The Mercenary and The Believer

Try as hard as you can and you’ll still fail to find a professional boxer who embodies the definition of “mercenary” better than Miguel Cotto does. While by definition every fighter who laces them up for a paycheck is a mercenary, Cotto has taken things to an entirely new level, especially for an elite talent. As they maneuver the perilous waters of professional boxing, most champions and top-level prizefighters give at least a passing nod to the notion of proving their worth by measuring themselves against the best. Sure, they get excited about the extra zero on their paycheck, the signing bonus their new promoter promised, or the potential upside of their Pay-Per-View debut, but they also look forward to fighting for a belt, unifying championships, or simply defeating the fighter everyone thinks could beat them. Everyone, that is, but Miguel Cotto.

The favorite son of Caguas, Puerto Rico, has made it abundantly clear that his sole purpose in the fight game these days is to maximize revenue, and that’s pretty much it. Except for his most fervent admirers, most fight fans are now tired of hearing Miguel—he of the impassive face and the solemn gaze that has, like, seen things—repeat over and over that all he cares about at this point in his career is the amount of money he makes. Not proving his worth as a champion, or adding to his already significant achievements, or writing another worthy chapter in the proud history of Puerto Rican boxing. None of that matters to this man. Providing for his family and engorging his nest-egg are the only things Miguel Cotto cares about.

His signing with Roc Nation for guaranteed eight-figure paydays speaks loudly to that fact, as does his delaying the upcoming blockbuster with Canelo Alvarez—a 2-to-1 favourite in the matchup—as long as he possibly could. If further confirmation was needed, this week the Puerto Rican vacated the WBC belt he took from Sergio Martinez last year just to avoid having to defend it against the mandatory challenger, coincidentally one of the most feared men in boxing, in Gennady Golovkin. This after having already agreed to pay the Kazakh $800,000 to step aside and let the Canelo fight—on paper a much safer and profitable engagement—happen first.

What would you do if you were in Miguel's Crocs?
What would you do if you were in Miguel’s Crocs?

Having said all that, can anyone say with a straight face they wouldn’t do the same were they in Cotto’s pink Crocs? After all, the man is quickly approaching retirement at the same time his name is still worth millions at the box-office. What is a man to do but milk that name for all it’s worth? Still, let’s give credit where it’s due: Cotto already tested his limits over and over in tough encounters against almost every name that matters from his generation: Malignaggi, Judah, Mosley, Margarito, Clottey, Pacquiao, Mayweather, Martinez. Does Cotto really have anything left to prove? Even if he did, is it really worth risking his long-term health for it? The rational answer to both questions is a resounding no, but the fact remains a significant portion of the boxing public resents the way Miguel Cotto now manages his career, and it’s worth exploring why.

Perhaps it’s because fight fans expect the boxers whose lush livelihoods they enable to at least acknowledge their existence. But the 2015 version of Cotto fights not to please fans, much less to silence critics. He fights sporadically, under his own terms, and to hell with everything else; this is why he waited a year to defend the belt he won from Sergio Martinez at a catchweight against a severely overmatched–and dangerously drained–Daniel Geale. This is why he will not fight Gennady Golovkin, ever. And this is why he told the WBC to stick their sanctioning fees invoice where the sun don’t shine. Championships don’t mean anything to him, and neither does the fans’ recognition or applause. Not anymore.

Rubbing salt in the wound is that Miguel wasn’t always this way; before he seized the middleweight crown from a physically diminished Martinez, throughout his runs at 140, 147 and 154 pounds Cotto’s name was synonymous with courage and grit. So what, exactly, turned Miguel into the calculating mercenary he is today, interested in self-preservation and self-gain and nothing else? Perhaps it had something to do with learning Margarito quite possibly cheated in their first fight. Or perhaps it’s related to the way Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather dictated terms to him, making it abundantly clear his role in those promotions was that of the dreaded B-side. Or maybe he just realized his priorities needed to be re-aligned as he neared retirement.

Cotto's loss to Margarito shaped his approach to the fight game
Cotto’s loss to Margarito shaped his approach to the fight game

Or maybe Miguel is just very aware of his size disadvantage at middleweight, and his avoidance of Golovkin is a recognition that fighting at 160-pounds against the best opposition available at his advanced age is simply a terrible idea. But the fact he held hostage the lineal title solely to extract from it as much bargaining power as possible—despite being aware he’s not a true middleweight—proves Miguel is all about the money these days.

