Cotto a Potential Superstar in Any Language

Cotto a Potential Superstar in Any Language
By Steve Kim/
November 8, 2007

With a win over Shane Mosley on Saturday night, Miguel Cotto will begin to join the pantheon of Puerto Rican greats, alongside the likes of Felix Trinidad, Wilfredo Gomez and Wilfred Benitez. There's no denying it, he will have arrived as a fully-fledged star.

Up until now, he's been a fighter who's been adroitly maneuvered by Bob Arum and someone who's also a bona fide ticket seller - for the second straight outing, the mezzanine section of Madison Square Garden is being opened up because of the brisk box office sales. But there's a belief that he has been a protected fighter to a certain degree and yet he has still looked vulnerable at times. But a victory over Mosley stamps him as a pound-for-pound entrant and certifies that he has the makings of a Puerto Rican great.

The island is known for producing three things: great rum, beautiful full-figured women, and world-class boxers. And once a fighter captures the heart of these people, their love and support is unconditional. A great Puerto Rican fighter doesn't just fight for himself, but for every Boricua on the face of the earth.

But Cotto seems to be reaching out beyond the island, as he has taken on the task of learning English. More and more the past few years, he has engaged the American media without an interpreter. His English is much like his fighting style - methodical, thought out and ultimately, effective.

"I decided a few years ago (to learn English) because it's important to me," he would say back in September at the House of Blues in Hollywood, California, at a media gathering to promote 'Fast and Furious'. "It's better for me from a marketing standpoint and I don't need anybody to translate my words. Everything you can say, you can say for yourself."

Just by looking at Cotto's stoic demeanor you get the sense that he takes virtually everything he does seriously. He's probably the type of guy that is meticulous when he's brushing his teeth and downright diligent in flossing. He certainly is determined in his efforts to learn a second language.

"I have a personal trainer in California," he would say. "I practice pretty much with him."

And yes, like many others, television is a valuable teaching aid.

"In Puerto Rico you have satellite networks and you can see all the American networks.”

Can't you just picture this guy laughing it up as he watches 'Three's Company' reruns and then whistles the 'Andy Griffith Show' theme song? Uh, yeah, neither can I. But his English is improving quickly. The difference in comfort level between the press conference in September to this week’s final presser in New York is noticeable.

But he's not the only Latin fighter to try and make the foray, as Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez have begun to converse in English in recent years. There was a time when stars like Roberto Duran and Julio Cesar Chavez - who many suspected knew the language more than they ever let on - made almost no effort to be bilingual.

"We're talking about, very often, street kids, semi-educated kids, who from what people have told me don't speak their own 'King’s Spanish' - so to speak. They didn't think it was necessary," said HBO's Larry Merchant, who covered boxing for years when he was a newspaper scribe. "They felt they spoke the language of boxing and it certainly didn't stop Duran from becoming a very popular American fighter, as well as some others.

"I think the body language and the boxing language is what puts them over. I don't see any proof that it makes a significant difference whether or not they try to improve their English. I see, for example, Klitschko speak multiple languages and I think it helps him that he can speak English. He does so in a rather natural way and he's comfortable with it 95-percent of the time. But I haven't seen where somebody has made the effort and it's resulted in suddenly that he's become more accessible to the American public."

But there is a belief that some editors in the traditional media have shied away from stories that involve boxers that only speak Spanish. Speak the language of the gringos and you just might get a few inches in the paper.

"Of course," agreed Ricardo Jimenez, Top Rank's publicist, who was once the sports editor at La Opinion. "A lot of people don't realize that in the Hispanic market that Cotto is one of the most famous boxers. I would say he is the most famous of all the Latinos. But now he's crossing over and it's important. You get more outlets, more opportunities for him."

But according to Jimenez, who translates for many of the Spanish-only speaking fighters at Top Rank, that this trend is not wide spread.

"They think, 'My skills are enough, the way I show them in the ring is enough,'" he says. "I think Miguel realized a long time ago when we started this that it would be better if he learned English."

