Future past: Sadam Ali spoils the party for Miguel Cotto
The truism that fighters cannot cheat age bore down like one of Newton’s laws on Miguel Cotto’s final prizefight, Saturday night, at Madison Square Garden. In a surprising but justified outcome, Brooklyn upstart Sadam Ali notched a close unanimous decision (115-113 twice and 116-112) to wrest the WBO 154-pound title from the aging – and now retired – Puerto Rican star, thus thwarting what many were expecting to be a storybook ending to a distinguished career.
Not that the spirited, mostly pro-Cotto crowd of 12,391 much cared; they cheered for their countryman as raucously as they had all night, while the Garden played a closing tribute montage on the jumbotron. Appreciation, not outrage, was the prevailing mood. Cotto, long considered one of the more stoic personalities to appear in the ring, looked rightfully content.
That Cotto, long detached from his prime, still leaves a brutal profession largely on his own terms is a testament to his unique standing in the sport. His accomplishments include world titles in four weight classes, ambitious fights against dangerous foes, and selling over 150,000 tickets in 10 appearances across 12 years at the “Mecca of Boxing,” making him one of the handful of elite fighters in the past 20 years who took the professional mandate to entertain in the ring seriously. The weeks leading up to the fight were a reminder that the amount of pomp and appreciation showered on him are normally reserved for those who get to see their names etched in Canastota, New York. No doubt, Cotto will soon join that elite group.
He was far from his best version on Saturday night but, for a moment, it looked as though Cotto was going to fulfill pre-fight expectations with a mid-round stoppage of Ali. After being wobbled by a left hook in the second round, Cotto answered back in the sixth stanza with his hardest punch of the night, a straight right hand that landed flush through Ali’s guard. The punch looked identical to the knockout blow that Jessie Vargas uncorked on Ali in their 2016 meeting. But Ali, 29, flashed an improved chin and would go on to mount a comeback in the second half of the fight. All three official judges awarded Ali the final four rounds.
“They said that I’d be knocked out in five, six, seven rounds,” Ali told UCNLive.com after the fight. “A lot of people felt that way. I love that. I love that feeling.”
Using his superior speed to move to his left and keep his right guard high, Ali, 26-1 (14), evaded Cotto’s best weapon – the left hook – for most of the night. By the 10th round, Ali was the one pursuing Cotto, who looked deflated and every bit his 37 years of age. Then again, Cotto’s vulnerability has precisely made it possible for so many of his fights to be such enjoyable affairs. Indeed for a match-up that was considered little more than a generous severance package for one of boxing’s most respected statesmen, Saturday night managed to deliver a competitive contest. In that regard, Golden Boy Promotions, the promoter of both fighters, saves some face after being pilloried for their matchmaking.
Though HBO’s Max Kellerman, in the post-fight interview, tried to goad Cotto into talking about tearing his left bicep in the seventh round, Cotto declined to offer any excuses. “Sadam won the fight,” he stated simply, before thanking his fans, the Garden and, above all, the sport for allowing him to provide for his family, all to thunderous applause. After a year that has seen numerous top fighters retire – mainly Timothy Bradley and Andre Ward – no one has received a more beloved valediction than Cotto.
As for the future, it belongs to Ali, whose career had hitherto been stuck in a rut. For the past year-and-a-half, Ali has had to live under the shadow of the Vargas knockout. Recent dismal performances in off-TV cards, furthermore, did not help his case to regain the momentum he once had after stopping Luis Carlos Abregu in 2014 in Atlantic City. According to Golden Boy President Eric Gomez, Ali’s father and manager David Ali, aware that his son’s career needed a jolt, called him every day for two weeks to get the Cotto fight.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to rise to the occasion, much less win,” Andre Rozier, Ali’s longtime trainer, told UCNLive.com. “But we worked hard, very, very hard in the gym to secure this win.”
With the belt changing hands in-house, Golden Boy will have the leverage to put Ali in some meaningful match-ups, although it remains to be seen if Ali will pursue fights at the 154-pound limit or if he will move back down to his natural weight at 147. Whatever the decision, “World Kid” finds his career transformed overnight, the recognition of which was caught on camera when he was seen mouthing the words “Oh my God,” as Michael Buffer announced his name as victor.
“I was in shock,” Ali recalled. “I was in shock because everything happened so freakily. This fight coming up (all of a sudden) and I just never expected it. I knew I was great enough to do it but it just hit me at once.”