- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Miguel Cotto loves New York, and New York loves Cotto.
Since the Puerto Rican star's first main event at Madison Square Garden in 2005 -- a ninth-round knockout of Muhammad Abdulaev to retain his junior welterweight title and avenge his loss to the eventual gold medalist who bounced him from the 2000 Olympics -- Cotto has become synonymous with boxing at the famed arena and the sport's biggest attraction in New York over the past decade.
It has been something of a love affair between Cotto and his fans -- largely Puerto Rican -- who cheer him wildly and flock to his fights. All of those bouts have been world title main events -- with the exception of his third pro bout in 2001, a four-round decision win against Waklimi Young at the Hammerstein Ballroom, located across the street from the Garden.
"People here are different to me than in other places," Cotto said. "People here help me a lot with their support and cheering. Actually, when people expect so much, that motivates me."
Cotto's fans will be expecting another victory when he goes for his fifth world title against slick junior middleweight titleholder Austin Trout (25-0, 14 KOs), a 27-year-old southpaw from Las Cruces, N.M., on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT) at Madison Square Garden.
In the televised undercard bouts, Puerto Rican featherweight prospect Jayson Velez (19-0, 14 KOs) will face Mexico's Salvador Sanchez II (30-4-3, 18 KOs), a nephew of the late featherweight champion and Hall of Famer Salvador Sanchez; and Brooklyn, N.Y., middleweight Danny Jacobs (23-1, 20 KOs), in his second bout since returning from his battle with cancer, will face Cleveland's Chris Fitzpatrick (15-2, 6 KOs).
Joel Fisher, the executive vice president of MSG Sports and a big Cotto supporter, calls Madison Square Garden Cotto's "home away from home."
"There is a great milestone that Miguel Cotto has eclipsed during this promotion," Fisher said. "He has a tremendous fan base here in New York City, which is why he has sold over 100,000 tickets in all of his eight fights here at the Garden."
Cotto (37-3, 30 KOs) has become part of the New York sports landscape because of his regular appearances in the Big Apple. He is 9-0 overall in New York, including 7-0 at Madison Square Garden, where the crowds for his fights create an atmosphere as electric as any in sports.
"Every time Cotto fights, it is a special event, but when Miguel fights at the Garden, it is extra-special," said Stephen Espinoza, Showtime Sports' executive vice president and general manager.
Besides the Young fight all those years ago, the other non-Garden fight Cotto had in New York was the historic return of boxing to Yankee Stadium, where he knocked out Yuri Foreman in the ninth round in front of 20,272 in June 2010 to win a junior middleweight championship -- the third weight class in which Cotto won a world title.
Cotto has scored his most significant victories in New York, including his revenge 10th-round knockout of bitter rival Antonio Margarito 11 months ago, an 11th-round knockout of New Yorker Zab Judah in front of a building-record crowd of 20,658, a tight decision against Shane Mosley and a decision victory over New Yorker Paulie Malignaggi.
Having had such great success at the Garden, Cotto is happy to be back.
"People here have supported my whole career," he said, "and I know Saturday is going to be the same: a lot of people there shouting for me, being there just to watch an entertaining fight. I've had good preparation for this Saturday.
"[The fans] are there for me, I'm there for them, and I'm going to make them proud. And they're going to help me, whatever happens during the fight."
Although Cotto's own promotional company is running Saturday's event -- the biggest it has ever undertaken -- with an assist from Golden Boy Promotions, it was Top Rank, Cotto's career-long promoter until their contract expired after the Margarito fight last December, that built Cotto into a New York star.
Bob Arum's company had great success promoting major Mexican-oriented fights in Las Vegas around the time of Mexican Independence Day in mid-September and in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend.
With Cotto having quickly emerged as one of Top Rank's most significant fighters, and with the company looking to establish him in New York (where there is a heavy Puerto Rican population), Top Rank president Todd duBoef took a page out of Arum's playbook: It was DuBoef who came up with the idea of tying a Cotto fight to the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, which takes place in New York every June.
Cotto fights eventually became one of the weekend's annual centerpiece events. It began in 2005, when Top Rank -- which promoted every one of Cotto's fights until he faced Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a hard-fought decision loss in May -- took a gamble and put Cotto-Abdulaev on in the main arena at Madison Square Garden, eschewing the venue's smaller Theater, where fighters often start before moving to the big room.
Hitching Cotto's star to the Puerto Rican parade weekend was a "natural symbiosis with the Puerto Ricans in New York in June, when they have their big weekend," duBoef said before Cotto faced Joshua Clottey in June 2009. "So I said, 'Why don't we try putting an event on the Puerto Rican parade weekend?' That was the genesis of it."
The Cotto-Abdulaev fight on Puerto Rican Day parade weekend was a solid success. It drew 10,231 and gave Cotto and Top Rank something to build on. His crowds grew bigger fight after fight, but the Abdulaev fight remains special to Cotto.
"My first opportunity [at MSG] with Abdulaev, I didn't think that this arena was going to be so special for me in my entire career," Cotto said. "But I'm happy, I'm thankful, and I'm just grateful for having such a wonderful career, such wonderful performances here in Madison Square Garden."
Cotto eventually became such a significant attraction that he would fight there at other times of the year. He fought Mosley in November, Michael Jennings in February and Margarito in that very emotional victory in December.
"Something special came when Madison Square Garden appeared in my career," Cotto said. "People were there for Miguel Cotto. Miguel Cotto tried to be there the best he could for them, just to bring entertaining fights for them. I think they appreciate that a lot, and I appreciate a lot more what the people who are there do for me."
Gaby Penagaricano, Cotto's adviser, who is essentially running the promotion for the Trout fight, said the reason for Cotto's popularity in New York is simple.
"Well, I think he has delivered here," Penagaricano said. "He has fought nine times, all wins, all of them exciting fights. So he has delivered what the fans want, and that's why they're so thirsty to see him again this Saturday.
"He's just an exciting fighter. No boring fights when he steps into the ring, and it's a big, big, big attraction between the two. So I know it's very special for him."
Miguel Cotto will be the challenger when he takes aim at Austin Trout's junior middleweight belt Saturday, but he'll have the benefit of a virtual home date at New York's Madison Square Garden.