And fans resent that not because they’re hating, but because boxing is a sport, and that arouses in fans certain expectations. Namely, they expect, at least from time to time, to see the best fighting the best. They want to see top-level fighters challenge and prove themselves. They want to see fighters take chances and reach for greatness, especially when they happen to be a lineal champion. They love comparing the achievements of today’s crop of fighters with those of the past. Miguel, by his own choice, has walked away from this pact with fight fans, and no longer feeds any of those expectations; instead, his goal became to take as much money as possible from fans, giving them nothing in return other than a villain to root against.

Because of Miguel’s heel turn from respected champion to reviled revenue-maximizer, perhaps the most interesting storyline to explore going into this weekend’s main event lies on the contrast in values and motivations between the Puerto Rican champion and the Mexican challenger, Canelo Alvarez. In stark opposition to Cotto’s perceived egoism and egotism, Canelo speaks at every opportunity—admittedly, through rehashed quips and trite platitudes—of his desire to achieve greatness in the ring by facing the biggest challenges available to him and making fans proud of his achievements. Earlier in his career Cotto also courted the public’s admiration by engaging in the kind of contests fans expect champions to partake in. But this weekend more than a few diehard fight fans will be hoping Canelo teaches Cotto, the respected champion-turned-villain, a lesson on their behalf.

Canelo strives to prove he contains multitudes
Canelo strives to prove he contains multitudes

That more people back Canelo than Cotto for this clash is also explained by the way each fighter relates—or fails to relate—to their fanbase. In the buildup to this weekend’s main event, Cotto’s jaded demeanor and his refusal to pander to the boxing public have clashed time and again with Canelo’s wide smiles and his inclusive “Estamos muy contentos!” Talking with the detachment of a perfectly self-contained man, Cotto speaks of doing what’s best for him, of how Canelo is just one more fight in his long resumé, and of how no one will tell him who to face next. Meanwhile, Canelo strives to prove he can contain multitudes. He talks of making the Mexican people proud as he thanks over and over his legions of supporters, promising them a future filled with spectacular performances against top-level opposition.

That Canelo sees the fight game in such different terms from Cotto’s may have something to do with the naiveté only young, well-managed, successful fighters can afford. Even before Oscar De La Hoya started promoting him, Canelo’s good looks, young age, and occasional flashes of talent ensured him royal treatment by Mexican promoters and TV networks. A padded record served as a springboard to prime time on HBO and Showtime, further enlarging his following and earning power. His loss to Floyd Mayweather in a cash-grabber was explained away as a case of too much too soon, but was also sandwiched between strong showings against skilled boxers in Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara. His recent knockout of James Kirkland in a baseball stadium in front of over 30,000 delirious fans may have been the largest display of Canelomania yet, further cementing his status as an elite talent and a crossover superstar.

The believer.
The Believer.

However, the biggest challenge a boxing king in waiting could face is that of an elite talent who’s also a strong puncher, and it’s one Canelo has yet to face. That will change this weekend when he stares at Miguel Cotto’s tattooed body from across the ring. That’s the same Cotto who suffered crushing defeats—physically and psychologically—at the hands of Margarito, Mayweather and Pacquiao, defeats that were instrumental in shaping the Boricua’s current, highly cynical, view of the sport. Alternatively, the worst thing that has happened to Canelo so far in a ring is getting thoroughly out-boxed by Floyd Mayweather. Who’s to say the redhead from Guadalajara is not one bad beating away from becoming a mercenary himself?

As things stand today, however, the biggest difference between Cotto and Canelo is that the Puerto Rican answers to and believes only in himself; the Mexican not only believes in something bigger than himself—namely greatness—but also that he’s destined to achieve it. If boxing history were written by writers, it’s almost self-evident Cotto wouldn’t stand a chance: a Canelo victory would not only be in the offing, it would clear the path for more great fights for the Mexican, more chances to become a legend. Alas, boxing history is not written in ink; instead it’s sketched in broad strokes of sweat and blood belonging to those who climb between the ropes. Canelo may believe it’s his destiny to lead boxing into a new era, but Cotto, the sport’s premier mercenary, stands in his way. Memorable battles have been fought under much less auspicious circumstances. Let’s hope Cotto vs Canelo is a great one.

–Rafael Garcia

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6 thoughts on “The Mercenary and The Believer

  • November 19, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Mercenary = smart in this game and they are both fighting for the money (and fame of it), no matter what sound bites come out of Canelo’s mouth. Great fights against great fighters are incidental to nearly all of todays “made” fighters.

