The Square Jungle: Cotto loses to Ali, Rigondeaux-Lomachenko, Salido-Roman
In the end, it was probably just as well that Miguel Cotto did not get the send-off he desired against either middleweights Gennady Golovkin or Saul Alvarez. Dropping a narrow decision to Sadam Ali last Saturday at Madison Square Garden augured poorly for his chances against stiffer competition in his swansong performance. Ali, of course, falls short of being a world-class fighter but Cotto is not only past his best but he also struggled with a biceps injury that limited his effectiveness. Inactivity, thanks to the good folks at RocNation Sports, also kept Cotto from being as sharp as he could have been, given the advanced wear-and-tear on his body. But Ali, 26-1 (14), now has a celebrity scalp on his belt, necessary for a future payday that might make up for the years he spent scuffling on DIY shows at the Aviator Complex, in Brooklyn, or toiling as a free agent or local draw on the undercards of major promoters. It may not be a Hallmark card moment but, for boxing, it can almost be considered uplifting.
With the loss to Ali, Cotto sees his record conclude at 41-6 (33). Because of his mixed results, a brief, critical breakdown of his career seems in order. Assessing contemporary fighters is no easy task. Multiple championships in each division allow one fighter after another to establish lengthy title reigns without ever having to test himself against elite competition. But is Cotto comparable to someone like Adrien Broner, whose four division titles truly highlight the absurdity of the Alphabet Soup Age, or is he closer to someone such as Thomas Hearns, one of the most popular fighters of his era but a star nevertheless defined (unfairly, perhaps) by his two biggest losses? Like Hearns, who also won titles in four divisions, Cotto beat a few IBHOF probabilities (Shane Mosley and Sergio Martinez) and a slew of tough contenders but he lacked the dramatic flair Hearns showed in atomizing Pipino Cuevas and Roberto Duran. Nor did Cotto have a win over anyone as notable as Duran or Wilfred Benitez on his ledger, fighters who had already developed near-mythological auras by the time they lost to Hearns. Partly, this is because of the marginalization of boxing since its last renaissance in the 1980s – it is hard to create a mystique, fighting twice a year against TBA – and partly it is because few fighters had as daring an outlook as Cotto did about a profession that so often offers what Hugh McIlvanney once called, “the same brutal truths,” to so many of its practitioners.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame recently announced its class of 2018 and Ronald “Winky” Wright is among the inductees. Wright is as solid a benchmark as any, for comparison to see where Cotto stands in the history books. (My HOF votes went to the following: Vitali Klitschko, Erik Morales, Santos Laciar and Gilberto Roman.) During a career that lasted over 20 years, Wright won a junior middleweight championship of some form or other four times but failed in his attempts at higher weight classes. Without being a multidivision titlist, his reputation primarily rests on a pair of wins over Shane Mosley and a shutout of a comebacking Felix Trinidad. Disputed decisions against Fernando Vargas (L MD 12) and Jermain Taylor (D 12) reflect his quality as a world-class fighter but do not necessarily qualify as actual achievements. The case, then, is fairly clear: If a good-but-not-great fighter such as Winky Wright is in the Hall of Fame, then Miguel Cotto is an automatic.
The last of a long line of Puerto Rican ring superstars, Cotto was overshadowed by his charismatic predecessors. In the late-1970s and early-’80s, Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez, vicious, unrelenting, and magnetic, was the epitome of macho, a national hero whose first loss, to the stylish Mexican great Salvador Sanchez, triggered a national day of mourning. The 1990s belonged to the boyish marauder Felix “Tito” Trinidad, an irresistible combination of jibaro and headhunter. As a milquetoast personality with a hard-hat approach to his profession, Cotto could not possibly compete with his more dynamic forbears. But Cotto has an edge that separates him from Gomez and Trinidad. For Cotto, saying goodbye to the stitch and the butterfly strip, while he still remains marketable, also means avoiding the shared fates of his popular countrymen. In his last years as a professional, Gomez saw his swagger turn into a perpetual stagger, until he was finally humiliated by a historical footnote named Alfredo Layne. For his part, Trinidad never recovered from being dismantled by Bernard Hopkins and he marred his legacy with retirements and the seemingly sad comebacks obligatory in a sport that views anything less than a tragic ending as a violation of the natural order of things.
