NEW YORK — Miguel Cotto, who began boxing as an 11-year-old to lose weight, said farewell on Saturday night, closing out a glorious 17-year career, but not how most expected.
Instead of an easy win over big underdog Sadam Ali, Cotto was nowhere near his best in what he said would be his final fight. Ali won a unanimous decision to take his junior middleweight world title in a major upset.
Cotto had come to his house, Madison Square Garden, where he headlined for the 10th time, to say goodbye to the fans that have supported him throughout his career. A largely Puerto Rican crowd of 12,391 was on hand Saturday.
The surefire first-ballot International Boxing Hall of Famer, however, couldn’t quite give them what they wanted and lost 116-112, 115-113 and 115-113, ruining what was supposed to be a celebration of Cotto’s superb career rather than a serious fight. Ali won the final four rounds on all three scorecards to lock up the decision.
“Feeling good. Feeling good with the performance,” Cotto said. “Something happened to my left bicep, seventh round. I don’t want to make excuses. Sadam won the fight. It is my last fight. I am good, and I want to be happy in my home with my family.”
Cotto (41-6, 33 KOs), 37, the Puerto Rican legend, was a 2000 Olympian. He went on to win six world titles — most recently a vacant 154-pound belt on Aug. 26 against Yoshihiro Kamegai that Cotto was defending for the first time on Saturday — in four weight divisions: junior welterweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight. He is the only Puerto Rican man to do so, despite the island’s rich boxing history.
But his history meant little to Ali (26-1, 14 KOs), 29, of Brooklyn, New York, a 2008 U.S. Olympian who counts himself as a Cotto fan.
Ali was moving up in weight for the biggest fight of his career. Few gave him much of a chance, because the only other time Ali stepped up in class — against Jessie Vargas for a vacant welterweight world title in March 2016 — Ali got knocked down twice and stopped in the ninth round of a somewhat one-sided fight.
But Ali looked strong, fast and determined against Cotto, as he dropped Cotto to 8-2 at the Garden and 20-6 in world title fights, many of them among the most memorable in recent boxing history.
“I worked hard for it.” Ali said. “I took advantage of this fight, and I made sure to make it count. I want to thank God, and also thank Team Cotto. They could have taken an easier fight if they wanted to.”
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Ali landed 139 of 647 punches (21 percent), and Cotto connected with 163 of 536 (30 percent). But Ali really came on strong in the second half of the fight, after Cotto said he hurt his left biceps in the seventh round.
After Cotto cruised through the first round to chants of “Cotto! Cotto,” Ali surprised him in the second round, landing a clean right hand near Cotto’s temple area that rocked him. Moments later, Ali connected with a left hook and Cotto looked like he was in a bit of trouble, though he quickly recovered.
“I had him hurt here or there in the first couple of rounds. I knew I had to do something or he would have dug in,” Ali said. “By the 11th round, I thought the fight was close.”
While Cotto double- and triple-jabbed to get inside, Ali stood his ground and fired back, catching Cotto with surprisingly clean punches during the early rounds.
In the sixth round, Ali’s right eye began to swell from eating an assortment of Cotto left hooks. Cotto then hurt Ali with a clean right to the head and unloaded several more blows. Ali moved away, smiling, but he was hurt from the shots.
Cotto continued to back Ali up in the seventh round. Cotto was so satisfied with his work that he told trainer Freddie Roach in the corner that it was his best round of the fight so far, but his biceps was aching.
Ali knew he was the big underdog going into the fight and embraced the role. He fought seemingly relaxed and came on strong late in the fight. After seemingly winning a close ninth round, Ali had more success in the 10th round, catching a tiring Cotto along the ropes with a left hook and then a right hand.
Ali continued to go forward in the 11th round. Cotto, his face showing damage, tried to keep Ali off with his jab, but Ali was much busier as he chased after him.
Ali came out for the final round firing punches with both hands. He had the momentum and was trying to finish strong in a fight that tightened up significantly in the second half.
Now, Ali has more significant fights to look forward to.
“Whatever [Golden Boy Promotions] has next, I’ll take it. Good things happen to good people,” Ali said. “I have been training since I was 8 years old, and I am glad I got this win at MSG, in my hometown.”
Cotto was not very nostalgic after the fight but thanked his loyal fans.
“Thank you for all the fans,” he said. “I am proud to call MSG my second home. I had the opportunity to provide the best for my family because of the sport.”
After the fight, the crowd lingered for a video presentation of Cotto’s career highlights on the JumboTron. When it was over the screen read: “Thank You For The Memories 2001-2017.”