweight in Lovemore N’Dou. This was a tough fight for Cotto. He learned how to fight and win while dealing with a lack of energy from the weight draining he had to take part in so he could hit the 140 pound limit.


It was also during this time that Cotto began a relationship in the gym with probably the most influential fighter to his career to date. Former world champion Vince Phillips was brought to Puerto Rico in order to spar with Cotto. If you are aware of Phillips and his career, his name alone explains a lot in the making of Cotto and his ability to fight on the inside. If you’re not aware of Phillips, he was the first guy to prove that fighting and outlasting former champion Kostya Tszyu was actually possible.


After winning his first title against former amateur foe Kelson Pinto, Cotto began to string along a set of victories against former world champions. He would defend his belt against Randall Bailey whom oddly enough had beaten Demetrio Ceballos (a fighter Cotto stopped a year earlier). It was in the Bailey fight where Cotto started to really show the results of his heated sparring with Phillips. During the course of that fight he would constantly push off on the inside in order to create space. A staple move in Cotto’s inside game. It keeps your opponent from clinching. Cotto also learned how to box on the outside using a stiff jab to set up combinations. This doused water over any heat that the less naturally talented banger could bring. It is the first fight in which Cotto showed his refined counter punching style, similar to his old amateur style, along with his ability to apply pressure while cutting off the ring. Cotto the complete fighter was truly beginning to blossom.


You see around the later part of 2004 and up until Cotto decided to step up as a full blown welterweight. Cotto was suffering from draining weight in order to continue to fight against smaller opposition. So after the unexpected war that occurred with Ricardo Torres, it was clear that while the smaller guys had an easier time finding Cotto with their speed. Taking the weight off was slowing down Cotto while it was preventing him from fighting hard from bell to bell. 147 pounds was the next logical step.


While all of this was happening inside of the gym and ring, Cotto continued to have his star power worked on by Top Rank. They began running shows at Madison Square Garden in 2005. For three years straight Cotto was the main event the night before the annual Puerto Rican parade. Each year the event got bigger and the opposition got tougher. This project culminated in the summer of 2007 with the Judah fight.


You have to give it to Top Rank at this point. Not only had they established Cotto as the new pride of Puerto Rico. But they also had developed a fighter that could do many things inside of the ring. It was time for their pupil to fight anyone and everyone on the planet. They had reached a point where the clean cut, soft spoken Cotto was on the cusp of being the sports next transcending star. Even though Cotto prefers to talk in the ring with his fists, he even learned English in order to enhance his mass appeal.


While Mayweather, who bucked the Top Rank system by choosing to do things his own way, let’s face it. His personality and image that he strives for didn’t fit with the new sugar Ray Leonard image Top Rank was going for. So while Mayweather was turning down close to eight figures to fight the divisions’ toughest names. Cotto followed his big pay per view win against Judah with another big outing against future Hall of Famer, Shane Mosley. This was a close victory, which was important for the still developing younger charge. See it was the Mosley victory that showed Cotto that he needs to make adjustments during the course of a fight with a jab in order to nullify speed.


So let’s review, while other guys walked away from dangerous foes. Cotto agreed and fought these names for far less money. He also did so with the mentality of letting his fighting speak for itself. This caused a small disconnection with his fans at times. Especially fans on the island of Puerto Rico. While they are used to an effervescent personality like that of Felix Trinidad, they didn’t and will not receive that from Cotto.


Instead they get the poker faced cold appeal of a man that relishes in giving up no emotion while he quietly proves all of his critics wrong. To Cotto it is clear that satisfaction in accomplishing his victories for his family and friends is all the adulation he truly needs.


Insert the major road block that was the Margarito fight. Top Rank had nurtured their future star to the point where he was one more victory away from being the A-side to super fight promotions. After all the matchmaking, English classes, and sparring partners, that was the main goal. To produce a fighter that is experienced in every way and is battled tested so people are inclined to book flights and hotel reservations to see this star fight.


Well in the Margarito fight, Cotto was the A-side to what was a fight fans dream more than a super fight; Cotto was the clear favorite entering the fight. Without getting into everything that may or may not have occurred on that night one thing was clear from the result. Miguel Cotto was done being nurtured. Top Rank’s goal had been accomplished and as a result the real Miguel Cotto was able to stand up. Frustration of his first loss, coupled with personal issues outside of the gym and ring. Along with the allegations that his conqueror had cheated to obtain victory and you get the response we have seen from Cotto.


It’s no accident that the majority of the people that were in charge. Guys that had been brought in by Top Rank to help guide his career were no longer welcomed into training camps. Cotto took the opportunity leading up to his fight with Clottey to make the changes that would best benefit the remainder of his career. Top Rank’s pupil graduated and was ready to take a hold of the reins attached to his career. Insert, Joe Santiago, his father, and Joe Chavez as cut man. All of the tattoos and control over his image, which he leaves in the hands of his trusted friend and head of public relations are examples of why Cotto feels he won in a losing effort that night last July.


In Cotto Top Rank has a champion that has versatility in the ring. He can stalk, counter, cut the ring off, take his opponents for a walk, and pot shot from the outside behind a jab. Oh, he can also dictate the range and tempo of the fight. These are the things that make up Cotto inside of the ring. Thanks to Phillips and the experience of being nurtured by Top Rank. He also has the heart and determination to fight through anything thrown his way. This includes knock downs, cuts, and taking a tremendous beating.


For Cotto this is his chance, this is the moment that all the nurturing was done for. All of the learning and experience in dealing with television, big fight cards, press conferences, and all of the promotion that accompanies a super fight. Cotto was matched to fight every style in various forms in order to be ready for the best and experienced opposition that the pound for pound rankings has to offer. Cotto was ready last year as far as his skill was concerned. Cotto has everything in place and as he needs it, in order to be successful in his second bid at crossing over to the mainstream. It’s up to Cotto now if he works off of the foundation that was laid for him and reaches up and finally grabs that brass ring.


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