Unbeaten champ Cotto doesn’t get worked up

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico – The tiny boxing gym where Miguel Cotto is preparing for the fight of his life would be crowded if there were 20 people in it.

This day, with temperatures rising into the low 90s and humidity not much lower, three or four times that number have crowded into the gym. It feels, and smells, like a New York City subway car at rush hour on the hottest day of the year.

Few, other than the gym’s visitors, seem to notice.

As an unbeaten world champion works silently in a corner, preparing for arguably the most significant fight of his career, elementary school students who are part of his uncle’s boxing club race around the gym.

Working shoulder to shoulder with the tykes are veterans like Daniel Santos and David Estrada, who are preparing for critical bouts in their own up-and-down careers.

The gym is also replete with the young professional fighters who dream of following the path that Cotto has blazed. Spanish-speaking media is everywhere, it seems, as are the aging but attentive fight game regulars.

Amid the hubbub, Cotto is his usual stoic self. He strides quietly into the gym and puts on some music. It’s a champion’s prerogative, but the music is played softly and is hardly offensive.

Satisfied with the setup, he immediately hits the floor and begins stretching for his workout. He moves purposefully through a series of calisthenics, uttering nary a word.

As people pass, he nods in silent recognition. To those he knows well, he sticks out a gloved fist and adds a fist tap to the nod.

After a sparring session in which he repeatedly rocked his much larger opponent with thudding hooks to the ribcage, he walks to the speed bag and bangs away. When he’s finally done, sweat dripping like a leaky faucet from the tip of his nose, he’s staring blankly at the ring.

Finally, after what seems an eternity, but in truth must be only 10 or 15 seconds, someone asks him what is on his mind.

He’s worked feverishly to prepare for his WBA welterweight title fight at the swank MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on Saturday with Antonio Margarito, a guy who is much taller and wider than he and who has the kind of chin and heavy hands that make him Cotto’s most dangerous opponent.

Margarito has the capacity to hurt him. Margarito also has the capacity to take everything he dishes out and continue to press forward. Cotto understands the challenge.

It seems obvious what is on his mind as he stares into the distance, knowing that a good part of his professional future will be decided in a few days.

He had to be visualizing the fight, watching Margarito’s moves, imaging his punches, plotting his tactics.

The sound of the voice stirs Cotto out of his self-induced trance.

“Traffic,” he said, dabbing his face with a towel before silently walking away.

Later, he insists he rarely worries about his fights. It’s not meant to be an insult and isn’t a sign of a lack of respect for his opponent. Rather, he rarely worries about things that are not in his hands.

He works feverishly to control the things that are and is confident that he’s done all he could do in each of his bouts.

“I believe Miguel Cotto is the best in the world,” he said, not even a hint of a grin creasing his lips.

Popular opinion has WBC lightweight champion Manny Pacquiao atop most pound-for-pound lists. Before that, it was Floyd Mayweather Jr.

The opinion of others, though, has rarely meant much to Cotto.

“You know, I can only take what I have and do the best I can with it and make the most out of what I have,” said Cotto, 27, who is 32-0 and has won championships at both 140 and 147 pounds. “Maybe, someday, someone will come along who is so good, I can not beat him. If that happens, and I know I prepared myself the best way I could, no problem.

“It would only bother me if I felt I didn’t prepare the way I should have prepared.”

But he lives in a boxing-mad area with probably more world-class fighters per capita than anyplace else in the U.S.

The plentiful boxing options are what lured Estrada from Chicago to the island to prepare for his bout.

The veteran contender has an important fight Friday against Jesus Soto-Karass in Las Vegas and decided to train at Cotto’s gym because he understood it was a place where work would get done. Estrada knows where boxing fits in the scheme of things in Chicago.

There are a lot of boxing fans in the Windy City, Estrada said. But there are infinitely more Cubs and White Sox and Bears and Bulls and Blackhawks fans, not to mention Notre Dame diehards.

The atmosphere in Puerto Rico is all boxing, Estrada said, and Cotto’s gym personifies that. The island’s most famous athlete since Felix Trinidad has become one of the game’s greats with an unswerving work ethic and a puritan dedication to his craft.

“Boxing is so much more a part of the culture here than it is somewhere like Chicago,” Estrada said. “And you see Cotto, a guy who the people go crazy over, take things so seriously. He’s not out living it up or anything. It’s pretty obvious he’s working as hard as he can possibly work.

“He’ll play around and joke with the real small kids, but around the rest of us, it’s nothing but business. He approaches it as if it’s the most important thing he’s ever done.”

Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the way he was raised. His father, Miguel Sr., was in the Puerto Rican National Guard and, after a long day at work, would come home and work on an addition to the family home where he grew up and where he raised his sons.

In order to make the home more comfortable for his wife, Juana, and his growing family, Miguel Cotto Sr. would get home from his job, eat, and then work until late at night putting that addition onto the home.

It took him several years and he did virtually all of the work by himself. The story impressed visitors to his home, set alongside a winding road on a hill above the city, but he saw it as nothing other than a man’s responsibility.

“If I didn’t do it, then who?” Cotto Sr. asked, grinning.

The elder Cotto feels good. He’s nearly fully recovered from a mild stroke he had in May and back behind a desk in an office of his son’s company.

Miguel Cotto Jr. owns eight gas stations in Puerto Rico, planning dutifully for the day his career will end. He’s also running a campaign to end childhood obesity. But he can’t be distracted with the business of pumping gas these days, so he’s entrusted his burgeoning empire to his father, who seems to love the idea that he plays an important role in his son’s life.

“Miguel is going to do all of this one day,” the elder Cotto said, nodding his head at the work awaiting him when his visitor finally leaves. “But now, no. No. He can’t. His life is in that ring. That’s where he belongs now.

“We all do our part so he can get himself ready the way he has to.”

Miguel Sr. and his brother, Evangelista, now are the champion’s trainers. And when the younger Cotto brothers told their father they wanted to box, Cotto Sr. and Evangelista went out and bought books to study boxing.

In the early days, there was no indication Cotto would become a superstar and a national idol. But Martin Colon, a friend of Miguel Sr. and Evangelista, saw one thing in Cotto that he said never left him.

“He was a typical kid, but when you put those gloves on his hands, he knew that meant one thing: Time to go to work,” Colon said. “He always worked harder than anybody. He would play around and do things, but when it was time to (box), no one worked harder.”

Nor does anyone work harder these days. If it’s possible to win over a world-class opponent simply by working harder, then the nearly 3-1 odds favoring Cotto seem short.

A victory will bring him acclaim as perhaps the greatest active boxer in the game. It’ll set him up for huge purses in the future. He’ll steal the island once and for all from Felix Trinidad.

To Cotto, though, the quest for victory is more than dollars in the bank and the back-slapping adulatory of people he doesn’t know.

“I learned a long time ago that you only get out of something what you put into it,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Well, I’m putting everything into it.”

He raises his hands and cocks his head.

“I prepare to win every fight, because nothing is more important to me than that,” he said. “And because I want a good result, I do what I have to do before to get it.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jul 23, 2008