NEW YORK — There are rarely happy endings in boxing.
The ones that appear to fall through the cracks are usually fleeting and simply a placeholder for the actual finale when the sport’s great champions do what so many boxers did before them and trade in their final win for a large payday and a heartbreaking loss past their prime.
Miguel Cotto wasn’t chasing one last payday when he announced Saturday would be the final fight of his 17-year hall of fame career. The 37-year-old who first leapt into our consciousness during the 2000 Summer Olympics simply felt it was time to retire and announced his fight against Sadam Ali at Madison Square Garden would be his curtain call.
In doing so, he effectively already had one foot out of the ring before entering it for the final time on Saturday against an opponent most figured was handpicked for this glorified ceremony. But the beauty of boxing is that it is an unforgiving extension of life where nothing is guaranteed.
Father time is undefeated, and happy endings are nothing more than unfinished stories.
Cotto’s final act — a stunning unanimous decision loss to Ali — wasn’t as heartbreaking a result as it may seem on the surface. Cotto was ahead on two scorecards and tied on another one through eight rounds before he tore his left bicep and basically powered through the final four to five rounds, effectively with one arm, and lost each round on all scorecards leading to his final defeat.
While a win would have been nice storybook finish to Cotto’s career, watching him power through the end of the fight with a torn left biceps may have been the most fitting end to one of the great warriors the sport has ever seen. Cotto left everything he had in the ring, and when it was over, he offered no excuses and allowed Ali to have his moment in the spotlight, exiting the ring and quietly going straight to the hospital; he quietly bypassed his final press conference.
“I don’t want to make excuses; Sadam won the fight,” Cotto said. “It is my last fight. I am good, and I want to be happy in my home with my family.”
Cotto was the pride of Puerto Rico during his career, but many of his greatest moments happened in New York. Cotto sold more fight tickets at the Garden than any other fighter in this millennium. He headlined 10 fights at the Garden, going 8-2, and also headlined the first boxing card at the new Yankee Stadium in 2010. He went 20-6 (16 KOs) in world title fights and is the only Puerto Rican male fighter to win world titles in four different weight classes.
“I am proud to call MSG my second home,” Cotto said. “I had the opportunity to provide the best for my family because of the sport.”
Cotto’s last fight started as most of them have during the course of his career. It began three hours before he actually stepped into the ring as he walked toward an empty row of ringside seats with his family and took in two rounds of the Ronny Rios-Deivis Julio fight. While Cotto refused to get sentimental about his final fight before it happened, he must have had a different feeling as he looked around the iconic arena, which had served as the stage to so many of the biggest moments of his life.
After Ali defeated Cotto, he stood in the center of the ring with his newly won WBO junior middleweight world championship, flanked by Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins. De La Hoya and Hopkins knew their careers were over before stepping into the ring for the final time. Hopkins was famously knocked out of the ring last year by Joe Smith Jr. in the final fight of his 28-year career while De La Hoya knew he was done nine years ago before he faced Manny Pacquiao.
“I’ll never forget walking to ring that night,” De La Hoya told ESPN. “I knew that I was going to get beat up already. It was like walking into a slaughter house and knowing that this is it. I’ve never felt that before in my life. Imagine going into the ring, knowing that you’re going to get beat. I might as well have run back to the dressing room and taken off, but I’ve always decided to fight. But I was a dead man walking when I stepped into the ring against Pacquiao. I had nothing left.”
Cotto wasn’t feeling that way when he stepped into the ring Saturday night, but he knew he was done when his left arm was reduced to nothing more than a painful appendage dangling from his body. He still finished his career doing what he had done for the past 17 years. He refused to give in and accepted the challenge. He never shied away from an opponent during a career where he faced everyone from Floyd Mayweather, Pacquaio and Canelo Alvarez to Shane Mosely, Antonio Margarito and Zab Judah.
He didn’t get the happy ending many were hoping for on Saturday. Few fighters ever do.