Many options for rebounding Cotto

NEW YORK – Boxers are rarely the same after taking the kind of beating that Miguel Cotto absorbed from Antonio Margarito in their welterweight title fight in July.

Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo were only shells of themselves after their epic 2005 lightweight title match. David Reid was barely competitive again following a pummeling he took from Felix Trinidad in 2000.

Cotto, though, showed few effects of the pitched battle he engaged in during one of 2008's best fights when he met Michael Jennings on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in a duel for the vacant WBO welterweight title. While it was little more than a high-paid sparring session for Cotto – Jennings had never faced a top 10 opponent before Saturday – the result was vintage Cotto.

He knocked Jennings down twice in the fourth and once in the fifth before referee Benji Esteves halted the carnage at 2:36 of the fifth as the crowd of 11,120 roared its approval.

Cotto was relentless and cut off the ring with aplomb. His hooks to the body made folks 20 rows back wince. His jab forced Jennings to retreat for cover. He almost pitched a no-hitter, as Jennings barely laid a glove on him.

Margarito was stopped in the ninth round of his first post-Cotto fight, on Jan. 24 in Los Angeles, and Top Rank president Todd duBoef said Margarito's people indicated to him that the Cotto fight had taken a lot more out of their man than they'd anticipated.

Cotto, though, fought as if the Margarito fight had never occurred. He said he wasn't concerned beacuse he made certain to take a long enough time off before going back to the gym.

"I took a long rest after the fight with Margarito," Cotto (33-1, 27 KOs) said. "I think it was eight (weeks). Before I went to camp, I felt healthy, mentally and physically."

Cotto performed brilliantly despite the swirling controversy created when Margarito was found with illegal knuckle pads in his hand wraps prior to the Mosley fight.

Cotto made it clear before the fight, even though he wouldn't say it, that he suspected Margarito wore the same illegal pads in their July 26 bout. And he became incensed when Top Rank's Bob Arum vociferously and steadfastly defended Margarito and suggested he'd ignore a one-year ban the California State Athletic Commission placed on Margarito and promote a fight for him in Mexico.

Arum's stance so angered Cotto that Cotto suggested he'd split with the company that has built him into one of the game's best-earning stars when his contract expires.

Cotto gained nearly as many admirers for the principled position he took on the hand wraps controversy as he did for his efficient performance against Jennings.

That he was able to perform at a high level despite the growing controversy surrounding the hand wraps didn't surprise duBoef, who urged Top Rank chairman Bob Arum to sign Cotto out of the 2000 Olympics.

"From the day he made his pro debut, there was something special about his maturity," duBoef said. "He's always been a mature person who made mature decisions. He's mature as a family man. He's mature in the ring. It's always been that way. We never saw him get distracted at all. That showed from 2001, when he made his pro debut, until today."

Cotto said he did the work he needed to do to prepare him for the fight and didn't let questions he'd rather not have been asked bother him.

Once he made the decision to accept the fight with Jennings, he forgot about Margarito, even if most of the rest of the civilized world wanted to talk about him.

"It wasn't difficult to concentrate, because in this case, the fight was with Michael," Cotto said. "The fight with Margarito was last July. I put aside all the things about Margarito and thought only about my fight with Michael Jennings."

But Cotto's trainer, his uncle, Evangelista Cotto, knew the significance of the Jennings fight even if most boxing fans had no clue who Jennings was.

Evangelista Cotto wanted his nephew to erase the bad memories of the Margarito fight and the only way he could do that, he thought, was by climbing back into the ring.

"This was a very important fight psychologically," Evangelista Cotto said. "Miguel really needed to get back into the ring. I thought he looked good and fought decisively."

He's likely to fight IBF champion Joshua Clottey on June 12 in Madison Square Garden, though he said after the fight that he wouldn't mind facing the winner of the May 2 fight between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton.

But Top Rank has made something of a tradition of having a Cotto fight in New York to coincide with the Puerto Rican Day parade, which is the second Saturday in June. That will likely put off a bout with the winner of Pacquiao-Hatton until sometime in the final quarter of 2009, if at all.

After a week filled with questions about illegal hand wraps and loaded gloves rather than the event at hand, both Cotto and duBoef were happy to look ahead.

And duBoef was relieved that Cotto was able to perform as if the battering he'd taken in the second half of that fight in July had never occurred.

"You never know until they get in there how they're going to react," duBoef said. "So, sure, you have your concerns. This is a very physical, difficult sport. Different people react differently to things. So you don't know if he's going to be the same until you see him. But he's back and there are a lot of good things out there ahead for him."

Cotto was peppered with questions about his choices. Would it be Clottey? Or perhaps Mosley, whom he defeated in an exciting 2007 bout? Or Kermit Cintron? Or the Pacquiao-Hatton winner?

One got the sense that the Cotto of old was back when he shrugged his shoulders at all the options. This guy is not a matchmaker, nor has he ever been one. He's always been willing to fight anyone, anywhere at any time.

"That's not for me, that's for the company to decide," Cotto said of his next opponent. "That's their job. I'm just the fighter."

He is, and he's a heck of a good one at that.