By Kieran Mulvaney
CARSON, Calif — In the aftermath of his dominant 12 round decision win over Yoshihiro Kamegai at the StubHub Center on Saturday night, Miguel Cotto reaffirmed his intention to bring down the curtain on his sure-to-be Hall of Fame career at the end of this year. But if, after stretching out in the locker room, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and reconsidered that decision, he might have found himself being pulled in two different directions.
On the one hand, he is still, even at 36 years old and with much mileage on his odometer, extremely good at prizefighting. He was in control from first bell to last, and while Kamegai is not exactly on the top shelf of opponents for a man who has faced the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and Sergio Martinez, the fact that Cotto was so utterly ascendant from beginning to end is testament to his ongoing skill, talent and resilience.
On the other hand: Honestly, who needs evenings like this at 36 years of age? Kamegai may not have ever truly threatened to win, but it was not for want of trying. He was on Cotto like a rash all night, swarming him, smothering him and ensuring that the veteran had to work every second of the fight.
Fortunately for Cotto, Kamegai (27-4-2, 24 KOs), notwithstanding the fact that he has had a perfectly decent career just below the ethereal heights of the sport, displayed little evidence that he has the skill, talent or strategic nous to compete with the very best. His offensive plan appeared to be to charge after Cotto, heading in straight lines across the ring like a psychotic, malfunctioning Roomba and then hoping that the Puerto Rican would tire himself out so much from throwing punches that he would drop dead from exhaustion.
Indeed, between rounds in the latter stages, Cotto (41-5, 33 KOs) was sucking wind, his chest heaving from the effort of keeping the determined Kamegai off of him. But Kamegai, while apparently immune to any kind of pain or punishment and possessed of a relentless determination to keep barreling forward toward his foe, smothered his own offense too often to trouble the former lineal middleweight champion.
The first round began in much the same way that the rest of the fight would ultimately evolve: Kamegai came charging out of his corner; Cotto met him in ring center; the Puerto Rican took a half step to one side and cracked Kamegai with a left hook, and a right hand, and another hook; the Japanese boxer’s head snapped sideways dramatically and spray went flying; Cotto moved out of the way and reset; Kamegai looked briefly puzzled that Cotto had gone missing, then charged at him again.
Over and over and over it unfolded: Kamegai, bereft of the very best of skills, but with the heart of a lion and a skull apparently made of granite – or Valyrian steel, or Kryptonite, or something superhuman – kept charging at Cotto, sometimes backing him to the ropes, throwing punches when and where he could, only for Cotto to explode power blows on his jaw in return. Round after round it happened, and it was all marvelously entertaining. There are plenty of boxers with much more skill than Kamegai, but there are very, very few who throw themselves into their task, who display as much heart and courage and determination. There must not have been many in the enthusiastic crowd who would not pay to watch him fight again.
And such was his stamina, so suffocating was his offense, that there was always, in the back of the mind, the thought that maybe, just maybe, the sheer effort of trying to repel him would ultimately prove too much for a 36-year-old man who had not fought a professional prizefight in almost two years.
It was not, however, to be. Kamegai would wind up a big punch and Cotto would almost shrug his shoulders and throw a shorter counter that twisted Kamegai’s head around like Linda Blair’s. Even when Kamegai was able to trap Cotto and throw several punches in a row, the veteran would just bide his time, look for an opening and land a succession of blows that had the crowd roaring in approval. Eventually, it was Kamegai who ran out of steam, and by the end, he appeared to freeze for just a beat or two each time Cotto landed a punch. Appreciative of his foe’s effort, Cotto patted him on the head as the clapper sounded to signal that ten seconds remained, and they hugged warmly at the bell.
“I did my best,” said Cotto to HBO’s Max Kellerman afterward. “I’m happy with my performance.” But, he added, he recognized by about the fifth round that he was not going to be able to knock his opponent out and was in for a long night.
“He is a tough fighter, a tough opponent,” he acknowledged.
But he remained determined to follow his plan.
“I’m 36 already, I turn 37 on October 29,” he said. “I think it’s enough.” But not quite just yet. Miguel Cotto’s final bow is yet to come.
“One more in December,” he said, “and then we’re done.”
There were moments when the co-main event between junior featherweights Rey Vargas and Ronny Rios threatened to erupt into, if not exactly an all-time great StubHub clash, then certainly an intriguing and exciting prize fight. But after a middle period when Rios appeared to be putting pressure on the taller, nimbler Vargas, and even hurt him with a left hook, Vargas assumed complete control, cruising to a comfortable victory as a frustrated Rios sought desperately to land something – anything – that might change the course of the contest.
If the bout was ultimately one-sided, and if the undefeated Vargas (30-0, 22 KOs), secured victory through footwork, defense and ring generalship as much as the punches he threw, there was no shortage of quality on display. Nor could either man be faulted for effort: the shorter Rios was the one constantly chuntering forward, trying to make the fight and land big, power blows, but Vargas – sliding out of range and countering with fast combinations all night long – threw by far the greater number of punches. In total, in fact, he threw fully 974 of them, landing 295; 550 of his punches were straight jabs, which he would frequently deploy in twos, threes or fours to keep Rios at range.
Early on, Vargas was able to follow up those jabs with booming overhand rights, but after the first couple of rounds Rios (28-2, 13 KOs) proved more successful at closing the distance, diminishing the leverage the Mexican was able to get on his punches, and sliding out of range when Vargas cocked his big right hand. He was able to back Vargas to the ropes and into the corner with greater frequency, and in the eighth landed a pair of right hands to the body, followed by a short left hook that detonated Vargas’ jaw and buckled his knees.
It was the high point of Rios’ evening, however, as Vargas subsequently rediscovered the range and movement he needed to keep the Californian at bay and at the end of his straight combinations. At the end, there was no doubt, with a surprisingly close score of 115-113 combining with two cards of 118-110 to give Vargas a comfortable win.