NEW YORK — Newly crowned junior middleweight world titleholder Sadam Ali was born and bred in Brooklyn, yet when he entered the ring to challenge Miguel Cotto on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, he might as well have been fighting in enemy territory.
Puerto Rican legend Cotto, as he had been for his previous nine main events at the Garden, was the overwhelming favorite for the crowd of 12,391 thanks to the huge support he has always received from the Puerto Rican community.
But Ali, all smiles at the postfight news conference in the wee hours of Sunday morning, said he came up with a good way to deal with the hostile crowd on the way to the ring for what would become a unanimous decision victory and a mammoth upset that sent future Hall of Famer Cotto (41-6, 33 KOs) into his previously announced retirement.
“I did see my fans there as well. Might not have been as much, and Cotto’s overpowered them, of course, but that’s what we were expecting,” Ali said. “Believe it or not, when they were cheering I felt like it was for me at times. I took it in. I just took that whole thing in.”
After Cotto tore the biceps in his left arm in the seventh round, Ali, who moved up from welterweight for the bout, took over the fight and finished strong to win a unanimous decision — 116-112, 115-113 and 115-113 — and the 154-pound belt. He won the final four rounds on all three scorecards to seal the victory.
But Ali said there were some nerves as he waited for ring announcer Michael Buffer to read the scores.
“With the decision, when it came my way, which I was praying and hoping for, it’s just a blessing,” he said. “I’m grateful and I’m happy. I was a big fan of Cotto’s, still am. He’s a great fighter.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about him. He’s good inside and outside of the ring. In the ring, he didn’t do anything dirty to me. I appreciate that, and to me he’s a good man and I have respect for him.”
Andre Rozier, Ali’s longtime trainer, said he hopes nobody will apply revisionist history to the fight. He said he doesn’t want to hear anyone talk about the fact that Cotto, at age 37, was in his final fight, or say that he was washed-up.
“[Ali] came into the fight an underdog; he left this fight a world champion,” Rozier said. “Give him the credit he is due.”
The 29-year-old Ali (26-1, 14 KOs), a 2008 U.S. Olympian, said he was unsure what will be next for him. He said he’ll leave that to his team at Golden Boy Promotions. He said he might consider returning to welterweight for the right fight, though that seems doubtful given that he now owns a world title belt that should help him earn purses even bigger than the career-high $600,000 he made for Saturday night’s fight.
Asked whether he was interested in a rematch with Jessie Vargas (27-2, 10 KOs), who knocked Ali out in the ninth round of their vacant welterweight world title fight in March 2016 — a title Vargas would lose to Manny Pacquiao in his first defense — Ali said it was not on his mind.
“Who knows? Honestly, I’m not really thinking about him,” Ali said of Vargas, who was one of several fighters to turn down an offer to fight Cotto before Ali got the call and accepted. “If HBO asks for it that would be different. But if Jessie Vargas fought me tonight, trust me, everything would be completely different. I made big mistakes in that camp for him, and I learned from it. I really learned from it.
“But I’m not gonna take nothing away from him. He was the better man that night. But I know he’s not messing with me. So, you know, things happen in life and I moved forward from it.”