    No defense of Cotto’s holding of the MW title and denying GGG of his rightful shot at the top of the mountain but, other than Pacquiao and Marquez, no one has given the fans better fights over the last 10 years (my opinion) and if he does take a little extra time to make extra secure his nest egg then I reckon he has earned it. That is said with the hope that win or lose he steps aside and lets the title pass to Gennady, as fighting him at this stage of Miguel’s long and storied career would be a bad, bad idea.
    All due respect to Canelo for taking the challenges though, not just here but with Trout, Lara and Mayweather, completely fearless for a made guy. I know win or lose this Saturday Canelo is going to give us great fights against great fighters for years to come.

    Prediction: Saturday night, we the fans win.

    • November 22, 2015 at 11:41 pm

      Hi OC,

      Very good points to make.

      If anyone earned the right to secure his nest-egg that is Cotto. What I and many others disagree with, or “resent”, is that he had to do so at the expense of holding the middleweight lineal title hostage. Clearly, champions with financial leverage will act any way they feel like, but that doesn’t mean fans have to agree with it or like it.

  • November 19, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    Cotto expressed a desire to fight Martinez because he wanted to be the first Puerto Rican to win titles in four weight classes, I’ve heard him say so in interviews both before and after the fight. It helped build both his legacy and his earning power, but he didn’t just do it for the money.
    I think you’re mistaking fight promotion and career management for a genuine change of character. You mention Cotto’s “heel turn,” which in wrestling parlance means “becoming a bad guy.” If you understand that term, surely you understand that fights sell best when there is a clear good guy (the “babyface”) fighting bad guy (the “heel”). For the non-Mexican, non-Puerto Rican boxing public, Canelo is the babyface in this fight and Cotto is the heel. Cotto is acting as a heel, as he should in this case. To continue the wrestling terminology, that makes you a “mark.”
    It’s awfully presumptuous to imply that a fighter betrayed the fans because they made smart matchups as their physical skills waned. Sure, Cotto could have fought Golovkin and risked his long-term health, but why do it? As you said, he already proved himself against the best when he was in his physical prime. I’m sure Roach told him not to fight GGG, I’m sure his management agreed. After losing to young, hungry fighters like Trout, he needed to refocus and make better choices if he wanted to have a long career at the top of the sport. He succeeded. I’m happy for him, and I look forward to seeing him in the ring a few more times before he hangs them up.

    • November 22, 2015 at 11:31 pm

      Hi Geoff,

      First off, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment.

      “It’s awfully presumptuous to imply that a fighter betrayed the fans because they made smart matchups as their physical skills waned.”

      Perhaps I could’ve made it a bit clearer, but the way I see it, fans who have a beef with Cotto (and there are many out there) do so not because of the reason you provide, but because of his milking the lineal title. To be fair, he’s not the only one doing so–Adonis Stevenson immediately comes to mind–but he IS the one who is (was) doing so most unabashedly, not even bothering to assuage critics during interviews.

  • November 21, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    I’m not convinced that the perception of Cotto you’re painting here is truly that of all but the most fervent Miguel fans or deserving of a place on the best boxing site in the business. Canelo’s expressed desire for greatness – “rehashed quips & trite platitudes”, his carefuly calculated “padded record” that “springboarded” him to popularity. Cotto has give us over a decade of amazing fights, dodging no one. He didn’t have quite the same luxury that today’s coddled “Haymond” generation of superstars are being granted. Fault him now for his priority being taking care of his family? I for one couldnt be more tired of the empty Golden Boy parade that has been a Canelo Promotion over the last three years, like a bad soap opera stuck on repeat. Daddy dearest & little junior hippo campo rhino have to be the most annoying corner men amongst those training the 30-40 most popular guys in the sport. & I have nothing against Canelo himself – the guy has some gifts – great hands, perfect confidence, universal appeal outside the ring. Gennady, meanwhile has cruised through 34 fights (winning manny within 2 rounds), absorbing hardly any ring wear in the process of crushing opponents & looking like he could simultaneously play a violin concerto & split atomic particles. Cotto has given much more to the game, fight fans, than what the other two combined ever could. In a western world all about instant gratification, “what did you do for me today:” Don’t forget that.

    • November 22, 2015 at 11:34 pm

      Hi Joe B.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to provide a well-written comment.

      You make some very good points, but I think we’re focusing on different eras of Cotto’s and Canelo’s careers. Canelo definitely looked for a long time like a marketing creation, and Cotto did take on all comers on his pre-middleweight days, offering fans plenty of wars along the way. But things changed somewhere along the way, and that’s what the article focused on.


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