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Redemption Road

After losing his first professional match, Puerto Rican welterweight and national hero Miguel Cotto-one of the best fighters of his time-is floating and stinging his way back to the top.


Miguel Cotto (left) and Antonio “Tijuana Tornado” Margarito in the World Boxing Association’s welterweight championship in July ’08

ON THE NIGHT IN JULY that Miguel Cotto loses his first fight, there is no crime in the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. As a matter of fact, the streets are empty: no families lining up for ice cream, no tangles of honking traffic, no clubgoers wandering between nightspots in their usual Saturday migration. On Avenida Ashford, in the bustling neighborhood of Condado, one encounters only the occasional public bus or taxi. Inside the area’s bars, houses and hotel lobbies, every television is tuned to the same program: Miguel Cotto versus Antonio Margarito in the title fight for the World Boxing Association’s welterweight championship. What Gretzky is to Alberta, Bird is to Boston and Ripken is to Baltimore, Cotto is to Puerto Rico — maybe all three combined.

In the lobby of the Condado Plaza Hotel, a well-heeled local crowd has gathered, the men sporting meticulously embroidered T-shirts, the women in short dresses. Someone claims that Margarito never lost to a fighter shorter than him and that he stands three inches taller than Cotto. “They call him the ‘Tijuana Tornado,’” the man says. He’s quickly shouted down. “Margarito was born in California!” someone corrects. Cotto, a married father of four, lives in nearby Caguas.

In unison, the assembled chant “Cotto! Cotto!” as the boxer steps into the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, head shaved, nose — permanently flattened and swollen from a lifetime absorbing punches — smeared with Vaseline. An electric presence in the ring and a ferocious talent, Cotto is viewed as a potential international superstar and key to the sport’s future. In the ring against Margarito, he stands a modest five feet, seven inches and weighs 147 pounds; at 28, he’s in peak physical condition.

But fighting Antonio Margarito — known as both the “Tijuana Tornado” and “Tornado Tony” (perhaps because the more accurate “Torrance Tornado” doesn’t have quite the same forbidding aura) — comes with very real risks. “Sugar” Shane Mosley quietly declined an invitation to take him on. Floyd Mayweather Jr., perhaps the best welterweight of the modern era, turned down one promoter’s offer of $8 million to challenge him. Margarito has “heavy hands,” an intangible term boxing commentators use to talk about the intensity of a punch. In fact, Margarito’s are the heaviest hands in the business. Everyone says so. Everyone except Cotto, who describes him as “slow on his feet.”

As the fight starts, Cotto skips sideways then steps in confidently to the much taller Margarito and fires a series of jabs. It’s clear that Cotto is the better boxer — faster, smarter and more precise in his punches. He aims a powerful right between Margarito’s gloves and lands it on his chin. Margarito steps back, momentarily stunned, and Cotto raises his glove. The Condado erupts.

Ten rounds later, the shocked crowd is murmuring quietly. Even the TV announcers are stunned. Margarito is landing blow after blow to Cotto’s face and ribcage, inside jabs and savage uppercuts that take advantage of the Tornado’s height. Cotto falls to his knees. Blood from a cut over his eye dapples his face and chest. In Cotto’s corner, his trainer and uncle, Evangelista, has had enough. He throws in the towel.

It seems impossible. Miguel Cotto has never lost a pro fight. He can’t lose. Knots of friends walk along Avenida Ashford, repeating as much.

Condado is upside down. The drunks have sobered up, and the teetotalers are drinking. The now-steady traffic has the feel of a funeral procession.

In November 2007, Cotto rose to what one boxing writer called “the cusp of greatness” when he stalked Mosley for 12 rounds and won by unanimous decision.

It was a defining moment for Cotto, earning him the respect of the boxing world and showing that he’d reached a level of athleticism, strength and focus that few fighters ever find. Greatness was calling him. But after the Margarito fight, it’s redemption that he’s after.

A few months later, Cotto is waiting to board a flight at the San Juan Airport. Traveling without his trainer, wife or friends, he’s wearing an elaborate Mark Ecko hoodie and baseball cap pulled low over his swollen brow, giving him that incognito look that celebrities and tough teenagers like to strike. Surprisingly, no one recognizes him. Cotto’s renown in Puerto Rico hasn’t diminished at all. In fact, it may have grown since Margarito was discovered wearing illegal plaster wraps on his hands prior to a subsequent fight, which might account for some of the devastating “weight” behind his punches.

As our flight takes off and heads north to New York City, Cotto settles into his seat in coach, scrolls through his iPod and fiddles with his headphones. “It doesn’t matter to me if he’s got that stuff in his gloves or not,” he says of Margarito. “I can take the hits; I can move around them. It’s not an excuse. I’m still the better fighter.” Cotto is flying to New York to step back into the ring, battling for the World Boxing Organization title with a top-card fight at Madison Square Garden against Michael Jennings, a British boxer widely viewed as a lesser talent. This is a confidence fight for Cotto, and it ends up being a dazzling showcase of his strengths: speed, accuracy and charisma.

“Sometimes people lose fights,” Cotto notes philosophically. “People say I’ve never lost one before, but I did when I was a kid. I know what it feels like. This is different because there’s so much money, and so many people depend on me, but it doesn’t matter. All great fighters lose eventually.”

As we walk from the gate at JFK, one of the other passengers from San Juan finally recognizes the champ. As Cotto poses for a picture, the fan tells him, “Listen papi, that’s bull with Margarito. As far as we’re concerned you’re still undefeated.”

“No, he beat me,” Cotto says. “It was fair. But I’m coming back, you’ll see.”

He steps through a door into the baggage claim area and finds a small woman, his great aunt, waiting for him. She’s holding a sign she drew with a Sharpie on a cut- out piece of cardboard box. WORLD CHAMPION MIGUEL COTTO, it says. Cotto smiles and gives her long hug.

Hemispheres executive editor Mike Guy is, he insists, a lover, not a fighter.

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