Winning Isn’t Everything: Cotto Exits With Class

On Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, Miguel Cotto proved the truth of the old cliché, winning isn’t everything. After being soundly beaten by the younger, faster Sadam Ali, the four division world champion and hero of Puerto Rico gave credit where credit was due: to the victor.

Cotto didn’t blame a disturbing looking torn bicep, even though that could have been what ultimately made all the difference in the match. He didn’t argue that he had been robbed, or lash out at the judges, or accuse Ali of fighting dirty. He didn’t blame the passage of time and his rather advanced age of 37 years. Cotto simply gave respect to his opponent for having had a better night and then reiterated the fact that he was leaving boxing for good. Adios, champ. You will certainly be missed.

Sadam Ali surprised both Cotto and many boxing fans.

Make no mistake: Miguel Cotto was a great fighter. Even though he lost a significant percentage of his biggest bouts, he also won a bunch. Zab Judah. Shane Mosley. Paulie Malignaggi. Sergio Martinez. Antonio Margarito. Each of these men was a world champion and each was bested by Cotto.

Furthermore, the Puerto Rican legend gave the great Floyd Mayweather one of his toughest fights, and he showed nothing but courage and competitiveness against Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez. In fact, aside from Floyd and Manny, Cotto was arguably the best of his time between 140 and 154 pounds. A loss to the underrated and underestimated Ali, although surprising, takes nothing away from the Cotto legacy.

One of ‘Junito’s’ biggest wins: stopping Margarito in 2011.

In fact, Cotto’s gracious behavior after his defeat on Saturday only added to that legacy. In a world of smack talk and disrespect, it’s nice to see a boxer go out as a gentleman and a sportsman. Over the years, Cotto wasn’t always the warmest guy around, nor the most accessible. Indeed, I remember a few years ago being less than pleased when he scurried out of a major press conference I had braved New York City rush hour traffic to get to. Still, for the most part, Cotto acted like that rarest of specimen in today’s world of combat sports – he acted like an adult. Frankly, boxing could use more of that.

When one thinks about it, however, it’s somewhat amazing that the soft-spoken Puerto Rican rose to the level of pay-per-view star to begin with. Quiet professionalism doesn’t sell much these days, if it ever did, but Cotto found a way to make it work and in lucrative fashion. In New York City and elsewhere, “Junito” made the turnstiles sing.

Miguel Cotto: portrait by Damien Burton.

Of course some of that mass appeal had to do with the level of opposition Cotto faced. Guys like Malignaggi, Trout and Judah were fighters of note. Men like Margarito, Mayweather, Pacquiao and Mosely were outright stars. When the competition is that good, it’s hard not to be a draw. Yet there was something else about Cotto that drew in viewers, namely the fact that the guy was exciting as hell in the ring.

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Cotto could be a thrilling fighter. My personal favorite of all the man’s bouts was when he showcased how destructive body punches could be against Carlos Quintana back in 2006. But there are plenty more exciting Miguel Cotto performances for a fight fan to feast on if he feels like spending some time on Youtube. And in addition to his ring smarts and courage, there’s the fact that Cotto’s left hook alone can be considered a work of art. And again, even in defeat, the man proved challenging. The fact that Floyd Mayweather went out of his way to remark on how truly formidable Cotto was when they fought back in 2012 is a clear indicator of that.

The Ali fight showed it was time for Cotto to walk away.

But now, after so many great fights, all we have are the memories. Perhaps Cotto will come back, like so many other champions, but I suspect instead he will play it smart, as he has throughout his career. My guess is we really have seen Cotto in the ring for the final time.

And that, frankly, is as it should be. What more does “Junito” have to prove? He’s won some great victories, brought six world titles in four divisions back to Puerto Rico, and he’s no doubt earned himself a spot in the Hall of Fame, not to mention a boatload of cash. It may be ironic to say, given Sadam Ali earning a huge win on Saturday night, but Cotto’s ring exit in New York was in fact picture perfect, for it reminded the world of the gentleman behind the great athlete.

A classy farewell in the Garden.

To put it in perspective, just compare it to Bernard Hopkins’ embarrassing exit from the fight game last year.  Instead of losing graciously to Joe Smith Jr., the Philadelphia legend raised a big stink and insisted, despite the obvious, that he had been treated unfairly. It wasn’t a good look, though some would say it was perfectly representative of the man himself. Fortunately, Cotto’s behavior on Saturday was indicative of his own personality: dignified, gracious and sportsmanlike. Again, boxing could use more of that. Cotto will be missed.

While it’s true Miguel Cotto wasn’t the very best boxer of his time, he shared an era with some of the greatest boxers the world has ever seen. The fact that he competed with them and succeeded as he did is to his lasting credit, as is the class and dignity that he brought to his brutal trade.           — Sean Crose

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