It is hard to believe that more than four years have passed since Guillermo Rigondeaux defused explosive Nonito Donaire at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Aware of the damaging left hook that Donaire wielded at the time, Rigondeaux fought cautiously but brilliantly to notch a lopsided decision over one of the hottest fighters in the sport. Since then, Rigondeaux has been cast adrift, forced to wander the earth in search of short-money opportunities. From internet streams to BoxNation undercards to UniMas, from Ireland to Macau to Japan – Rigondeaux has been Supertramp with gloves on. Finally, he gets another shot at The Big Time when he faces Vasyl Lomachenko at the Theater in Madison Square Garden, on ESPN2, in a battle of southpaw virtuosos.
Like a character from an Edgar Allan Poe story, Rigondeaux suffers from the “imp of the perverse.” Insisting on putrid exhibitions of a stink-out southpaw style, while patrons leave their seats en masse is genuine sporting villainy. Rigondeaux confounds the public even further by occasionally recognizing a mismatch and annihilating some of the second-raters who dare to challenge him with their somewhat primitive skills. This, of course, is a professional prerequisite and even fighters not known for a killer instinct have been known to apply it. Think of Lennox Lewis, so cautious most of the time, but keen to annihilate Andrew Golota, Frans Botha and Michael Grant – fighters who did not belong in the ring with him. Even someone as erratic as Zab Judah did not need a second thought to waylay Wayne Martel, Jaime Rangel and Cosme Rivera. Most of the time, however, Rigondeaux is content to coast under the pretext of handing out “boxing lessons.” Lawsuits, canceled fights, lost visas and a generally sour demeanor (one that does not translate into action in the ring, unlike, say, Mike Tyson) have also contributed to his marginalization.
Along with his own personal foibles, Rigondeux has saddled himself with a team that epitomizes incompetence. For the most part, boxing rewards feebs at nearly every level but Rigondeaux went overboard by linking his fly-by-night brain trust Caribe Promotions to the pitiful (as well as grimy) pseudo-promotional outfit RocNation Sports. Jay Z may be some kind of genius hip-hop entrepreneur but, as the figurehead of a boxing operation, he might as well be the rap equivalent of Kevin Federline. RocNation Sports lost millions underwriting Andre Ward, only to see him retire after consecutive pay-per-view bombs against Sergey Kovalev. Dusty Hernandez-Harrison is a nowhere-man personified; Luis Arias recently practiced a unique form of micro-aggression against Daniel Jacobs and the less said about Daniel Franco, the better. Signing Rigondeaux to a contract was another mistake because the moody maestro seems to disdain the paying public (a relative concept when it comes to “The Jackal”) and appears to take pleasure at drawing as many boos and catcalls as possible.
Because of these personal and professional miscalculations, Rigondeaux now finds himself in the ring two divisions above his best weight (and possibly rusty from inactivity stretching back to 2015) against a formidable house fighter. If Rigondeaux has earned his sting in limbo, he at least gets a chance to claw his way out of it against one of the elite talents in boxing.
What makes Lomachenko particularly unique, as well as effective, is the frenzied tempo he seemingly adopted, in response to charges of dullness. When a pro as talented as Lomachenko turns into a windmilling pressure fighter, you are looking at something special. In fact, there are few precedents for such a scenario. In 1985, immaculate craftsman Marvelous Marvin Hagler tore out of his corner, at the sound of the opening bell, against Thomas Hearns, but hardly resembled the southpaw technician who massacred Mustafa Hamsho and Wilfred Scypion with cool precision. Roy Jones Jr. was in no mood to extend matters when be poleaxed Montell Griffin and Thomas Tate in the mid-1990s and brute force was modus operandi on those nights. Floyd Mayweather Jr., on the other hand, approached the bloodsport ideal of skill combined with zeal in an uncharacteristically aggressive performance against Sharmba Mitchell. But these were isolated instances, for the most part. Only Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, like Lomachenko, a southpaw, consistently mixed aggression with artistry.
