Cotto claims WBO welterweight title

NEW YORK -- After a now-questionable loss to Antonio Margarito, welterweight Miguel Cotto had to deliver a punishing performance Saturday night at Madison Square Garden when he squared off against unheralded Michael Jennings.

Cotto took his time, studying his opponent for the first three rounds. Then Cotto got to serious work, unleashing a barrage of signature body shots that stopped the elusive Jennings in his tracks.

"Tonight was pretty good," Cotto said. "It was a little slow in the beginning. Then I let my hands go. I hit him with some good shots."

He dropped Jennings twice in the fourth round and then trapped him in the corner in the fifth, landing another savage left to the body that crumpled the Englishman.

A bloodied Jennings managed to get to his feet but the referee wisely stopped the fight at 2:36, making Cotto the WBO welterweight champion and restoring some of his luster as a feared fighter.

"This was a very important fight psychologically," Cotto's trainer and uncle Evangelista Cotto said. "Miguel had to get back into the ring. He looked very decisive."

A slow starter, Cotto (33-1, 27 KOs) patiently stalked the lightly regarded and overmatched Jennings, cutting off the ring and landing a steady barrage of head and body shots as a boisterous New York crowd of 11,120 cheered him on.

It was Cotto's first fight since that suspect loss to last summer to Margarito that left a blemish his perfect record. People wondered whether Cotto would recover. Would he ever be the same in the ring? Some fighters simply never recover after receiving a beatdown of that magnitude.

But Cotto's confidence might have been partially restored before he walked into the ring to face Jennings, receiving an unexpected boost after it was revealed that Margarito hadn't played by the rules in his last bout.

Margarito had his boxing license revoked earlier this month for at least one year by the California State Athletic Commission for the illegal wraps discovered on the former welterweight champion's hands before his loss to Sugar Shane Mosley in January.

While Cotto was a heavy favorite, it was crucial he erased any doubts that the Margarito defeat would have lingering effects. He also needed tune out the many distractions. Cotto said that wasn't a problem. He passed the test easily.

"The fight was with Michael and not with Margarito," he said. "I put aside all the things with Margarito and thought about my fight with Jennings."

Jennings was game but it was only a matter of time before the superior Cotto cut off the ring and slowed him with those nasty, trademark body shots.

Once the glaring Cotto found his mark, the fight was all but over, with Cotto connecting on more than 50 percent of his power punches. Jennings (34-2, 16 KOs) couldn't survive Cotto's maelstrom of punches that have demolished plenty of talented fighters.

"He's a great fighter," Jennings said. "The hardest puncher I ever faced. You think you're out of his range but he strikes and connects."

Cotto said he accomplished his goal in the fight that really didn't produce much action until the fourth round. He said he was over the Margarito defeat.

"The loss made me stronger and more focused and a better boxer," Cotto said.

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said Cotto will likely fight again on June 13, his usual spot on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York. That could depend on whether a fight is made with Shane Mosley, who Cotto has already beaten once. Mosley is based in California and might be unwilling to fight Cotto again in New York.

Arum said other possibilities include Kermit Cintron, Joshua Clottey and up-and-coming star Andre Berto. Cotto also said he'd like to face the winner of the Ricky Hatton's fight with Manny Pacquiao who'll duke it out in May.

But first Cotto will likely have to deal with the very tough Clottey.

Clottey, who was at the Cotto fight, said he's ready to take on Cotto. Clottey said Cotto won't know if he's the same fighter before Margarito unless he steps into the ring with him. Jennings wasn't a true test, Clottey said.

"I want to prove a point," he said. "I want the Cotto fight. I deserve that shot."