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Two sides of Miguel Cotto

Unbeaten welterweight champion is all business in the ring and in public, but within his tight inner circle he's a fun-loving practical joker.

July 25, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- The sun is still fighting to rise over the lush green hills of Puerto Rico's fertile midsection as five men meet in a park near the city center for their regular morning workout.

Less than a block into the run, when an SUV pulls up behind the group and honks, the man at the front of the pack responds by pulling down the back of his sweat pants and mooning the driver.

Miguel Cotto, arguably the island's hottest athlete, breaks into a smile before he's even broken a sweat. Turns out he's just flashed his own mother.

Yet that's a side of Cotto few outside a tight circle of friends ever get to see. Most of the world knows the undefeated, two-time world champion for his scowl and his punishing punches in the boxing ring. Cotto will defend his World Boxing Assn. welterweight title Saturday in Las Vegas against Antonio Margarito.

Outside the ring, however, Cotto is a tireless practical joker who isn't afraid to let down his guard -- and his sweat pants -- once in a while. "When he's boxing, people say he's serious and he's focused and he doesn't smile," says his trainer Phil Landman. "But he's completely the opposite when he's out of the ring. Always joking, laughing, having a good time."

"He was always a bit cheeky, like all kids," Jose "Joey" Gomez, one of Cotto's cornermen and a friend since early childhood, says in Spanish. "He jokes in a way that leaves you stunned. He's going to try to make you happy. [But] he's not the type of person who makes friends easily and trusts everyone."

The public Miguel Cotto, the one with the rock-star following in his native Puerto Rico, will greet a raucous crowd of 1,500 packed into a shopping mall with little more than a shy wave. But the private Miguel Cotto has proven so loyal that when he shaved his head at the start of training camp for Saturday's fight, every one of his friends -- as well as his son -- insisted on having their heads shaved as well.

"He's totally different with us," Gomez says. "He's the type of person that if you were with him from the beginning, he's not going to leave you behind. He's going to take you by the hand and take you with him."

Perhaps one reason Cotto seems so uncomfortable in the limelight is the fact he never set out to be there in the first place. When he first stepped into the gym as a pudgy 156-pound 10-year-old he was hoping boxing might save his life, not take it over.

"At that time we weren't thinking of this. It was simply because he had to lose weight. He was fat," says Evangelista Cotto, Miguel's uncle and the only coach he's ever had.

In nine months Cotto lost more than 50 pounds, earning a chance to leave the speed bag and jump rope for a real fight in the ring. By 16 he was on the Puerto Rican national team, following in the footsteps of his older brother Jose, who boxed in the 1996 Olympics. "Year after year I took the boxing more seriously," Cotto says.

And when he came back from the 1998 Central American and Caribbean Games in Venezuela with a silver medal, he says, "I decided I want to be a boxer for the rest of my life."

But less than seven months after his pro debut, Cotto's career -- and his life -- nearly came to an end when he fell asleep while driving to a predawn workout, crashing into a concrete wall and breaking his right arm and shoulder in four places.

"After 30 days he was running again," his father remembers.

And after five months he was boxing again, flattening Joshua Smith two rounds into his return to the ring.

The accident, Cotto says, changed him, making him "more focused on boxing." As a result, he's scored knockouts in 21 of his 25 fights since beating Smith, raising his record to 32-0 with 26 KOs.

"When you think this thing never can happen to you and it happens, you put in more effort and you stay more focused on your work."

And you find a friend to drive you to workouts, he adds with a smile.

Yet it hasn't all been smooth sailing.

For the last 14 months there's been a bitter, if quiet, feud between the boxer and his uncle/coach, apparently dating to his older brother's 2007 lightweight title bout in Puerto Rico. With Jose Cotto fighting poorly, Evangelista confronted him in a screaming, water-throwing rage after the eighth round. When the argument continued after the next round Miguel left his ringside seat to try to make peace, but Evangelista eventually stormed off.

Although Miguel Cotto continues to train in Evangelista's gym -- an airless, windowless, zinc-roofed bunker tucked amid rows of low-slung concrete houses in a working-class neighborhood -- the two don't speak much and rarely even acknowledge one another.

"Evangelista's role is circumspect. And it has been for years," says Bob Arum, the promoter for both Cotto and Margarito. But while there's little doubt Cotto would like to break away from his uncle, the boxer's father has insisted the family will stay together until the end, no matter how strained things become.

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