It seems unlikely that Lomachenko would employ his adroit bulldozer tactics against as sharp a counterpuncher as Rigondeaux. But the recent boldness Lomachenko has displayed (along with a new habit of taunting outclassed opponents) may show itself during the mid-rounds and force Rigondeaux into perilous exchanges.
Few fighters can match Rigondeaux in the overall skill department but he is 37 years old, fighting out of his weight class, and has had long stretches of inactivity over the last few years. Rigondeaux also showed some vulnerability in his surprising brawl against Hisashi Amagasa in 2014. If the years have not yet caught up to Rigondeaux, then perhaps Lomachenko will.
From the beginning, more than 20 years ago in Mexicali, Baja California, Orlando Salido, who started his career with a 14-8-2 mark, was meant to lose. “Siri” continues his seemingly never-ending quest for a paycheck with seven figures inscribed on it, when he faces Miguel “Mickey” Roman at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, on Saturday night.
Salido was never the cornerstone of a corporate network interested in perpetuating one of the strangest paradoxes in American boxing: The better you are, the less likely you are to fight top competition. Billing—the all-too-important if specious designation of pound-for-pound, for example—and glossy records are what matter to the power structure. As recently as 10 years ago, you could find tough journeymen who had transcended their mediocre records to earn cash, titles and recognition. But the journeyman headliner is now a thing of the past. Fighters such as Glen Johnson, Freddie Pendleton, Victor Rabanales, Steve Robinson, Verno Phillips and Dennis Andries are no longer to be found in THE RING Magazine’s ratings. Orlando Salido, it seems, may be one of the last of his kind.
Over the last two years or so, Salido has reportedly overpriced himself for a rematch against destructive wunderkind Vasyl Lomachenko, a blunder since Salido, now 37, is clearly on his last legs and his chin is a serious liability, at this point. Last May, his comeback from a layoff saw him dropped – for the umpteenth time – by Aristedes Perez, an undistinguished substitute regularly imported to Mexico from South America for the role of designated loser. In the third round, Perez (0-4-1 on “Tierra Azteca”) nearly shocked his own low expectations when he floored Salido in the third round. As usual, Salido recovered from the knockdown to maul his way to a TKO win but Salido showed that his increasing fragility is now a permanent factor. The possibility that Salido is aware of his own physical diminishment is very real. That, in fact, may be why nefarious sports alchemist Angel “Memo” Heredia is now in his corner, throwing his flabby shadow over yet another prizefight. Salido has already tested positive once for PEDs in his career (his 12-round decision over Robert Guerrero in 2006 was changed to a no-contest) and seeing Heredia grinning in the background of training camp photos is a dispiriting sign.
Although Mickey Roman is a tough grinder, he is also a clubfighter, a remarkably busy clubfighter, at that, who has crisscrossed Mexico over the last few years to make as hard a living as can be found in North America. In his last significant start, Roman took an early lead against Takashi Miura before wilting under pressure and being halted in the 12th round. It was bombs away, while it lasted, but Roman could no longer cope with the thumping body shots Miura repeatedly landed. Even after nearly 70 fights, Roman remains hungry. As a working-class professional, whose future earning potential is created on a fight-by-fight basis, Roman needs a win over Salido not just for the fat paycheck he will earn in Las Vegas but to guarantee another one in the future. In that sense, both Salido and Roman have the same objectives entering the fight. They will work as hard as they can to make sure they achieve their respective goals: Just one more tomorrow.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.