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The next big thing?

Eight days before his fight with Zab Judah at Madison Square Garden, Miguel Cotto arrived in New York and began something of a barnstorming tour.

The WBA welterweight champion attended a street festival in the Bronx, where he was mobbed by an adoring crowd estimated at more than 20,000.

He threw out the first pitch at a game at Shea Stadium, accompanied by his slugger pals, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado of the New York Mets.

He did the weather for a local television station. He's tooled around Manhattan in a custom-painted bus adorned with an oversized image of himself and a logo promoting his fight.

And even as fight time rapidly approaches on Saturday, Cotto, 26, works the telephones, doing last-minute interviews.

He's promoting himself as if his paycheck depends upon it even though more than 90 percent of the tickets were sold before he ever left Puerto Rican soil and flew to New York.

The bout is on HBO Pay-Per-View and Cotto is more than willing to do his share to land every last buy.

"It's the business," Cotto said. "This is what you have to do if you want to be a success. You have to promote and treat the (media) with respect."

It's hard to deny that Cotto is a success in the ring, where he’s gone 29-0 and has won world titles at 140 and 147 pounds.

But it might come as a surprise to some that Cotto, who only in the past year felt comfortable enough speaking English to do interviews without an interpreter, has become the most successful of the 2000 Olympians in the pros at the ticket window.

It's not a surprise, though, to those who have watched Top Rank develop fighters such as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. into mainstream stars.

Top Rank's signing of Cotto off the 2000 Puerto Rican Olympic team occurred in obscurity, overshadowed by high-profile American fighters such as Ricardo Williams, Jeff Lacy and Jermain Taylor.

But Cotto was handled masterfully by Top Rank chairman Bob Arum and is one of the few fighters alive who could even think of attracting a sellout crowd to Madison Square Garden.

And he's done it despite never having signed a long-term contract with either Showtime or HBO, which many promoters view as the promised land for their boxers.

"Arum has done a superb job moving the kid and deserves a lot of credit for the way he's built him," former Showtime boxing executive Jay Larkin said. "Nobody develops a fighter and nobody moves a fighter better than Top Rank."

Promoter Lou DiBella, who once ran the boxing operation at HBO, concurred. He said he's modeled his promotion of Taylor, the middleweight champion, after the way Arum has promoted many of his stars.

DiBella said Arum has allowed Bruce Trampler, Top Rank's Hall of Fame matchmaker, to choose the right fights for Cotto that would maximize his strengths and hide his weaknesses.

"You can't deny that the kid's an attraction," DiBella said. "He's a terrific talent and a terrific fighter, but he's not without flaws. He's very vulnerable in a lot of ways, but they match him perfectly and they just know how to create a buzz around a fighter.

"Arum's the best in the business at matching his guys easily without getting crucified for it. They don't put him in with King Kong every time, but they give the illusion of that. It's genius."

Arum modeled the development of Cotto after his handling of Hagler, the great middleweight champion. When Top Rank signed Hagler, he was having difficulty getting fights because opponents knew how good he was. Hagler, though, had little fan base, so Arum set out to market him as the most feared man in boxing.

It wasn't long before Hagler became an enormous draw and a staple on the Las Vegas Strip.

Arum set out to do the same thing with Cotto, whom he signed for a modest bonus. He said he used Cotto's first few fights as a way to judge what he had.

"We knew this was an elite fighter and a guy who could be a star, but we had to find a way to market him because he didn't speak English and he wasn't the outgoing, charismatic, smiling kind of a kid like an Oscar or a Mayweather," Arum said.

Arum encouraged Cotto to learn to speak English and paid for a tutor. He had him fight frequently on television, both on ESPN and on Spanish-language networks, trying to help him develop his style as a fighter and to gain exposure.

He fought six times in 2001, his first year as a pro, and didn't fight more only because he broke an arm in an auto accident.

He fought seven more times in 2002 as Top Rank slowly helped him build an identity as a destroyer with power in both hands.

Important in the process, Top Rank president Todd duBoef said, was Cotto's willingness to go along. Top Rank didn't shower him with a lucrative signing bonus and then force him to take fights he wasn't ready for in an attempt to recoup its investment.

It methodically moved him from fight to fight, exposing him to differing styles in the ring and to a fan base who appreciated his sheer power and physical strength.

"People lose the sense of the value of a dollar and when they chase these so-called prospects and throw a ton of money at them, they're always looking to get that back," duBoef said. "They want to get them the fights that pay the most right away and they don’t allow them to learn the trade."

And the result, Arum said, is that such fighters might make a lot in the short term but lose out in the long term. He said part of his success with Cotto was resisting offers of long-term contracts from HBO. He was confident in his ability to choose the correct opponents for Cotto without yielding control to a television network.

He'll sign a contract with HBO or Showtime on a fight-by-fight basis but even then remains cautious. He had it written into his contract with HBO that none of its executives are allowed to speak directly to Cotto.

Arum said the exclusive television contracts nearly killed the sport.

"The sport went to (expletive) because of it," Arum said. "In the old days, you had to hustle an individual fight to an HBO or a Showtime. Nobody had dates and nobody had commitments. And if I give them a fight, I could see giving them the right of first negotiation, last refusal for the next one. That's OK.

"But if I sign a six-fight deal, they want approval of the opponents and to tell us who to fight. … I know I have a hell of a lot better idea of what the right fights are for my guys than any television executive does."

Relying heavily on Trampler's shrewd eye, Arum's instincts have largely been correct.

And that's helped make Cotto a grassroots star.

Realizing that New York has the nation's largest Puerto Rican population, Arum has brought Cotto to New York, where the fan base adores him.

Saturday's fight with Judah will mark the third year in a row that he has fought on the weekend of the city's annual Puerto Rican Day parade.

"In my building, so many of the workers are Puerto Rican and they're all so proud of Cotto and they're talking about his fight," DiBella said.

"… But you know what? They know Cotto and they love him. He's not Tito (Felix Trinidad), but he's not Bozo the Clown, either. I wouldn't say he's an automatic sellout whenever he would fight at the Garden, but the kid is without question an attraction."

Now that Cotto is perceived as a great fighter as well as a ticket seller, Arum slowly is beginning to beat the drum for the big score: a fight with Mayweather, the pound-for-pound king whose May 5 bout with De La Hoya sold to a record 2.15 million buyers on pay-per-view.

Arum said he believes a Mayweather-Cotto fight is the biggest potential bout on the horizon.

"Absolutely huge," Arum said. "And not only do I think it would be huge, but Cotto is the one guy who I believe could run Mayweather out of the ring. Oscar couldn't cut off the ring. He tried but he couldn't do it, but this kid will do it. He'll hit Mayweather so hard and so often that by the fifth round, he won't be able to lift his arms."

Cotto wasn't eager to talk about anyone other than Judah, but after a bit of prodding, he conceded he'd love the shot to prove that he's the best fighter in the world.

"I don't talk about it, I just do it," Cotto said. "If I fight Floyd Mayweather, everyone will see who the best fighter really is."