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In former champion Cotto, Steward sees room for improvement


NEW YORK -- The black SUV eased around a corner and settled into spot just in front of the Trinity Boxing Club. First out of the car was Miguel Cotto, the ex-welterweight king wearing a familiar Puerto Rican colored jacket and even more familiar cool expression. Trailing him is his longtime friend and PR boss Bryan Perez, a Big Punisher lookalike whose sheer size suggests he doesn't share the rippled Cotto's love for workouts. Alongside him Joe Santiago, Cotto's longtime cornerman and one-time trainer who counts himself as one of Cotto's most trusted advisors.

The last man out of the car is not so familiar; at least not with Team Cotto. Emanuel Steward has built a brilliant career as one of boxing's best trainers, having worked with past legends like Tommy Hearns and Lennox Lewis to current champions like Wladimir Klitschko. But Saturday night's WBA junior middleweight title fight will be his first in Cotto's corner, and in this camp Steward has had the unenviable task of changing a fighter stone cold set in his ways.

For most of his career, Cotto has been the boxer's equivalent of a freight train, an aggressive power puncher who wore his opponents down with unyielding pressure. The style was both successful (he won his first 32 professional fights) and bankable (Cotto has sold nearly 100,000 tickets in New York, more than any other fighter) while catapulting him to the top of the welterweight division.

But recently, that fearlessness has proved costly. In 2008 Cotto was slapped with his first loss when Antonio Margarito -- who may have had a little something extra in his gloves -- bludgeoned him in an 11th-round knockout. Cotto rebounded with a narrow decision win over Joshua Clottey in June 2009, but last November he absorbed another beating, this time at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. So brutal was the defeat that many industry experts -- Steward included -- wondered whether Cotto would be able to come back at 29 years old.

"Any time you are coming in with a fighter that has some very rough fights, you are concerned with the physical damage as well as mental damage," Steward said. "Some guys their coordination and reflexes are totally shot from the combination of the tough fights and emotions. But I did not see that from Miguel."

That's not to say Steward didn't see room for improvement. A consistent jab followed by a massive right hand is a hallmark of Steward's fighters and from the first day of camp Steward noted that Cotto's technique had gotten sloppy.

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"I was very surprised in the first two days because his balance was so bad and his feet were spread so far apart and his head was down and he wasn't throwing combinations, just one punch at a time," said Steward. "Any fighter you see of mine is going to have good balance and distribution of weight. I made him just drop his hands and dance back and forth with his weight evenly balanced and he caught onto it and from that point on he went to a whole other level. His boxing has been superb and all of us have been very impressed."

"I didn't make any major changes, just subtle changes," Steward said. "He had to be doing something right to be where he is so I didn't try to make him be a whole new fighter. Just improve on a few areas, mainly the balance and the speed and maintain balance while he is punching in combinations."

Said Cotto: "My balance was awful before this camp and now it is much better than we expected. When you talk about balance, it is the way you throw punches and stay right on your feet. That is the balance we are talking about. Sometimes you can throw more than two punches and stay there."

That Cotto is even listening to Steward qualifies as a minor victory. His relationship with his first trainer, his father Evangalista Cotto, was so dysfunctional that the two barely spoke in the final years of their working relationship. And while Cotto professes deep respect for Santiago, camp insiders say it was Cotto running the show during the training for the Pacquiao fight. Steward, however, says Cotto has been receptive to his teaching.

"Miguel's boxing and energy level have been fantastic," Steward said. "His weight is a normal weight. He is finishing up his boxing, after 10 or 12 rounds, having never been exhausted in a very hot gym and his weight has been staying around 159. That means without any extra effort he could fight at 154 or 147. He looks wonderful."

Cotto will need every one of Steward's lessons in his 154-pound debut. Though unheralded, Foreman is an exceptionally skilled fighter with good movement and an awkward style that Steward admits will be more challenging than Cotto thinks.

"The opponent is very difficult, but in the past, Miguel has had great success with speed opponents by cutting down the guys, whether it was Zab Judah or Paulie Malignaggi," Steward said. "Against all of those guys he had great success against by cutting off the ring. Miguel told me, 'Mr. Steward, don't worry, I will be able to cut off the ring and pressure.' Right now, the way Miguel has been looking, it is going to be very hard for Yuri to stay away from Miguel for 12 rounds because Miguel is looking very fast with his feet right now and his combinations are wicked and his punching is awesome.

"Miguel is a lot faster than a lot of people will expect from this fight. We know that Yuri is fast but Miguel is going to surprise a lot of people with his speed."