Bob Arum says of the attempts to cross over, "It has a great effect. I think the Eastern-European fighters who came to Germany and learned German and became accepted as Germans with the public demonstrate how important it is for fighters, particularly Latin fighters, to learn how to speak English so that they can communicate with the public.

"I mean if Chavez and Duran could've spoken English they would have been much bigger than they even ended up."

But they spoke a language that translated to everybody.

"I can remember a long time ago, I did a Duran fight for HBO," said Merchant, "I forget which fight it was and I made reference to this and said, 'He speaks boxing very well,' and with guys like Duran and Chavez and Trinidad, if they were native born Americans who comfortably spoke English and were able to communicate and maybe touched some people emotionally, maybe it would've made them bigger stars. But I don't think that that happens in a studied way, except I do think people do try and appreciate when somebody makes an effort."

Arum would've likes for Duran and Chavez to have spoken a bit of English.

"They'd always look at me and they'd say, 'Gringo, we don't hear you speaking Spanish,'" he recalls. "So it was very hard for me to answer. It's one thing to suggest that they learn how to speak, second, to get them to speak in public because they don't want to be uncomfortable or sound ignorant. When you don't have a real great facility for the language, you sound to a lot of people like you’re not being smart."

Which is understandable, since nobody wants to sound like boxing's version of Chico Esquila - 'Boxing's been berry, berry good to me.' But Cotto is becoming more and more fluent as the months go by.

"He's a diligent guy, he's very intelligent and he is dedicated at whatever he determines to do," the promoter says of his fighter. "And one of the things he was determined to do was speak English. I could never get Erik Morales to speak English but he has taken upon himself, not only to learn how to speak English, but to speak English well. He is really intelligent, he goes to a University and stuff. He's not the run of the mill kind of guy."

It seemed that to a certain degree that individuals like Morales perhaps felt that not speaking a foreign tongue gave them a closer connection to their fans. On the other hand, Oscar De La Hoya, a Mexican-American, exploited his ability to speak both Spanish and English to great heights.

But nothing will speak louder for Cotto than a career-defining win. Ultimately, fans - of any culture - want to follow special fighters, not linguistic experts.

"I would say that a win over Mosley is for him, the equivalent of Trinidad's win over Pernell Whitaker," surmises Merchant of the potential impact. "It expands his horizons in the boxing world. Trinidad had a title when he was 21 years old, he was fighting dramatic fights, he was a knockout-style puncher, he's a handsome kid and he had some quality of charisma that appealed to people who were not necessarily Puerto Ricans.

"I don't think that Cotto is there yet. I think that his pay-per-view numbers, so far, have reflected that, that he has not become a national figure yet. But I think that if he can handle Mosley, that would be a significant step for him."

The native of Caguas is well-aware of the importance of this fight on his career fortunes and how he is compared to past Puerto Rican standouts.

"For thirty fights in my career, I was just the boxer," he would say. "The person who is in charge. They recognize what I do in the ring, the public and fans. After this fight, the fans are going to put me with the other ones."


I hear that ESPN's 2008 boxing schedule actually starts on December 28th with Dominick Guinn facing Alonzo Butler....It's interesting, but a few trainers have told me that Cotto is susceptible to uppercuts, and it was clear by the HBO countdown show that Shane is certainly working on that punch with both hands....I recently viewed Carl Johanneson’s sixth round TKO of Michael Gomez. It's one of the better action fights of 2007....In watching the battle between Felix Sturm and Randy Griffin for the WBA middleweight title, I thought a draw was justified....Against Alejandro Berrio, Lucien Bute looked like Calzaghe-Lite. But geez, what a vicious knockout at the end....Does OJ have any friends, left?....Don't expect a bout between Juan Diaz and Michael Katsidis in the early part of 2008, as I've been told that the WBO has named Diaz a 'super champion' and that the purse bid split for this fight would be 80-20 in favor of 'the Baby Bull'. I didn't know the WBO had a 'super champion' designation.....I'll take David Haye'maker’ to beat Jean-Marc Mormeck this weekend....I can't wait to get to New York and try their much talked about pizza. I think I'll try this Sbarro's place....

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Updated on Thursday, Nov 8, 2007 11:51 pm, EST

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