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.
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.
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.
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.
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.