Yesterday, at the 152 Street Festival in the Bronx, Miguel Cotto put on a public workout before hundreds of his adoring Puerto Rican fans. The jr. middleweight—er, I mean, jr. welterweight—shadowboxed, hit the mitts for about eight rounds and did a bit on the speed bag, all to the rhythms of salsa blaring through large speakers and chants of “Cotto! Cotto! Cotto!”
But Top Rank’s (and Puerto Rico’s) hope for the future might as well have been working out in a vacant gym, such was his focus on the task at hand. His face was an expressionless mask, impassive, just as he looks during his fights regardless of the circumstances. The two buxom latina ring card girls that flanked the WBO titlist in the makeshift ring couldn’t even get the 24-year-old to shoot them a flirtatious smile. Over the course of an hour, Cotto raised his arms in the air just once to acknowledge his fans, who sweated under a sweltering June sun, wearing red headbands emblazoned with his name.
This is not to say Cotto doesn’t thrive on their support every bit as much as the more demonstrative Felix Trinidad ever did, or that the feelings aren’t mutual. The young man just doesn’t play to the crowd. He is who he is, and is not one to compromise himself or do things to appease others. You have to admire him. He is workmanlike, even-keeled, controlled, strong both inside and out. There wasn’t much to glean—boxingwise—from the shirtless Cotto yesterday. He hit the pads applying about 30% of the speed and power he’s capable of. He worked simple combinations—nothing flashy. His torso was muscular and taut, if unreasonably big for 140. (I have a gift for accurately gauging one’s weight—not including pregnant women in the third trimester—and would say he is ten pounds or more above the jr. welter limit.) Curiously, he sported Trinidad’s latest hairdo: close-cropped on the sides, straightened and spiky on the top. You would think after Tito’s recent drubbing, he would not wish to emulate his predecessor.
Now that it seems Trinidad has retired for good, after facing the masterful Winky Wright, someone has to fill his big shoes. Top Rank and HBO have been grooming Cotto (23-0, 19 KO’s) for the position. But is this too much to ask of him? Cotto is, indeed, an impressive prospect and has been moved well. He has passed all the tests thus far (although getting seriously rocked by the much smaller Chop Chop Corley in his last outing was a setback of sorts). Still, in my humble opinion, he is not a transcendent talent—he is a solid fighter who does several things well, but nothing great. Legendary welterweight slickster Saoul Mamby was among the crowd yesterday. He said Cotto leads too much with his physical strength and lacks nuance. Although Mamby appreciates the way the prospect carries himself, inside the ring he finds him to be slow, predictable and, simply, plain. As is their wont, HBO’s Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley can see no wrong in their latest darling, showering him with unduly high praise. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two differing opinions.
As referenced to above, Cotto is not long for the jr. welterweight class. Whatever advantage in size and strength he once commanded by shrinking himself down and then blowing back up by showtime, may now be hindering him. The yo-yoing can sap your strength, take your legs, even weaken your beard. How good he will be at welterweight is uncertain. How much of is success is owed to the fact he is picking on smaller men? One thing I do believe: However far he does or does not go in boxing, he will have exhausted his talent, squandering nothing. This is a fighter who does not beat himself.
On June 11, at Madison Square Garden, he will face a stern test in Muhammad Abdullaev (15-1, 12 KO’s), the man who beat him in the 2000 Olympics and went on to take the gold. Fight fans may recall that coming off those Olympic games, Abdullaev and U.S. silver medallist Ricardo Williams, were the hottest prospects at 140. Williams’ personal demons sunk him like the Titanic, and Abdullaev suffered a quirky KO loss to gatekeeper Emmanuel Clottey two years ago on Tuesday Night Fights. I confess that I haven’t seen Abdullaev fight since then—he’s reeled off four W’s against medium-level opposition—and don’t know how he’s been looking. But he has been far less active than Cotto and is listed at 31 (though he might be older). Here’s hoping that that he is in top form, and we are treated to another superb night of boxing next Saturday.
Roving through the crowd yesterday, picking up tidbits of boxing gossip, FightBeat learned from a close friend of Teddy Atlas’ that the ESPN boxing analyst picked Hatton to beat Tszyu. A British journalist called had him for a prediction, and Atlas surprised even himself when he said the 4 to 1 underdog would triumph over King Kostya…If Jermain Taylor watched the bout last night, he should be feeling more confident about his chances against B-Hop in July. Not that any of the fighters resemble each other, or that Taylor’s strategy should resemble Hatton’s, but we saw the virtues of Youth over Age last night. If you forbid the old man from setting the pace, if you make him work every second of every round, if you burn his legs out, then you’ve got a fair chance of beating a great champion.