Madison Square Garden, once known as the Mecca of Boxing, is no longer in the boxing business. It is in the Miguel Cotto business.
Over the past three years, every time the Garden has opened the doors of its main arena to the fight game, Cotto has been the headliner.
And with good reason: The Puerto Rican-born junior middleweight has fought there seven times, and played to an at- or near-capacity house every time.
Cotto has been good to the Garden, and vice versa: Cotto has never lost there, either, and some of his best performances were delivered in front of raucous sellout crowds beneath its (pre-remodeling) multicolored ceiling.
As a member of the promotion said Wednesday, "He has a loyalty to this building."
Cotto gets the floor again Saturday night, fighting the unbeaten Austin Trout for his junior middleweight title.
"I'm always excited when Miguel Cotto is in the house," said Joel Fisher, a Garden VP who, among his other duties, oversees the occasional fight at its erstwhile Mecca. "New York is like his second home."
Indeed, Cotto is the closest the Garden has had to a "house fighter" since the days when the likes of Emile Griffith and Joe Frazier and the late Hector Camacho fought here on a regular basis.
But after Cotto, who is 32 and "getting older every day," as he said at a news conference Wednesday, is gone, does Garden boxing go with him?
"The Garden is only interested in bringing in fights our fans want to see," said a Garden employee who requested anonymity. The employee declined to elaborate, but the meaning was clear: The days of regular boxing at Madison Square Garden, pretty much missing in action for the past 16 years, are all but extinct.
Meanwhile, across the river in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center stands ready to inherit the mantle.
Golden Boy Promotions, run by former six-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya, has an exclusive contract to stage 12 shows at the Barclays Center over the next year. Their first one was in October; the next one is Feb. 9, when Danny Garcia, winner of the inaugural bout over Erik Morales, faces perennial contender and Brooklyn native Zab Judah.
Meanwhile, the Garden has tentative plans for a January show featuring Gennady Golovkin, a middleweight from Kazakhstan who it hopes will pull support from the city's sizable Russian and Eastern European community. But that one will not make it upstairs into the room where Ali and Frazier tangled, or where Camacho outlasted Edwin Rosario, or where Cotto decisively avenged a bitter, and probably tainted, KO at the hands of Antonio Margarito last December.
The next Garden show is headed for The Theatre, a 5,000-seat basement arena, and there are no plans for a main arena show any time soon.
In fact, even Cotto-Trout is not, technically speaking, a "Garden fight;" the arena is acting merely as a space for rent, the event no different from an appearance by One Direction or the Muppet Babies on Ice.
Golden Boy's arrangement with Barclays is the same, but at least Barclays is committed to a dozen shows in its main, and only, arena.
Since the Garden fired its matchmaker, Bob Goodman, and disbanded his operation in 1996, the building has not has a boxing department. And it is not likely ever to have one again.
The reasons are many, mostly financial. It is not a new story that when it comes to truly big fights, ones in which the fighters command mega-purses, the Garden simply cannot compete with Las Vegas casino dollars. It's simply too hard to sell $1,500 tickets to a fight without comping many of them to high rollers, who can be counted on to give more than that back at the tables before and after the bout.
But the reason the Garden may soon find itself running second in the boxing business even to the Barclays Center may be even harder to solve: the fact that the Garden is shackled to preexisting labor union contracts that make the cost of doing business here much higher than it is even across the river.
"It's two to three times more expensive to do a fight at the Garden than at a comparable venue," said a boxing promoter who refused to speak on the record. "In the Garden, you can't even plug in a microphone yourself; you have to pay a union electrician to do it. It adds $5,000 to every little thing you do."
The net result is that promoters expect to find it much easier to make a profit in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. Consequently, that is where they will take their business when, and if, Barclays eventually escapes its exclusivity deal with Golden Boy.
"Barclays has already done significant damage to the Garden with the Nets and with concerts," said a local fight promoter. "Barbra Streisand played Barclays but didn't play the Garden. Bob Dylan played Barclays but didn't play the Garden. The Rolling Stones are playing Barclays but not the Garden. They could do the same with boxing, too."
The Garden executives I spoke with Wednesday did not seem concerned about the threat growing in Brooklyn, in part because, they say, the first fight card there sold poorly and the house was heavily papered with free tickets to give the appearance of a healthy crowd for the TV cameras. According to New York State Athletic Commission records, 11,369 attended the show, with 9,635 tickets actually sold.
The executives conceded my assessment that Garden boxing was now essentially Miguel Cotto, Inc., but pleaded that boxing's other great attractions, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and whichever of the Klitschko Bros. is currently holding the heavyweight title hostage in Germany, will not come east to fight.
"Cotto likes to fight here," one of them said, "and we like having him here."
But Saturday's Cotto-Trout fight is not selling the way previous Cotto bouts have, and despite Joel Fisher's enthusiasm, his press conference speech started off with an announcement that plenty of tickets remained available, for as little as $50.
Cotto said he expected the same level of intensity he has come to expect from Garden crowds on Saturday night.
"The people here help me a lot," he said. "They're rooting for me. They make me be a boxer when I have to be a boxer, they make me be a brawler when I have to brawl. People here are different than in other places. When they expect so much from you, you are always excited to show the people what you are made of. You fight better."
The Garden is in little danger of losing its one-man boxing department Saturday night. Despite his 25-0 record, Trout, a 27-year-old from Las Cruces, N.M., has only 14 KOs and if Cotto's history shows us anything, it is that if you can't hurt him, you can't beat him.
And as a southpaw, Trout will be especially vulnerable to Cotto's potent left hook, particularly his left hook to the body.
"I've never had a problem with southpaws," said Cotto, who numbers Judah and Carlos Quintana among his left-handed victims, "So I don't think I'll have any problem with him."
But having already lost to both Mayweather and Pacquiao -- both fights were in Vegas, incidentally, and significantly -- Cotto is even running out of options for main arena fights in New York.
His hope is to get a big-money fight against unbeaten Mexican Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, ranked No. 2 in the world at the weight behind Mayweather. And the Garden's hope is that if he does get it, Cotto will want to fight it in New York.
In Manhattan, that is, not Brooklyn.
Otherwise, the Madison Square Garden Boxing Department, which is down to virtually one fighter, could be dark for a long, long time. Maybe even permanently.