Bryan Armen Graham
Sunday June 14th, 2009

NEW YORK -- It's never just a prizefight when Miguel Cotto, the welterweight champion from Puerto Rico, headlines a card at Madison Square Garden.

Only a select few fighters can sell out this room in a down economy. Even fewer can stir the sort of mania Cotto inspires, with cowbells, airhorns, thundersticks and reggaeton lending to the overall feel of a revival meeting. That carnival atmosphere is only amplified when Cotto fights here on the weekend of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Saturday's WBO welterweight title defense against Ghana transplant and Bronx native Joshua Clottey marked the fourth time in five years Cotto has rung in those festivities with a Garden fight during the second weekend in June.

With his alphabet belt at stake against one of the top contenders in the sport's prestige division, Cotto did not disappoint. The welterweight champion outpointed Clottey and retained his piece of the 147-pound title with a gutsy split decision. John McKaie (115-112) and Don Trella (116-111) favored Cotto, with Tom Miller (114-113) dissenting.

It wasn't a cut-and-dried result -- scored it 115-113 to Clottey in a bout replete with swing rounds -- but neither Cotto nor 17,734 of his closest friends are going to lose sleep over the details. What matters is this: In his first high-profile outing since last year's defeat at the dubious hands of Antonio Margarito, Cotto reasserted his place in the top tier of boxing's deepest weight class.

"I'm here after a questionable loss, everybody knows it," Cotto told reporters during a brief news conference before getting whisked away to the hospital for stitches. "I never said anything about that. I'm never going to make any excuse in any fight."

Cotto had lost just once in 33 paying fights before Saturday, ceding his welterweight title to Margarito in July 2008. In that fight, Margarito summoned a superhuman effort to come from behind and stop Cotto in the 11th round. But six months later, Margarito was caught with loaded gloves before his loss to Shane Mosley -- an offense that earned a one-year license revocation and cast doubts over his entire body of work.

To many folks, those illegal hand wraps completely demystified what happened in Vegas and tainted Margarito's victory. To many, Cotto remains an undefeated fighter. But no asterisk could truly eradicate the acid memory of that July night, when Cotto came up against an indomitable opponent with a granite chin and couldn't fight on. Cotto's brief workout in February against no-hoper Michael Jennings wasn't exactly the litmus test skeptics needed.

With Saturday's victory, Cotto exorcised whatever demons remained with a victory over an opponent cut from Margarito's cloth: a lengthy, relentless pressure fighter who could take a punch (or a couple hundred) and keep moving forward.

The atmosphere in the minutes before the fight was electric. Cotto wouldn't have enjoyed a more overwhelming partisan advantage if the fight had been at Hiram Bithron Stadium in San Juan. Even at ringside, you could barely hear Michael Buffer's voice over the crowd during the fighter introductions. Only in the uppermost reaches of the Garden past dozens of Puerto Rican flags could you make out an empty seat. As a reporter, you take notes with the hope of capturing the moment. As a self-aware human being, you make a mental note of the nearest exits in case Clottey pulled off the upset -- such was the jingoistic fervor throughout the room.

To his credit, the West African seemed collected and unintimidated by the weight of the moment from the hostile reception through the opening bell until the thrilling, 12th-round denouement.

In a lively, entertaining title fight between two of the world's top 147-pounders, four key events shaped the outcome.

In the waning seconds of the first round: Following a cautious opening by both fighters, Cotto sent Clottey to the canvas with a short, economical left hand. Later, the challenger claimed his boot slipped on the canvas as the precise moment Cotto fired. Explained Clottey: "Everything came together."

Near the end of the third round: An accidental head butt opened a large gash over Cotto's left eyebrow. "All the blood was getting in my eye and I couldn't see," the champion said, explaining why Clottey took control of the fight briefly during the middle rounds.

Midway through the fifth round: As Clottey generated momentum with a series of more ambitious combinations -- with Cotto pawing at his cut and wiping away blood like an unconscious tic -- the Puerto Rican hurled Clottey face-first to the canvas when the fighters got tangled in a corner. Clottey spent close to a full minute on the canvas and another minute walking off the pain -- getting an earful from the crowd throughout -- while Cotto stood letting blood in a neutral corner.

Past the midpoint of the 12th round: Cotto struck Clottey in the back of the head -- a clear-cut foul that, in an earlier round, might have warranted a deduction from referee Arthur Mercante Jr.

"The ref is trying to protect [Cotto]. He just doesn't want the Puerto Ricans to be mad," reasoned Clottey provocatively, when asked about the Mercante's decision not to charge Cotto a point. "That's life. I just have to move on."

Clottey outlanded Cotto, 222 to 179, and connected at a higher rate on both jabs and power punches. But a first-round knockdown helped Cotto stake an advantage he wouldn't surrender.

"He hit me. Everybody saw, my face tells you that," said Cotto, with a large bandage over the game-changing gash. "But I'm pretty proud, I'm pretty happy."

The victory pushes Cotto's name into the mix for a potential megafight with pound-for-pound champion Manny Pacquiao, who looked on from ringside. That's a fight Top Rank CEO Bob Arum seems hooked on -- "I hope that we can get it done for November," he said -- though Arum also mentioned a possible rematch with Margarito as a contingency plan.

One name Arum didn't mention was Clottey, whom many observers can argue deserves a rematch based on Saturday's performance.

"Under ordinary circumstances, Clottey deserves a rematch. But we have economics to consider, and a fight with Cotto against Pacquaio or Margarito is certainly a bigger fight," Arum said. "If I said, 'Yeah, let me consider a rematch against Clottey now,' I'd just be bulling you because it's just not going to happen."

Clottey, furious with the decision, demanded a rematch.

"I think I won the fight but I didn't get the decision," Clottey told reporters. "I want Mr. Bob Arum to give me a rematch. I want you people to talk to him and have him give me a rematch."

When pressed about his future plans, an exhausted Cotto issued a simple response for the anxious public.

"According to me: vacations."

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