NEW YORK -- No place engenders and sustains the Puerto Rican Boxing Icon like New York City. Consider the thousands of mourners who defied near-freezing temperatures Saturday morning outside the funeral of Hector Camacho at St. Cecelia's Church in East Harlem, congregating across East 106th Street behind police barricades, waving flags and shouting "Macho!" as pallbearers finally exited the brick-and-terra-cotta building to deliver the flag-draped coffin to a waiting hearse. It was a somber wake for the local kid who rose from the nearby James Weldon Johnson housing project to fight 15 times at Madison Square Garden and win titles in three weight classes.
Miguel Cotto has always called Puerto Rico home, yet over the past decade became an adopted son in New York, a worthy successor to Camacho's Boricuan-hard-man legacy. The former 140-, 147- and 154-pound champion entered Saturday's super welterweight title fight with Austin Trout having fought seven times at the Garden, where he's sold more than 100,000 tickets, solidifying his status as the sport's third biggest draw after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Cotto at MSG had become a bucket-list-worthy experience, an environment unlike any other in boxing, where his every punch or gesture of acknowledgement sparked deafening roars from the jingoistic crowd.
Yet Saturday's atmosphere was different, a little more subdued and slightly less carnival-like, not least because Cotto lost a unanimous decision to Trout, an undefeated but anonymous beltholder -- the Puerto Rican's first defeat in eight fights at boxing's mecca. The 13,086 customers were roughly 8,000 less than Cotto's most recent Garden bout, last year's grudge match with Antonio Margarito, with none of the cowbells, airhorns and thundersticks so ubiquitous at his previous fights.
And, as it turned out, fewer moments of excitement for Cotto himself, as the aging fighter (and 2-to-1 favorite) was walked down and roughed up by a hungry young titleholder from Las Cruces, N.M., who entered the ring first despite holding the belt, all just a quick subway ride from where Camacho had been laid to rest hours earlier. One ringside judge scored it 119-109, with the other two had it 117-111. (SI.com had it 116-112.)
The thrill was gone. And with it, the end of an era in New York City boxing.
From the opening bell, Trout (26-0, 14 KOs) looked as game as Cotto looked flat, scoring effectively with the jab and tying up Cotto in close quarters to smother his power. Cotto's aggressive body work did little to deter the young champion, who won the WBA's vacant 154-pound title against Rigoberto Alvarez last year and had defended it three times since. The 27-year-old landed consistently with the left cross, beating Cotto to the punch and trying a find a home for his left uppercut. The Puerto Rican's lack of head movement was troubling.
Cotto (37-4, 30 KOs) managed to reverse the momentum from the third round through the sixth, working aggressively to force the fight into a phone booth, appearing to have solved Trout's tricky southpaw style. Trout's response to Cotto's adjustments was to pick up the pace, but he found himself walking into the Puerto Rican's shots. A punishing counter left hook in the sixth round rocked Trout -- it was the best punch of the night at that point -- and sent the crowd into a renewed tumult of "Let's go Cotto!" chants. Still, the champion never looked hurt.
Yet by the ninth round Trout was walking down Cotto, who looked faded and weary. By the 11th, as Trout picked his opponent apart and buckled Cotto's knees with a right hook and left uppercut, it looked as if the Puerto Rican would need a knockout to win. Trout's jab was simply too formidable and wouldn't allow Cotto to come forward. Even when the fight gave way to thrilling two-way action, as it frequently did, it was Trout who got the better of the exchanges.
Most at ringside believed Cotto's home-field advantage could influence the judges, no one more than Trout himself. "When I heard 'unanimous,' I was like, 'Uh-oh,'" he remarked afterward. "I did think it was closer than the cards said."
The harsh halogen lights overhanging the post-fight press conference made inescapable the punishment written on Cotto's swollen, battered face, yet the 32-year-old brushed off thoughts of retirement. "I'm looking forward, that's all," he said during a brief address in halting English. "I never make any excuses. I continue my career. I accept my defeats. I learn from them. I'm just going to continue."
Cotto, who's held some form of world championship every year since 2004 and took part in his 23rd consecutive title bout on Saturday, is widely regarded as a classy champion and future Hall of Famer. Win, lose or draw, he always makes for satisfying fights. Defined by a monastic stoicism, Cotto operates with a lunch-bucket, businesslike attitude that's fueled his legend. More Gary Cooper than John Wayne. In truth, he is a fighter of less than extraordinary skill, whose career will always be mythologized by the "what if" factor of Margarito, who bloodied the then-undefeated Puerto Rican with (probably) loaded gloves in a gruesome 2008 fight that took something out of Cotto he'd never get back.
While Cotto was able to rebound nicely, there's little doubt the Margarito loss derailed his career and, perhaps, kept him from fulfilling his superstar potential. In his most recent fight prior to Saturday -- against Floyd Mayweather in May -- Cotto was praised almost universally (present company included) for pushing the pound-for-pound kingpin into the deepest waters of his career. Fact is, he was beaten soundly.
As a rebound fight, Trout was no light touch. Credit is due to Cotto, who could have easily fought a showcase fight against a Tijuana taxi driver and nearly packed the place Saturday night, so devout are his fans. The brave choice to fight an undefeated U.S. Olympic alternate who brought little to the promotion instead cost him a multi-million-dollar fight next spring against budding Mexican superstar Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (who was ringside). Cotto is respected precisely because he takes fights like Trout: an choice counterintuitive to the risk/reward metric that governs the decision-making of so many top fighters.
That brand of respect, as Trout's breakthrough performance made clear, is not without its perils.
Never again will Cotto, though still an intelligent boxer-puncher capable of besting most in the game, headline the Garden as an elite fighter. But while Saturday's defeat marked the end of a special chapter in Gotham's fistic lore, it will do little to diminish Cotto's legend and communion with the city's Puerto Rican populace.
"I'm very grateful for all the support I get from New York," he said early Sunday morning before making his leave, "and for that I always bring my best."