Is Miguel Cotto Worthy of the Hall of Fame?
By Donavan Leonard: On Saturday December 2nd, Miguel Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) will be stepping into the ring as a participant for what he claims will be the last time. Taken at his word, the result against underdog Sadam Ali (25-1, 14 KOs) will add only a win, loss, or draw to his ledger, with no outcome bearing significance to either enhance or diminish his distinguished career. With his fighting days almost behind him, has he accomplished enough or been “great enough” to be granted induction into the Hall of Fame?
The question of worthiness, upon first hearing it, seems blasphemous. Miguel Cotto, the pride of Puerto Rico, six-time world champion, holder of belts in four divisions (super-lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight middleweight), and mainstay of HBO programming since nearly the turn of the century is as automatic as death, taxes, and hometown decisions. Or is he? The stacked class that will join him on the ballot in five years (Floyd Mayweather, Wladimir Klitschko, possibly Manny Pacquiao, Roy Jones, Jr., and James Toney) may determine the outcome as much as his performance in the ring, but based on merit alone, does Cotto fit the description of Hall of Famer? The question should be answered not by the number of belts won, but by fighters defeated and how he performed in losses.
Miguel has held belts six times. In days of yore, that would be qualification enough. But in an era where fighters such as Adrien Broner can claim to be a 4-division champion, there needs to be more analysis.
Junior Welterweight-Vacant title versus Kelson Pinto (21-0). Pinto had no business fighting for a legitimate title, and his post-Cotto record of 3-1 boasts three wins over opponents with a combined record of 1-3. That is not a typo. One win, three losses. The title shot itself was indicative of the ease of winning a belt with the right connections. Defenses of the title can add depth to the narrative. Cotto made six defenses of the title, with wins over serviceable fighters including Randall Bailey (28-4), DeMarcus Corley (28-3-1), Muhammadqodir Abdullaev (15-1), Ricardo Torres (28-0), Gianluca Branco (36-1-1), and Paulie Malignaggi (21-0). Other champions during that time frame included Kostya Tszyu, Ricky Hatton, Arturo Gatti, Floyd Mayweather, and Vivian Harris. A bout with Tszyu at this weight would have been magnificent, and the match with Mayweather took place a few pounds north. Junior Welterweight was where Cotto started to gain his popularity, albeit the competition he faced was only average at best. He was never the best fighter in this division at the time he was in the division.
Welterweight-Vacant title versus Carlos Quintana (23-0). Quintana was a fighter who had more heart than talent, tagging Paul Williams with his puzzling first loss before being kayoed in the first round in the rematch. Cotto’s four title defenses included Oktay Urkal (38-3) who had lost twice to Vivian Harris three years before taking on Cotto, Zab Judah (34-4), known for having more dazzle than substance and coming off a 0-2-1 stretch, with losses to Mayweather and Carlos Baldomir, Shane Mosley (44-4), coming off of two kayo wins over a battle-worn Fernando Vargas, and Alfonso Gomez (18-3-2). This is the most difficult stretch of his career to grade. Urkal and Gomez were acceptable stay-busy fights and Judah was a gatekeeper, with no impressive wins on his record. The win over Moseley is the most important, because as a name, it is the biggest over which Cotto has a victory. Was a win over a 36-year old fighter whose best days were at lightweight and held under the suspicion due to PED usage one to point toward as a career best? Or is the more accurate narrative that he earned a win over the fighter who gave Oscar De La Hoya his first definitive loss (albeit seven years earlier)? The other titlists at the time were Mayweather, Kermit Cintron, and Antonio Margarito. He faced one of those three at welterweight, and lost.
Welterweight Part Two-Cotto loses his title to Margarito. The Tijuana Twister, Marga-cheato–there will never be any evidence that Cotto’s loss was due to hand wraps. The damage sustained from Margarito, however, was obvious. In his first fight against a fellow belt holder, Cotto fought well, valiantly, and fell short. He was bludgeoned. The loss to Margarito was not a “bad” loss, as for years Margarito had chased bigger-name fighters while leaving a trail of victims in his wake. Cotto’s second reign at welterweight began as his previous reigns-with a vacant title. He fought Michael Jennings (34-1) another benefactor of modern rankings for that title, and defended against Joshua Clottey (34-2) another quality veteran before he took his second loss, and tremendous beating at the hands of Manny Pacquiao. Losing to an all-time great without being competitive is the best that can be said for this performance. There was no shame in his effort, it just fell far short of the bar of greatness that the Pacman possessed. Losing half of his fights in this stretch, Cotto proved that he was good enough to beat a quality fighter like Clottey, but he was not to be mentioned in the same breath as all-time greats such as Pacquiao. Again, Cotto was one of the better fighters and biggest draws in this division, but there is no argument that at any time he was the best fighter in this class.
Junior Middleweight-Cotto didn’t take the vacant title rout, but it might as well have been. He won the title in his first bout after losing to Pacquiao with a knockout of undeserving Yuri Foreman (28-0). Wins over a faded Ricardo Mayorga (29-7-1) and damaged-goods Margarito (38-7) set up a bout with Mayweather, which he lost. He followed that with a loss to Austin Trout (25-0). Another average category. Everybody opponent lost to Mayweather, the Trout bout might have followed too soon, but wins over Mayorga and Margarito at this stretch are not legacy enhancing. Even the most ardent of Cotto’s supporters could not argue that he was only a paper champion at this weight class. Other fighters active in this time frame include Canelo Alvarez and Erislandy Lara, who both bested Trout within the next calendar year of Trout upending Cotto.
