Boxer Miguel Cotto gave thousands of his cheering fans exactly what they hoped for on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City.
Overcoming an early cut from an accidental headbutt and several brutal rounds from Joshua Clottey, the popular Cotto fought to a narrow split decision Saturday night inside a packed Madison Square Garden, retaining his WBO welterweight title.
With blood pouring down his face from the third round on, the pride of Caguas, Puerto Rico — and the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers who trace their roots to the self-governing U.S. island territory — threw his arms up at the end of a close and exhilarating bout that left both fighters battered.
Referee Don Trella scored the fight 116-111 and John McKaie 115-112, both for Cotto, while Tom Miller had it 114-113 for Clottey. The Associated Press scored it 116-112 for Cotto.
"The cut made me fight harder," Cotto said, "but I felt like I was winning all the way."
Clottey was so devastated by the narrow loss that he screamed after the decision, "Oh no! This can't happen." Then he went to Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and said, "That's it, I quit, I'm done with boxing. I can't take it anymore."
Arum told him he fought "a magnificent fight and you have to continue."
Cotto doesn't exude the same kind of charisma that the great Puerto Rican fighters who came before him, champions such as Wilfredo Gomez and Felix Trinidad, who always carried a chip on their shoulder into the ring.
But the soft-spoken Cotto still has a certain charm that seems to endear him to the thousands who pour out in support.
The Garden was filled more than two hours before his fight was scheduled to go off, the red, white and blue flags of the Caribbean island flying above the multicoloured seats of this boxing mecca.
Scrawled across one flag a few rows from the ring were the words, "Cotto is Puerto Rico."
Cotto (34-1) got the fight going at his pace early, keeping his distance and trying to stay away from Clottey's signature body shots.
Near the end of the first round, the champion landed a quick right hook that sent Clottey to the floor, a rare occurrence — if it's ever happened at all.
Jabs punctuated next 2 rounds
The Ghana native never appeared hurt and the two spent most of the next two rounds jabbing at each other.
But with seconds to go in the third Clottey trapped Cotto against the ropes and they banged heads, opening a deep gash along the champion's left brow line.
Blood dripped immediately, and referee Arthur Mercante Jr. gave the ringside physician a few extra moments to examine the cut before the two came out for the fourth round.
"It got worse in the ninth and 10th rounds," physician Anthony Curreri said. "It started bleeding a lot more, but at the beginning of the round he'd go out every time and it'd be dry. But I'd tell him, 'We'll see how it goes."'
With chants of "Cotto, Cotto" reverberating through the Garden, the gritty Puerto Rican wiped the blood from his eye and kept up the attack.
"Guts, guts," Arum said. "I think that Clottey was very good and, remember, Cotto had to fight with adversity the entire fight because of that cut eye. He could have taken the easy way out, because early on he was clearly ahead on points."
Cotto came out strong in the fifth round, and the two wound up boxing into the corner.
Clottey hurts knee
When Cotto dove in to wrap his arms around Clottey (35-3), he spun him around and Clottey ended up falling face-first on the canvas, where he writhed for several minutes as Cotto stood calmly in a neutral corner.
The ringside doctor said Clottey hurt his right knee, and he seemed to be favouring it as he walked around. But after jogging and bouncing in place, Clottey elected to continue.
Cotto had a big sixth round, trapping the challenger in the corner and forcing Mercante to yell, "Josh, defend yourself!"
Clottey stopped pressing the action in the ninth round, even though he's considered an aggressive fighter.
Whether it was the injury to his knee or simply a reluctance to go after a battered champion who also spent several rounds backing up, Clottey seemingly held back, allowing Cotto to assert his immeasurable will during the championship rounds.
"They robbed me," Clottey said. "The winner of the fight is the one who's supposed to be fighting hardest.
"He was running and I was chasing. I threw the hardest punches. People said I'd lose the decision if it went to a decision, and it did. They robbed me."
Pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao spent the fight sitting next to Arum, who promotes both fighters.
Arum said his priority is to put the fiery Philippine champion, who is coming off a devastating knockout of Ricky Hatton, into the ring with Cotto next.
"It showed me that he and Pacquiao is a dead-even fight," Arum said.