Puerto Rican legend Miguel Cotto has engaged in numerous classic fights and been one of the best fighters of his generation, a Hall of Famer in waiting and a true star in sport that could use a whole lot more of them.
When Cotto heads to the ring on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) for his 10th main event at Madison Square Garden in New York, however, it will not be for a fight for which there are high expectations. Rather, it is, at least on paper, a celebratory event: Cotto says this will be his farewell fight as he gets set to end a glorious 17-year career in which he has won six world titles and became the first Puerto Rican man to win belts in four weight divisions (junior welterweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight).
Yes, Cotto must still fight the fight at an arena where he has become a franchise and had strong support from New York’s large Puerto Rican community. But going into the first defense of the vacant junior middleweight belt he won on Aug. 26 against Yoshihiro Kamegai, he is a heavy favorite to blow past Brooklyn, New York’s Sadam Ali, a welterweight who is moving up to 154 pounds with little in the way of a meaningful resume in the lighter division.
Will Cotto bow out in style with another strong showing at the Garden, where he is 8-1? Will he show his age (37) and the wear of a long, tough career? Or will the hungry Ali, 29, topple a fighter he has been a fan of for years, claim a world title and send Cotto into retirement?
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
Miguel Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) vs. Sadam Ali (25-1, 14 KOs)
Cotto has been adamant since even before he outpointed Kamegai that he would retire at the end of this year.
“I have done everything in my career that I’ve wanted to do,” Cotto said. “This is the final fight.”
He has said it over and over in the buildup to the fight with Ali, although he has not been particularly nostalgic about a career in which he faced so many top fighters.
Heading into his final fight week, Cotto has been deliberate and poised as usual.
“It’s been a pleasure for me to try to entertain you guys for 17 years,” he said at the final prefight news conference on Thursday. “I have done my best at every opportunity for the benefit of my family. They mean everything to me, and I am so proud of them and they are so proud of me.
“On Saturday, I will be the same Miguel you have watched for the last 16 years. I am going to be a warrior and do my best for the benefit of my family, as always.”
Cotto credits Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach with saving his career after they hooked up after Cotto’s back-to-back decision losses to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout in 2012. Roach guided Cotto to the middleweight title and a junior middleweight belt. This will be their sixth fight together.
Roach said he is happy for Cotto and his decision to retire, but said he will miss him and the completely professional work ethic he always brought to the gym.
“It’s a sad moment to say this is our last training camp, because I’m going to miss Miguel a lot,” Roach said. “(Wednesday) in the gym was the best I’ve ever seen Miguel. No one talked about retirement in camp. He’s in great shape and didn’t take anything lightly in camp. He’s going to go out on top, and you’re going to see the best Miguel yet.”
Opportunity of a lifetime
While Cotto is bowing out, Ali, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, hopes to ruin the retirement party by pulling the upset and scoring a career-making victory.
“I know I’m the underdog,” he said. “I know a lot of the media are throwing bad words at me. But if you work hard, you never know what’s going to come. It’s not about the money. It’s about the opportunity. I know if I want to win, I have to come at 100 percent and fight smart. I’m ready to shine. For those of you who don’t think I have a chance, all you got to do is wait and see.”
Few give him much a chance, basing that viewpoint largely on the fact that the one time Ali did step up in class against Jessie Vargas for a vacant welterweight world title in March 2016, Ali got knocked down twice and stopped in the ninth round of a somewhat one-sided fight.
Ali knows he will have his hands full against Cotto but said he is well prepared.
“I’ve been fighting since I was 8 years old, and I’ve been in big arenas. Of course, it’s going to be a little bit more in this one, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I took the challenge against a legend,” Ali said. “I dare to be great. I fear nothing, and I don’t hold back. This is the opportunity of a lifetime in Madison Square Garden. It’s going to be amazing. I feel like we’re going to put on a great show, and I’m excited, and I’m ready.
“Yeah, it’s a huge challenge, a big step up. The biggest opponent in my career, and I’m also moving up to another weight class. But I love the challenge, and I’m ready to do whatever I have to do.”
Ali admitted that he has been a fan of Cotto’s through the years.
“I followed his career, and I’ve also been to a few fights,” Ali said. “I always liked his style and what he did. He’s fought the best. He’s had some great fights. So if you love boxing, you’re going to grow up watching Miguel Cotto. So, yes, I did come up watching for sure.”
