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30 OCTOBER 2014

 
Bob Arum Mans the Ramparts with Cotto-Judah
Miguel Cotto drops Zab Judah: HoganPhotos.com
Miguel Cotto drops Zab Judah: HoganPhotos.com



By Thomas Hauser

The first fight that Bob Arum promoted was Muhammad Ali versus George Chuvalo in 1966. Arum is 75 years old now. He and Don King are self-described “dinosaurs of the sport.” But while King has seen his influence fade in recent years, Arum’s remains constant. His current roster of fighters includes Manny Pacquiao, Antonio Margarito, Kelly Pavlik, Erik Morales, Jose Luis Castillo, Humberto Soto, Kid Diamond, Jorge Arce, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, Hasim Rahman, and Miguel Cotto.

Arum constructs his arguments and states his positions with precise logic. To hear him tell it, morality and the good of boxing are always on his side. He speaks with total sincerity and conviction in his voice. When he says that X is “a great great fighter” and Y versus Z is “a great great match-up,” he sounds as though he believes it’s true. When he is aggrieved, the pain of the moment is etched on his face. He’s smart and, at times, ruthless. Like all successful boxing promoters, he’s obsessed with his trade. How else does one explain a 75-year-old man flying 15,000 miles so he can slog through the Philippines and campaign for Manny Pacquiao in a congressional race against Darlene Antonino Custodio?

Having fulfilled his commitment to the democracy in the Pacific rim, Arum returned last week to a more familiar role. On June 9th, he promoted Miguel Cotto against Zab Judah at Madison Square Garden. In many ways, that fight meant more to the future of boxing than last month’s encounter between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. In his golden years, Arum has become a standard bearer for the sweet science.

This was the third consecutive year in which Arum promoted a Cotto fight at the Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. But this time, the competition for media attention, television viewers, and on-site fans was less formidable than in the past.

In 2005, Cotto versus Mohamad Abdulaev was up against Mike Tyson’s farewell battle with Kevin McBride. Then, in 2006, Arum matched Cotto against Paulie Malignaggi, only to learn that HBO was planning a pay-per-view telecast of Bernard Hopkins versus Antonio Tarver from Atlantic City on the same night.

Arum was livid. First, he aimed his fire at Hopkins. “Last year before the Puerto Rican Day Parade,” Arum proclaimed, “Cotto fought Abdulaev and it was such a success that we reserved Madison Square Garden for this year. Bernard Hopkins -- and you know how Hopkins feels about Puerto Ricans; he defaced the flag while he was in Puerto Rico and protested against a Puerto Rican referee in a fight in Las Vegas -- tried to get Madison Square Garden for the same date this year, knowing we had it reserved. Can you imagine that? This moron wants to reserve Madison Square Garden the night before the Puerto Rican Day Parade to fight Tarver. Is that fucking moronic. Fortunately we had a hold on it.”

Then Roberto Arum turned his attention to HBO and declared, “I’ve never encountered a situation where people you were loyal to and have done business with for years would do something like that. This is HBO, the big big network, doing this to a promoter for no reason. Instead of working with promoters like they’ve done in the past, they’ve become promoters themselves. They make the fights, just like promoters, and pay fighters. HBO wants to eliminate Don King and Bob Arum. HBO wants a monopoly, and they aren’t getting it."

“We’re not playing around here,” Arum continued. “We’re going to blow the other guys out of the water. We’re going to show them how to promote. This will be a road map for other promoters and show people in boxing that there’s an alternative to HBO. We’re going sell out Madison Square Garden and beat their asses on pay-per-view. I don’t give a shit how much money Time Warner has; we’ll beat them.”

Arum marketed Cotto-Malignaggi as boxing’s version of West Side Story, playing excerpts from When You’re A Jet at the kick-off press conference. He also brought in heavy artillery in the form of a multi-ethnic 10-bout undercard featuring John Duddy, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, Kevin Kelley, Juan Manuel Lopez, and a Notre Dame football player named Tommy Zbikowski, who was making his pro debut. George Foreman was hired to serve as a color commentator for the telecast.

