It's never the way a Hall-of-Fame-level boxer wants to end his career, especially Miguel Cotto who believed he was finishing on his own terms.
After 10 rounds, even Sadam Ali believed it still could've ended any other way than how it concluded—with the Brooklynite riding a strong finish all the way to a huge upset victory over the now former four-division champion Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
"I knew I had to do something to put the pressure on, stay strong physically and mentally (in the championship rounds)," Ali told HBO's Max Kellerman of the strategy that led to his super welterweight title-winning effort.
Scores for the HBO-televised main event were 115-113 (twice) and 116-112 in favor of Ali, whose second half surge proved to be the difference in winning his first world title, spoiling in the process the planned farewell party for Cotto, who announced prior to the fight that this would be the last of his 17-year career.
Through 12 rounds of a surprisingly action-packed fight, it was clear why the Puerto Rican superstar chose now to call it quits. Having hovered at or near the top of any given weight class at which he's campaigned for the better part of the past 13 years since his first title win in 2004, Cotto is no longer that elite-level boxer who can win fights on sheer will when skill didn't always get the job done.
It was a lesson punched into him early and often in his 10th career main event at Madison Square Garden. The first big sign of strange things to come arrived in the form of a right hand shot from Ali that dazed Cotto midway through round two. In a recurring theme throughout the first half of the fight, Ali failed to seize the moment, in fact with Cotto returning fighter later in the round and driving the New Yorker to the canvas. Referee Charlie Fitch—one of the best in the game and whose presence was largely and rightly undetected for most of the evening—correctly ruled the sequence a slip, although it was enough to put some hesitance in the challenger's attack.
"I had him hurt in there, but didn't want to get (ahead of) myself," Ali admitted. The strategy never sat well with head trainer Andre Rozier, who repeatedly implored his charge to pick up the pace and not allow a major opportunity to slip through the cracks.
Whatever was left in Cotto's arsenal was barely enough to keep the fight competitive. He managed to surge ahead by the midway point following his best sequence of the fight in round six—hurting Ali and enjoying his highest punch output of the bout—but the night quickly went south for the fading legend.
A torn biceps was attributed to his second half slide, with the revelation of the suggested injury occurring in round seven.
"I think i tore my (biceps) in the 7th, but I had to keep fighting," said Cotto (41-6, 33KOs), who was classy in defeat in a refreshing change from how the proud ring warrior has handled previous setbacks.
As for Ali, he was perhaps a bit too classy and respectful in his ring approach, until realizing that—despite fighting mere miles from his Canarsie (Brooklyn) hometown—nobody was here to do him any favors.
The result of that tactical change was his sweeping the final four rounds on all three judges' scorecards to preserve the massive upset victory. The 2008 U.S. Olympic boxer improves to 26-1 (14KOs) and—four fights after suffering a 9th round knockout loss to Jessie Vargas in their welterweight title fight last March—lands a career-defining victory and can basically name his next assignment.
Instead, he'd rather savor the moment and allow his handlers to take carer of the business side.
"Whatever (promoter) Golden Boy Promotions has in store," is all that Ali would comment on a future that is now brighter than ever.
What's next for Cotto is a retirement parade and quality time with his loved ones.
A first-round exit in the 2000 Sydney Olympics while representing Puerto Rico merely served as motivation to succeed at the highest level, which is exactly how Cotto's career played out. No other boxer sold more tickets at Madison Square Garden in the 21st Century, calling the venue his home away from home beginning with his June '05 stoppage win over Mohammed Abdullaev, avenging his aforementioned Olympic elimination defeat in the process—a fitting title defense, having acquired the 140-pound belt by avenging another amateur loss in halting Kelson Pinto in six rounds the prior September in his native Puerto Rico.
The Garden debut also kicked off a grand tradition fighting on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City, occurring five time in his career along with an off-location June '10 knockout win over Yuri Foreman in the lone boxing card at the new Yankees Stadium in the Bronx.
No Garden victory was bigger, however, than his history-making 10th round stoppage of Sergio Martinez in June '14. The upset victory netted Cotto the World middleweight championship, becoming the first—and to date, only ever—male boxer from Puerto Rico to win titles in four weight classes.
Sadly, it also represents his last-ever win at Madison Square Garden. Saturday's setback was his second defeat in the building, his record now 8-2 at the venue. His lone other defeat on the property came in a Dec. '12 failed title bid versus then-unbeaten Austin Trout, which was also promoted by Golden Boy Promotions with whom he reconnected this past summer in ending a 21-month ring hiatus.
His middleweight title reign lasted 17 months, making just one defense before losing the best to Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez in their Nov. '15 superfight in Las Vegas, which moved 940,000 pay-per-view units. It was among his three best-selling PPV events, all coming in defeat as he surpassed the one-million units sold mark in high profile losses to the two best boxers of this generation - Manny Pacquiao (Nov. '09) and Floyd Mayweather (May '12).
What made Cotto's career so special, though, was the manner in which he entertained whether in victory or defeat. His first career loss—an 11th round stoppage to Antonio Margarito which has since been mired in controversy in light of the victor's subsequent handwrap scandal—was every bit the competitive thriller as was his Sept. '05 off-the-canvas knockout win of Ricardo Torres. Even his Garden wins over the likes of Shane Mosley, Zab Judah and Paul Malignaggi were loaded with blood, thrills and drama.
That very fighting style atoned for a not-so-bold out-of-ring personality, as memories of his in-ring performances forever resonating with his adoring public. Such love was very much felt in return.
"Thank you for supporting my every moment," Cotto told the announced crowd of 12,391 after the fight. "I am proud to call Madison Square Garden my home.”
Despite the night ending in defeat, the aged great stayed true to his pre-fight promise of this night being his last in a boxing ring—as least as a prizefighter.
"It is (the last fight)," Cotto confirmed. "I want to be in my house and happy with my family.”