Fighters gearing up for big tilt

For seven years, Miguel Cotto has been climbing the mountain of pugilistic success.

From representing Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics to a junior welterweight world title to a welterweight championship, Cotto has fought his way to the brink of superstardom.

While Cotto was hammering opponent after opponent in the ring, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum was adroitly guiding his career and building him into an attraction along the same lines as he did with Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Now, Cotto is just about at the summit of the mountain, which he can reach with a victory against former undisputed welterweight champ Zab Judah at New York's Madison Square Garden on Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET).

The fight, Cotto's second 147-pound title defense, is his biggest yet.

His best opponent.

His most significant fight.

His largest crowd.

Given Cotto's relentless style and Judah's speed and power, it also figures to be an exciting fight on what should be a special night in one of boxing's most hallowed arenas. It is the culmination of what Arum has been hoping Cotto would become: a major star.

"It's his coming-out fight," Arum said. "It's the biggest fight of his career. It's before the biggest audience that will watch him fight."

If the excitement surrounding the fight is any indication, Cotto has truly emerged as a star during the promotion.

The 26-year-old threw out the first pitch at a recent New York Mets game. He's been making his way around New York in a charter bus emblazoned with his image and advertisements for the fight card. And he has drawn big crowds to his open workouts and other public appearances.

"It's good to spend some time with the fans," Cotto said. "They are the ones who have supported me from day one and I'm very grateful for that."

The Garden is expected to rock with a 19,000-plus sellout for one of its largest boxing crowds in years. Cotto (29-0, 24 KOs), a hero in Puerto Rico, will be fighting there for the third consecutive year on the eve of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, a date Arum has nurtured. And Judah (34-4, 25 KOs), Brooklyn born and bred, will also have many rooting for him.

Arum believes there is a distinct reason why Cotto's star power has steadily grown.

"The reason is simple. He is a no-nonsense fighter," Arum said. "He doesn't come to dance. He doesn't come to do business in the sense of 'I'm coming in, I won't throw punches if you don't throw punches' and leave in the same condition, or leave his opponent in the same condition, as when he came into the ring. He is a fighter, and he comes to fight. He's demonstrated it not only in Madison Square Garden in the last two years, but in all of the fights that you've seen him in."

Cotto's drawing power in New York has grown with each fight he's had at the Garden.

In his first appearance on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in 2005, he drew about 11,000 to a junior welterweight defense against Mohamad Abdulaev, the Olympic gold medalist who defeated Cotto in his first bout of the 2000 Games.

For his second bout at the Garden last June, 14,000 fans turned out to see him defend his 140-pound belt against New Yorker Paulie Malignaggi.

Now, the Garden will be sold out -- including 3,000 balcony seats that have been opened for a fight for the first time since 2001.

"It seems that every year the fights are bigger, and that's good," Cotto said. "I know that many Puerto Ricans come to New York for the parade on Sunday and they enjoy coming to the fights the night before as part of a weekend-long celebration."

The crowd will be there to see Cotto face an opponent who wasn't even the first choice. He was originally supposed to fight titlist Antonio Margarito before Margarito changed his mind and decided to accept another fight on July 14.

"In Zab Judah, he has a very, very worthy opponent, who is in great shape, and who is fighting for pugilistic life," Arum said. "[He's] a man who has tremendous boxing skills but also a devastating punch, and Miguel knows that he is being challenged in this fight."

While Cotto is looking to launch himself into the elite, Judah, despite his wealth of talent, is indeed fighting for his career as a top performer.

Bumping off a prime Cotto would go a long way to erasing a disastrous 2006.

Judah entered the year as undisputed champion. He ended it having lost two fights in a row and in the midst of serving a yearlong suspension handed to him by Nevada boxing officials.

Judah, also a former junior welterweight champion, started 2006 by losing a unanimous decision and the title in the upset of the year to Carlos Baldomir in January. Next came a lopsided loss to Mayweather in April and the subsequent suspension for his part in a 10th-round melee that was ignited after he twice fouled Mayweather.

"It was wrong what the Nevada commission did to us. Someone must be punished for that and Cotto happens to next in line, so he's going to get it good," said Yoel Judah, Zab's father and trainer, who was also suspended for his role in the brawl.

Even when Judah, 29, returned from the punishment, he couldn't catch a break. His April 13 comeback bout against Ruben Galvan was aborted in the first round and ruled a no contest because an accidental elbow from Judah ripped open a cut on Galvan's forehead and he couldn't continue.

"Zab Judah is coming through his darkest hour," said promoter Brian Young, who signed Judah during his suspension. "We don't have to rehash what happened in Nevada. That story has been written many times over. He's coming out for this fight more prepared, more angry and more ready than ever before. I guarantee you, Zab Judah will make the most of his opportunity."

Judah is looking to put the sea of negativity behind him. A win will do it.

"I want to prove that Zab Judah is still great," he said. "I want to prove that I can go strong after seven rounds. This is a fight of redemption and I can't wait. The one-year layoff was great. I let my body rest.

"A win for Cotto over Zab Judah is huge for his career; a win for Zab Judah over Miguel Cotto is huge for my career. It puts me right back up there."

Added Arum, "He's had some rocky times and he's had some glorious times, but when Zab Judah gets in the ring and he's prepared, he is one tough guy and one really great fighter. I know for a fact that he has had a magnificent training camp in Memphis, Tenn., that he is ready and fit. All the nonsense in the past is behind him. He's ready to go. This fight before his hometown fans in New York can very well be his coming-out party."

Both fighters are predicting an exciting fight and, naturally, a victory.

"It's my moment, it's my time, and I'm going to destroy Zab," Cotto said. "I know I am ready to go 12 hard rounds and destroy Zab Judah. I just hope he's ready as well. I want to give the fans a great fight."

Said Judah, "Cotto is going to down a couple of times before he gets knocked out. All of this will take about five rounds."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.