Cotto-Malignaggi drew 14,000 fans to the Garden. But HBO’s power was evident in the world of pay-per-view. Tarver-Hopkins did 330,000 buys, while Cotto-Malignaggi scored 60,000.

This year, Arum’s Puerto Rican festival was an HBO-PPV telecast and the promoter had a new target. Arum spent years developing Oscar De La Hoya, only to see his prime attraction jump ship and start his own promotional company. Worse, Oscar has been successful in leveraging his popularity to gain an advantage with HBO. Three of the cable giant’s first four pay-per-view shows this year are Golden Boy promotions. Rubbing salt into the wound, in addition to promoting 39 of De La Hoya’s first 42 pro fights, Arum promoted 35 of Mayweather’s first 37. But when Oscar and Floyd met earlier this year in the largest-grossing fight of all time, Arum was on the sidelines.

One was tempted to feel a bit sorry for Arum when De La Hoya-Mayweather rolled around. “Any moron can take two superstars that someone else has developed and put them together,” he told Dan Rafael of ESPN.com. “Boxing needs promoters who develop fighters. We’re very proud that we developed both guys and we really believe that, without us, this fight wouldn’t happen; so I think that’s a real feather in our cap. Are we saddened because we’re not promoting it? Sure; we’d have loved to promote the fight but you can’t have everything."

Meanwhile, a firefight was erupting between Arum and Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer. Referring to a suitcase filled with $250,000 in cash that Golden Boy had given to Manny Pacquiao in an effort to sign the fighter, Arum declared, “It is very very surprising. But then again, it’s not surprising. These people will do anything to achieve their purposes. Now, I don’t know if there’s anything illegal in giving a suitcase full of twenty dollar bills that total $250,000 to somebody. I wouldn’t do it. That’s not the way I do business.”

Then, when Golden Boy failed in its effort to get a court order that would have halted the April 14th championship bout between Pacquiao and Jorge Solis, Arum proclaimed, "It’s a disgrace that, with all of the money he makes from fighting, De La Hoya would spend so much time and money trying to stop fighters from fighting. He is supposed to promote fights, not prohibit them."

In sum, boxing had a new mega-fight entitled, “The World Awaits Arum-Schaefer.”

“In Golden Boy, I’m dealing with a Swiss banker with that mentality,” Arum told Steve Kim of Maxboxing. “Remember, Swiss bankers, they come from a long line of people who acted in extraordinary ways that most people don’t. I’ll never forget the Swiss bankers during the second World War, what they did to my people. Leopards don’t change their spots.”

“Arum is Arum,” Schaefer responded. “It’s unfortunate that he says these kinds of things. But they call him ’the snake,’ and this is not just a name you get. You have to earn it. If somebody is called a snake, you know what that means. I’d rather be a Swiss banker than a snake.” For good measure, Schaefer then called Arum’s 2004 doubleheader featuring De La Hoya versus Felix Sturm and Bernard Hopkins against Robert Allen “one of the worst-promoted events in the history of boxing.”

Meanwhile, there was a fight to be fought at Madison Square Garden on June 9th.

To his adoring fans, Miguel Cotto is one of them. Felix Trinidad was the boy next-door turned matinée idol; the man their sisters dream of marrying. Cotto is the guy they work side-by-side with on the job and the man their sisters actually marry.

Cotto is stoic, quiet, and a very good fighter. “The guy is vicious,” says Paulie Malignaggi, who absorbed a brutal beating in going the distance against Miguel last June. “Every round, he lets you know you’re in there with him. He hits hard. He’s always in your face. If he’s not hitting you clean, he’s hitting you low, butting you, throwing you around, being physical.”

Judah talked a good game in the days leading up to the fight. “I’m not just from Brooklyn,” he advised the media. “I’m New York City; I’m worldwide. Miguel Cotto is a local fighter. If you step outside the Latino community, Miguel Cotto is a nobody.”

