Miguel Cotto escaped Madison Square Garden last night with a bloody 12-round split decision victory over Joshua Clottey in a bitterly contested fight. Cotto, now 34-1 (27), retained his WBO welterweight title before a frenzied throng of nearly 18,000. Final scores were 115-112, 113-114, and a curious 116-111.
The fight began with a thunderous roar from the pro-Cotto, and mostly Puerto Rican, crowd. Round one started cautiously, with both fighters exchanging jabs and sizing each other up. It ended with Clottey suffering a flash knockdown just before the bell when a perfectly timed jab from Cotto dropped him on the seat of his pants. Clottey returned to outwork Cotto in the round two, throwing his jab with precision and landing with straight rights.
A head butt late in round three changed the complexion of the fight dramatically. Cotto, 146, bled profusely from a titanic cut above the left brow for the remainder of the bout and pawed at it over and over in an effort to clear his vision. Ringside physician Anthony Curreri examined the nasty gash several times between rounds throughout the fight, but allowed the match to continue. Clottey worked Cotto over the in the fourth round, landing damaging left hooks and connecting regularly with his nasty if unorthodox right uppercut from the outside. Cotto never found the answer to the jarring uppercut and took dozens of them over the course of the fight.
A nifty jujitsu move from Cotto in a relatively even round five sprawled Clottey headfirst onto the canvas where Clottey apparently bruised his knee. Referee Arthur Mercante, Jr., gave Clottey time to recuperate but deducted no points. Cotto dominated round six, trapping his opponent against the ropes and unloading a fusillade of punches against a defensive Clottey who appeared reluctant to test the strength of his injured knee. While Mercante, Jr., implored a rattled Clottey to fight back in order to prevent a stoppage, Cotto buried hard left hooks to the body and threw a volley of punches to the head.
After such a debilitating round, Clottey came out determined to reestablish control and he did so with a vengeance. For the next few rounds–7,8,9–Clottey ignored the pain and wrenched control of the action, landing flush rights, uppercuts, and left hooks that staggered Cotto and sent the Puerto Rican on the retreat. By the eighth round Cotto appeared spent, the crowd was as silent as a funeral procession, and Clottey, 147, stalked his opponent relentlessly.
Over the last three rounds, however, Clottey eased the pressure and allowed Cotto to move and land single shots from the outside. Occasionally Cotto would trap Clottey on the ropes and flurry without much velocity in his punches. When the final bell rang, both fighters were confident of victory.
Clottey, 35-3 (20), put forth a stellar effort, but some of his old bugaboos came back to haunt him. Instead of intensifying the pressure in the late rounds against an obviously fatigued and distressed opponent, Clottey allowed Cotto to retreat, score points with desultory potshots, and, more importantly, avoid punishment. Several times Clottey backed into the ropes with his trademark high guard and allowed Cotto to run off eye-catching combinations. Cotto usually hit arms and gloves, but here and there clean shots got through, and Clottey did not impress the judges with his passivity.
There is something about Clottey, his temperament, perhaps, that threatens to keep him from reaching elite status. He is extraordinarily gifted and some of his improvisational combinations, particularly those that make use of surprise uppercuts, are spectacular. But he often gives away rounds by not pressing the action. In addition, his complaints to referees for marginal infractions often breaks his own momentum in fights and leaves a poor impression. Against Cotto he complained twice about low blows and once about a rabbit punch. Nearly two minutes passed before he was ready to fight again after being shucked to the canvas in round five. When the final decision was announced, a bruised and bloodied Cotto raised his arms in victory, the crowd erupted in cheers, thousands of Puerto Rican flags shook in unison, and Joshua Clottey appeared ready to weep.
Although Cotto once again solidified his credentials as a courageous fighter, his performance was less than impressive. His cuts were certainly a distraction, but he rarely used his right hand with any effect, abandoned his jab late in the fight, and tried to lean away from shots that invariably wound up tagging him flush and left him shaky. His corner, now headed by Jose Santiago, also seemed woefully out of depth. Cotto committed a major tactical blunder by not throwing more punches from the outside; Clottey immediately adopts his tight guard when attacked and in this posture finds it difficult to fire back.
Cotto managed to outwork Clottey in the last few rounds only because Clottey appeared more interested in détente than fighting over the final nine minutes. Still, even with Clottey giving away rounds as if they were flyers on Broadway, it was a close decision, and one that could have gone either way by the narrowest of margins. Judge Don Trella, who somehow saw the fight 116-111 in favor of Clottey, should be shot out of a cannon the next time the Big Apple Circus rolls into town. “I was robbed,” Clottey said after the fight. But with a little more effort, the talented Bronxite, via Ghana, might have prevented what he felt was a pick pocketing. Instead, he will have to look at himself in the mirror and tell himself, honestly, that it was an inside job.