Friday November 20th, 2015

LAS VEGAS — In the fall of 2000, Miguel Cotto, fresh off representing Puerto Rico at the Sydney Olympics, the ink still drying on his pro contract with Top Rank, flew in for a meeting with his promoters. They wanted to discuss a plan to guide Cotto through the first year of his career. Cotto, 20, wanted to know when he was going to fight for a title.

Bruce Trampler, Top Rank’s Hall of Fame matchmaker, had seen this before. Hundreds of fighters had shuffled through the Top Rank office over the years, all wanting to know when they would get their shot. So Trampler came prepared. Latin fighters often cite the same heroes: Alexis Arguello. Roberto Duran. Julio Cesar Chavez. Trampler printed out their records to show Cotto that even the greatest fighters needed to have patience.

Cotto shrugged. They are good, he said. I want to be better.

“It was a confidence bordering on cockiness,” Trampler says. “I could appreciate it. He wanted to be special. He wanted to be elite. And he wanted to do it on his schedule.”

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​Fifteen years after that meeting, Cotto is still around, still making his case. He has built a career fighting the best, beating some (Shane Mosley, Zab Judah), losing to others (Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather) but never, ever backing down. His business model is a parallel of Mayweather’s: Promoters be damned, he’s going to fight when he wants to fight, make what he wants to make and force opponents to play by his rules. Even sanctioning bodies aren’t safe. After demanding that Cotto pay $800,000 to Gennady Golovkin—step aside money for Golovkin, the mandatory challenger for Cotto’s WBC middleweight title—the WBC came back and demanded that Cotto write a check for $300,000 for the right to defend his own title against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez on Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 ET).

Cotto, understandably, declined.

"I have enough belts in my house,” Cotto said. “And with the money I saved, I can buy any belt I want.”

Some fighters need titles for validation. Cotto does not. He’s a bankable pay-per-view star who does huge ratings fighting nobodies on HBO. His last fight, a title defense against Daniel Geale, drew 1.6 million viewers; two fights before that, a Cotto fight against Delvin Rodriguez attracted 1.55 million viewers. He’s television honey, luring fans in like flies, regardless of whether he has a belt around his waist or not.

But he’s also nearing the end. At 35, Cotto is old for a fighter. Factor in his résumé and he’s really old. The 12-round war with Mosley. The knockout loss to Pacquiao. The beating he took from Antonio Margarito, an opponent who, in his next fight, was caught attempting to load his gloves. Cotto has waged two careers worth of wars.

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Fighter’s Cotto’s age have a finite number of second chances. Cotto has already used one. In 2013, following a stunning decision loss to Austin Trout, Cotto switched stables, joining forces with Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach. To prepare, Roach devoured hours of Cotto film. He found flaws everywhere. He didn’t like Cotto’s footwork. He thought he sat down on his punches too much. He saw a fighter who had abandoned his side-to-side movement.

Says Roach, “There was a lot of things I thought he could be doing better.”

Mentally, Roach says, Cotto needed rebuilding, too. In their first camp together Roach noticed Cotto recoiling from punches from sparring partners. “A little gun-shy,” Roach said. Roach suspected Cotto was still feeling the effects from the loss to Margarito, who many believe pummeled Cotto with something a little extra in his gloves. Something happened to Cotto after Margarito. He grew more withdrawn. The tattoos on his body began to multiply. That loss, that savage beating, friends of Cotto say, lingered with him. Roach asked Cotto. Cotto confirmed it. The two moved forward, with Cotto blasting Rodriguez out in three rounds in the fall of 2013. The next camp, Roach noted something different.

“He just said, ‘Something came to me. It’s gone,’” Roach says. “Honest to God, from that point on the flinching, the gun shyness, it stopped.”

The wins didn’t. In 2014, Cotto retired middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, breaking Martinez’s spirit—and his knees—with a relentless assault. Last June, Cotto dominated Geale, a former middleweight titleholder. “Freddie is the biggest [asset] I have in my career,” Cotto says. “He has made me a better boxer. After this next fight, you are going to really understand what he has done for my career.”

Cotto understands: His next fight could be his last. He knows the end is coming, but that end would be hastened by a loss to Alvarez, a relentless, power punching take-on-all comers fighter carved in the mold of... Cotto. At 25, Alvarez will survive a loss. Cotto may not. A win could lead to a rematch with the (allegedly) retired Floyd Mayweather or a showdown with middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin. A loss could finish him.

At Wednesday’s press conference, staring down another hungry young fighter, promoting yet another pay-per-view, Cotto looked at home. His time will come on Saturday, in front of a sold-out crowd at Mandalay Bay, on the screens of hundreds of thousands watching on pay-per-view. An outstanding résumé will either be burnished or, perhaps, completed.

The last stand of Miguel Cotto.

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