Then, after naming Cotto “the robot,” Zab decreed, “When you match a great fighter against a robot, there’s going to be a malfunction. Cotto has no jab. He had no right hand. All he does is throw hooks, and he has to plant his feet to throw.”

Judah’s partisans felt that he had the speed and southpaw style to outbox Cotto and a punch that was good enough to test Miguel’s chin. But the other side of the coin was that Zab hadn’t won in more than two years and was burdened with a history of imploding in big fights. His last appearance at Madison Square Garden had resulted in an embarrassing loss to Carlos Baldomir. Then he’d gone to Las Vegas, where he lost a decision to Floyd Mayweather Jr. Zab had the tools to make things interesting, but the assumption was that, once Cotto hit him a few times, he’d revert to form.

“Don’t think that Paulie Malignaggi going 12 rounds with Cotto means that Judah will do it,” Arum cautioned. “Malignaggi didn’t give Cotto problems. Making weight gave Cotto problems. At 140 pounds, Miguel was losing muscle to make weight. Now he’s at 147.”

On fight night, the Garden was sold out for boxing for the first time since Holyfield-Lewis I in 1999. Brooklyn might have been “in the house,” but Brooklyn was hard to find. As the fighters made their way to the ring, there were prolonged boos for Judah and a sustained deafening roar for Cotto. This wasn’t a Las Vegas crowd. These were fight fans, loud and passionate. They had come for a fight, not an event. They were there to see, not be seen.

Cotto was an 3-to-1 betting favorite, but Judah didn’t go quietly. The one predictable thing about Zab is that he will be unpredictable. This shaped up as possibly the final crossroads bout in his career, and he fought like it. “He hit me pretty good,” Cotto admitted afterward. “He had me in trouble two, maybe three, times.”

It was a brutal bloody dramatic war. In round one, Judah played matador to Cotto’s bull before landing a sizzling left uppercut followed by a sharp straight left that wobbled Miguel. Cotto steadied himself and, moments later, fired the first of several notable low blows that he landed during the fight. That earned a warning from referee Arthur Mercante Jr and was reminiscent of the manner in which Felix Trinidad (Miguel’s esteemed countryman) went low on Fernando Vargas when he was buzzed. “As soon as I hit Cotto with some good shots, he went low on me,” Zab would say afterward.

Round two saw Judah shake Cotto again with another sharp left. Then, in round three, Cotto scored (in real terms, if not on the judges’ scorecards) with another low blow. This one had Zab rolling on the canvas in agony. Mercante took a point away from Miguel, but the damage was done. Zab’s punches lost a a bit of their sting thereafter, and Cotto’s bodywork began to take its toll.

Cotto has an aggressive crowd-pleasing style. His opponents know what’s coming, but knowing and being able to do something about it are separate matters. For the rest of the night, Miguel moved relentlessly forward, throwing sledgehammer blows. He was bleeding from the mouth and from a cut above his eye. But inexorably, he broke Judah down. As the fight wore on, Zab tried to pick his spots, but the spots became fewer as the battle wore on. Miguel was simply too strong for him.

By the late rounds, Judah was getting beaten up. His body had become a punching bag for a brutal puncher. Cotto’s hooks opened an ugly gash above Zab’s right eye, which was so badly swollen that Judah could no longer see the left hand coming. Near the end of round nine, he took a knee to regain his composure. Mercante could have stopped the fight then, but he allowed it to continue. Just before the bell, Zab landed a hard desperation left that temporarily halted the onslaught. But that simply delayed the inevitable.

The beating resumed. Twenty seconds into round 11, a right hand put Judah down again. He rose; the assault continued; and Mercante stopped the fight. All three judges had Cotto ahead 97-91 at the time of the stoppage. He out-landed Judah in every round except the first (when Zab enjoyed a 16-15 edge). Overall, the punches landed as tabulated by CompuBox favored Miguel by a 292-to-132 margin.

