Cotto's path to stardom blown away by Tijuana Tornado

LAS VEGAS -- I'll admit it: I'm in shock.

Boxing writers aren't supposed to have favorites, but some of us do, however much we strive to be as neutral and objective as we can.

Mine was Miguel Cotto.

Cotto fought on the first card for which I received credentials, the rematch between Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya in September 2003. That match was in the same MGM Grand Arena where Cotto met his Waterloo against Antonio "The Tijuana Tornado" Margarito on Saturday night.

"Watch this guy," Lee Samuels of Top Rank, Cotto's promotional company, said to me during the week of that fight. "We think he could be our next De La Hoya."

I didn't see it myself. His performance certainly was emphatic -- a seventh-round TKO over former title challenger Demetrio Ceballos -- but it didn't leave an overwhelming impression on this neophyte boxing scribe.

The next time I saw him fight, when I was ringside for his four-round demolition of Victoriano Sosa, did. His body punches landed with such authority that evening that I found myself wincing as they landed.

That was when I first became convinced of his quality, a conviction that only grew during his subsequent fights, even as he sometimes was forced to dig deep and overcome adversity. I thought he seemed to be developing all the tools, that he was finding a new way to win with each bout.

I wasn't the only one.

"I've been impressed with that young man for years," no less an authority than Sugar Ray Leonard told me this week. "I've watched him grow; I've watched him develop. I see such promise. I saw this kid before he was a champion and I liked what I saw. Each and every time he fought, there was improvement."

I still wasn't sold on the De La Hoya comparisons, though. Whereas the Golden Boy is gregarious and can flash a million-dollar smile on cue, Cotto appeared taciturn, his demeanor outside the ring reflective of his style inside it.

"He is like the Terminator. He has no expression," Leonard said with a tone that sounded admiring of Cotto's assassin-like qualities.

But this week, I changed my mind about his expression, too. He willingly answered questions in increasingly good English. He was relaxed and amenable. He even joked around a little. A couple of times I saw him smile. He wasn't exactly Chuckles the Clown, but he carried the confident swagger of a man without a hint of self-doubt. I was convinced he was ready to break out as boxing's next real superstar.

After six rounds on Saturday night, I was even more convinced.

With the exception of the second round, which I gave to Margarito and in which the champion had been hurt by the Mexican's ripping uppercuts to the body, I gave every round in the first half of the bout to Cotto. I began to regret insisting that everyone I knew should make a point of watching this one fight above all others. I even began writing my postfight story.

"This was supposed to be Fight of the Year," I wrote in my head. "The reason it wasn't is because Miguel Cotto is that good."

He wasn't just outpointing Margarito, he was outclassing him -- or so I thought. He was effectively blocking many of Margarito's punches and slipping others. He was landing beautiful three- and four-punch combinations that snapped back his opponent's head.

Yet Margarito just kept coming.

After the sixth round, the fight began to turn; after the seventh, it did so irreversibly. Even so, by the middle of the 10th, I sensed that the worst for Cotto had passed, that the Puerto Rican had regained some of the steam that had evaporated from his punches in the face of Margarito's assault. But then came the final onslaught, and Cotto, mentally and physically finished, was on his knees.

Cotto might yet prove to be the boxing superstar I expected to him to be, of course. Thomas Hearns' legacy remains strong despite his stoppage losses to Leonard and Marvin Hagler. But Cotto's overpowering self-confidence has been smashed into a million pieces by Margarito's fists, and it will take some work to piece it back together.

In time, I'll be able to fully appreciate what I saw Saturday night: the truly remarkable fight that unfolded in front of my eyes, a bout that is destined to take its place in the catalog of classic contests. I'll feel good after all about insisting my friends should watch it. I'll revel in being able to boast that I was there.

But for now, I'm in shock.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.