Middleweight-Lineal title versus Sergio Martinez. There was a pit stop fight with Delvin Rodriguez prior to this encounter, but the only bout that mattered was Martinez. This is a similar situation to Shane Mosley. On one hand, he was the lineal champ. Conversely, he had been awarded a controversial decision over Martin Murray in his previous bout. He had multiple knee surgeries prior to the Cotto bout and was wearing a knee brace into the ring. Cotto had his way with Sergio Martinez, and with the win was the rightful lineal champ. The question hovers though, as did he beat the best middleweight, or merely the shell of the middleweight who held a belt. Martinez never fought again, so apparently to Martinez his body was finished. This is either an incredible win for Cotto, or a tainted win over an injured opponent. Martinez chose Cotto for a reason–the financial security. The surgeries and readiness for retirement for Martinez make this win more like Leon Spinks over Muhammad Ali than Ali over George Foreman. Cotto followed with a win over Daniel Geale, but he too seemed ready to call it a career. A little over a year after being knocked out by Cotto in the fourth round, he was knocked out in the second round by 10-1 Renold Quinlan. Cotto then fought, and lost, to Saul Canelo Alvarez (45-1-1). The other middleweight belt holder: Gennady Golovkin. Once again Cotto did not measure up when stacked against the cream of the division.
Junior Middleweight Part 2-another vacant title for Cotto with a win over game-and-iron-chinned Yoshihiro Komegai (27-3-2).
The luster of his mass amount of titles dims when the analysis shows four vacant titles against non-descript opponents (Pinto, Carlos Quintana, Michael Jennings, Yoshihiro Komegai), one challenge of a reigning titlist who is just as non-descript (Yuri Foreman), and one attained over a 39-year old fighter who was on crutches for nine of the thirteen months preceding his bout with Cotto due to knee injuries. Therefore, the number of titles and belts held should be regarded with healthy skepticism.
The meat of the argument for Cotto should rest in who he defeated and at what point in the opponent’s career. The two wins that immediately jump off the ledger are Moseley and Martinez. The 2007 version of Moseley was not the best version of himself. He was not the best welterweight (Mayweather, Williams, and pre-plaster Margarito). This win appears to be window dressing on his career. High profile fighters are afforded the luxury of fighting other high-profile fighters, so that a win looks great, but a loss does not look as bad because of the “name” of the opponent. The Martinez bout has the look of a tainted win as well. There is no doubt that Martinez held the lineal title, but with no other bouts between his knee surgeries and the Cotto fight, Martinez proved to be a run-down version of himself. The fighter that had been in a fight-of-the-year contest with Paul Williams and toyed with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr for the first eleven rounds of their bout was nowhere to be found in Madison Square Garden that night. Wins over Zab Judah, Carlos Baldomir and Joshua Clottey are good wins, but nothing more than any other good (not great) fighter would or should accomplish.
Cotto was never considered the top fighter in the weight class at which he fought, and that was apparent in his top-level bouts. He had none at junior welterweight where he would have been a considerable underdog (deservedly) against Mayweather and Kostya Tszyu, and perhaps favored against Arturo Gatti and Ricky Hatton. At welterweight he tested his mettle against Antonio Margarito and Pacquiao and fell considerably short of the mark. The beatdown he took at the hands of those two fighters led many to believe that his days near the top were in the past. There was no shame in losing to either of those fighters, with Pacquiao headed to the Hall of Fame and Margarito might have been in the discussion to join were it not for the discovery of tainted wraps. At junior middleweight (and 155) his losses to Mayweather, Alvarez, and Trout are neither inexcusable nor as damaging as his prior losses. They are also further proof that at this weight he was truly just a contender. Trout quickly lost the title he gained from Cotto, and has been only a contender in this division since that time. Cotto would have been the underdog versus Lara, and could very well have been troubled by the 2012 versions of Alfred Angulo and Vanes Martirosyan.
Exposure on a major network was probably Cotto’s biggest asset. As shown above, he was never the best fighter in his division, his highest-profile wins were tarnished considering the trajectory of his opponents’ careers, and when he faced top fighters in his prime and theirs, he was soundly defeated. The argument that he only lost to the best fighters is a weak one, knowing that his was the type of star power where he could refuse lower profile opponents to both maximize his earnings and minimize the damage to his reputation that a loss would bring. In boxing, no fighter can ever fight “all” of the best available opponents, so Cotto cannot be condemned for his career choices. He has been an entertaining fighter who has been in with many good and great fighters, and for that he should be lauded. He has earned every bit of his adulation and respect from fans and peers.
Enshrinement in Canastota is another matter. The bar for the Hall of Fame is a moving target, and many fighters who do not get in on the first ballot tend to linger with little hope of overtaking the new names that appear. Few would question that Cotto was a better fighter than Gatti, who is in the Hall, but was he better than fighters such as Donald Curry, Julian Jackson, Nigel Benn, Dariusz Michalczewski and Chris Eubank who as of this writing still must pay admission for entrance? If the Hall is reserved for the truly special, does Cotto qualify? The weight of his wins and losses do not justify a vote in his favor, but his exposure and the loyalty of his fans will more than likely eventually pave the way for Cotto to one day join the greats as a member of the Hall of Fame.
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