Now Ali will be the one across the ring from him, but he said that he has studied Cotto and knows what to expect.
“It’s a great challenge. He has a lot of great things in his fight arsenal. He has great power. He has a great jab,” said Ali, who worked some with bigger fighters such as Daniel Jacobs and Curtis Stevens in training camp. “He can come forward, and he’s also learned how to move a little bit too. So it’s a mix of everything, and I have to be prepared and ready for all that. I have to be at my best. I have to be in the greatest shape if I want to perform like I need to.
“Of course, I’ve got to be more careful. He has tremendous power. I’ll have my eye open a lot more and stay focused throughout the whole fight. He is the bigger guy. Like I said, I’m moving up a weight class. This is a huge challenge for me, but I’m up for it. My motivation is being on HBO, it being a world title [fight], and my career honestly.”
Said Andre Rozier, Ali’s trainer: “Sadam knows that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. We took the fight knowing what we had to step up to. Sadam’s ready. He’s been ready for a fight like this.” Golden Boy Promotions president Eric Gomez has worked with Ali for years and gives him credit for taking the challenge Cotto presents.
“Sadam deserves credit and recognition for doing something far too many boxers shy away from — taking on a legend and daring to be great,” he said. “That is how you make a real name for yourself in boxing. You’ll never know what’s possible if you don’t try it. Greatness happens when you pursue tough challenges, win or lose. I’ve never seen Sadam in better shape, so I know he worked hard. You cannot underestimate the power of a dream.”
Cotto will be missed
Some key players in Cotto’s career had their say about his impending retirement.
HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson: “Saturday will be Miguel’s 24th appearance on HBO. It’s a privilege to have Miguel on HBO for the final fight of his career. It’s been a great honor for HBO to be associated with Miguel’s career. He is a terrific ambassador for the sport.”
Longtime Madison Square Garden executive Joel Fisher: “Saturday will be a bittersweet day for us at the Garden. We’ve have a great relationship with Miguel that dates back to 2005. When we first started with Miguel, his kids were little but now they are grown. He has sold more than 150,000 tickets at the Garden. Miguel is what makes the Garden what it is as the ‘Mecca of Boxing.’ It makes us happy that Miguel is going out on his own terms.”
Golden Boy Promotions CEO Oscar De La Hoya: “(Cotto is) a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a true legend in Puerto Rico, New York, and beyond, and he’s obviously been a true credit to the sport of boxing.”
Cotto: 20-5 (16 KOs) in world title fights
Cotto: Only Puerto Rican male fighter to win world titles in four different weight classes
Cotto: One of two Puerto Rican fighters to hold a share of the middleweight title (Felix Trinidad)
Cotto: Headlined first boxing card at new Yankee Stadium (2010)
Cotto: 8-1 at MSG, only loss was to Austin Trout in 2012
In the co-feature, junior featherweight world titleholder Rey Vargas (30-0, 22 KOs), 27, of Mexico, will make his second defense — on his second Cotto undercard in a row — when he takes on Oscar Negrete (17-0, 7 KOs), 30, a Colombia native fighting out of Rosemead, California.
“Miguel Cotto is a great fighter, and I’m happy to be part of this card,” said Vargas, who is trained by Hall of Famer Nacho Beristain. “I’m enthusiastic for this fight because Oscar Negrete is a great fighter, and he is coming for my title. You will see on Saturday why I am No. 1 and why I would like to be No. 1 forever. I am a champion, and I will do what Cotto did in his career. I want to be No. 1 for the people. I’m ready for Saturday, and I’m going to give it my everything.”
Said Negrete: “I’m so excited for this opportunity. This is everything that I have worked for so far in my career. Being undefeated doesn’t make him (Vargas) invincible. I’m a force to be reckoned with. People may underestimate me, but I know what I’ve done to make sure I walk away with the victory.”
On the non-televised undercard, which will be part of the Ring magazine website live stream (7 p.m. ET), Cotto protégé Angel Acosta (16-1, 16 KOs), 27, of Puerto Rico, will fight Juan “Pinky” Alejo (24-4-1, 14 KOs), 33, of Mexico, for the junior flyweight title Kosei Tanaka vacated this week.
Rafael’s prediction: Cotto by knockout.