There was a lot of anger in Judah’s dressing room after the fight, much of it voiced loudly by cornerman Tommy Smalls. Each camp had been cautioned by the New York State Athletic Commission before the fight with regard to fouls and, in particular, low blows. Zab understood that, coming into the bout, he had two strikes against him (his knockout loss at the hands of Kostya Tszyu, when he attacked referee Jay Nady for stopping the fight; and his participation last year in an ugly mid-fight riot that began with his flagrantly fouling Floyd Mayweather). Both of those incidents had resulted in suspensions. A third such incident could have ended his career. He also knew that the passionate sell-out crowd of 20,658 had the potential for violence if things inside the ring got ugly.

“The low blows took everything out of Zab,” Smalls shouted. “If Zab did that to Cotto, there would have been a riot. If it was Zab that threw the low blows, he would have been disqualified. All the referee was worried about was the crowd and boxing getting a bad name if he stopped the fight, so he let Cotto get away with it. Cotto should have been disqualified.”

“What’s done is done,” Yoel Judah (Zab’s father and trainer) said.

“It ain’t done,” Smalls countered. “After the low blows, Zab couldn’t move like he usually does. He was a dead man walking.”

Ron Scott Stevens (chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission) came into the dressing room to check on Zab’s condition.

Smalls became more heated.

Stevens listened to Smalls’s grievances, congratulated Zab on a good fight, and thanked Zab and Yoel for conducting themselves in a professional manner.

That got Smalls started again.

A knock on the door interrupted the shouting. Miguel Cotto, all alone, bloodied, still in his trucks, not wearing a robe, entered the dressing room.

There were some ugly looks from Judah’s entourage.

Zab rose, walked over to Cotto, and embraced his conqueror.

“I am sorry for the low blows,” Cotto said in halting English. “It was not on purpose. This was my hardest fight ever. You are a great fighter.”

“You’re a great fighter too,” Zab told him.

History tells us that Cotto’s opponents tire as a fight goes on, and so does Judah. So while the low blows might have been a factor, they probably weren’t dispositive of the outcome. In retrospect and contrary to conventional wisdom, Zab’s best chance of winning might have been a firefight early. He showed that he had the power to hurt Cotto. And against Miguel, it’s possible that the best defense is a good offense. Either way, one thing is clear. A fighter can’t go into the ring against Cotto simply trying to survive. If he does, Miguel will track him down, beat him up, and knock him out.

Cotto-Judah was Miguel’s coming-out party; the biggest fight of his career before the biggest audience of his career against his toughest opponent to date. There’s a difference between being a superstar and being a great fighter. Cotto might be on his way to becoming both. It’s not who he beats but how he beats them that’s so impressive. It will take a very good fighter to defeat him; maybe a great one.

The best fight in boxing now would be Cotto against Mayweather. Put it in Madison Square Garden on the eve of next year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade and it would be the largest-grossing Garden fight ever. But Cotto is precisely the kind of boxer that Floyd doesn’t want to fight; a determined willful warrior, who punches hard, takes everything that’s thrown at him, and keeps coming until he imposes his will on his opponent. HBO should press hard for Mayweather-Cotto. But more likely, when Floyd returns to the ring, it will be against a lesser foe, one of the old recycled names from the past.

That’s a shame because sports have to be entertaining to succeed. And boxing hasn’t been entertaining enough lately. That’s one of the reasons the sweet science is under siege from mixed martial arts.

“I know we have a better product,” Arum says. “There’s nothing as compelling as a prizefight, as long as it’s a good prizefight. UFC and all the rest of that stuff sucks. But they’re packaging it well and giving their fans the fights that the fans want. Boxing can do that too, but we have to go back to building fighters and promoting fights the right way.”

On June 9th, a fight at Madison Square Garden was promoted the right way, and it reminded people why boxing is great. When Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah stepped into the ring, their opponents were history and each other. For one night at least, the Garden and boxing were young again.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com




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