<
>

The anatomy of Cotto's popularity

The trailer for "Guardians of the Galaxy," Marvel Comic's latest superhero movie, features a rapid-fire montage of graphic violence designed to lure you to the multiplex to see the latest adventure of a group of extraterrestrial misfits. Partway through the clip, I thought I spotted Miguel Cotto, flexing his muscles and scowling at the camera. The image flashed by so quickly I wasn't sure. But if it wasn't Cotto, who was it?

A replay revealed it was actually pro wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista in the role of Drax the Destroyer, a rampaging superhero caught up in an obsessive quest for vengeance. Still, it was an easy mistake to make.

Despite the size disparity, Drax and Cotto resemble each other more than you might think: Both have shaved heads, bulging muscles, lots of body art, and share an uber-macho attitude. And if that wasn't enough to spark my imagination, the trailer sponsored ESPN's video summation of Cotto's upset victory over Sergio Martinez, a case of a real-life destroyer upending the reigning middleweight champion of the world.

Although Cotto doesn't quite measure up to Drax's imaginary superhuman strength, stamina and resistance to physical injury, he seemed to have borrowed the fictional character's ability to project concussive blasts of cosmic energy from his hands. According to Martinez, he was dazed by the first left hook Cotto landed and never fully recovered.

The thing I noticed as soon as Cotto entered the ring for his maiden middleweight engagement was how much bigger he looked. His tattooed upper arms looked like metal-plated shoulder pads, and when the bell rang, he sprang to the attack on legs of coiled steel.

He looked an awful lot like the Cotto of old -- physically revitalized and infused with a single-minded purpose of a hitman. You could sense that Martinez was in trouble the moment the first punch was thrown.

It was almost over in the first round when Martinez was thrice sent flopping to the floor. Somehow, he survived the onslaught and fought on, trying to do the best he could on legs that resembled those of a newborn foal, knock-kneed one moment and splayfooted the next. It was a testament to the Argentinian's courage and determination that the fight lasted as long as it did. He must have known it was a hopeless cause, but took his lumps and soldiered on, too proud to capitulate.

Cotto, at 33, was merciless in pursuit of victory, hammering away at the champ, much to the delight of the heavily pro-Cotto crowd of 20,090 at Madison Square Garden. When Martinez, 39, crumpled again in the ninth round, trainer Pablo Sarmiento called it off before the start of the 10th. "Maravilla" wanted to keep fighting because that's what fighters do, but he was overruled by those paid to protect him, which is how it should be.

The moment referee Michael Griffin waved his arms in the air to signal that the fight was over, boxing had a new middleweight champion. Not an alphabet titleholder, mind you, but the lineal champion, the man who beat the man who beat the man. It was a remarkable late-career achievement, one most pundits were certain was beyond his grasp.

Cotto is the sort of guy who looks serious all the time, even when he's smiling. Seemingly impervious to the celebration that was taking place on the other side of the ropes, he remained stone-faced in the immediate aftermath of his greatest moment, a reserved man pleased with the good work he had done but not given to public displays of emotion.

Even so, Cotto allowed that it was "the happiest day of my life" and that his knockout of Martinez was "the biggest achievement of my professional career," and you had to believe him. Irony is not his style.

An impassive demeanor is part of the brand that has made Cotto one of today's most popular and bankable boxers. There's nothing flashy or brash about him, no conspicuous displays of wealth, outrageous behavior or self-congratulatory rants. Just a quiet self-assurance he wears like a suit of armor.

Cotto is a throwback, an old-fashioned strong-but-silent type thriving in an era of anti-heroes. Win or lose, you know he's going to show up in shape and fight as hard as he can for as long as he can. There have been precious few boring rounds in Cotto's career, which is not something you could say about the majority of professional boxers.

It's simply not in his nature to coast or retreat into a shell, and very few customers come away from a Cotto fight feeling cheated. He's every inch a fighter and fans respond to his no-nonsense approach and aesthetically pleasing style, especially his crippling left hooks to the body. But there's more to it than that.

Cotto is the badass big brother we all wish we had, an alpha male who takes his responsibility to the pack seriously. His imposing physical presence, gruff voice and deep-set eyes complete the archetypal image of brute as hero. He could easily have been the Hellenistic bronze Boxer of Quirinal (often referred to as the Pugilist at Rest), or a bareknuckle bruiser in Regency England, admired for his "bottom," and ability to dislodge a few "ivories" with a well-placed "plumper."

Instead, Cotto is a professional boxer living in the 21st century, a descendant of those earlier incarnations of the same breed of fighting man. And whether we realize it or not, that's part of what attracts us to him and his timeless persona. It's in our DNA.

The emphatic victory over Martinez came at a point when it looked like Cotto's time as an elite fighter was drawing to a close. His strong, albeit losing, effort against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2012 was encouraging. Then came the dreary one-sided decision loss to Austin Trout, in which Cotto was totally outboxed by an opponent who has not won a fight since.

A get-well knockout over Delvin Rodriguez last October excited his fan base, but beating up a game club fighter proved little and certainly didn't earn Cotto a crack at a title shot. It was his ability to fill Madison Square Garden that put him in the ring with Martinez on Saturday and gave him an opportunity to become the first Puerto Rican boxer to win the middleweight crown.

The backstory, of course, was that Martinez entered the fight following 14 months of inactivity that was necessitated by knee and shoulder surgery. He claimed he was completely healed and refused to use his impaired mobility as an excuse for his downfall. Nevertheless, it remains a nagging caveat to an otherwise splendid triumph.

We'll never know for sure whether Cotto could have beaten Martinez with two good legs, but maybe that's beside the point. In boxing, one man's bad luck is always the other's good fortune. That's just the way it goes. Moreover, you couldn't ask Cotto to do anymore than beat the man in front of him, which he did in an emphatic manner. And let's not forget that regardless of his medical history, Martinez went into the match as a consensus pound-for-pound entrant and betting favorite.

Cotto's career seemed all but over when Manny Pacquiao walked through his best punches and pounded him into submission in 2009. Drax the Destroyer, Miguel's interstellar alter ego, has also had his share of setbacks during a comic book career that dates to 1973. He suffered severe mental disability and an eventual decrease in power before making it big in the movies. Cotto, on the other hand, has persevered in a much tougher realm, one devoid of fantasy and as real as a punch in the nose.

But here we are, well over four years after his crushing loss to "PacMan," and Cotto has risen again -- proof positive that a fighter's worth goes beyond his won-loss record. Cotto's belief in himself and his fans' faith in him were rewarded with an upset victory over Martinez, a feat that will be difficult to top; but you just know Cotto is going to try. He wouldn't be Cotto if he didn't, and therein lays the secret of his success.