TO achieve success in boxing requires a degree of aggression and the valiant heart of a fighter. No amount of technical mastery can compensate for a lack of intestinal fortitude. That said, the reverse is also true. Strategy, intelligence and a fighter’s ability to channel their violent tendencies at just the right time can separate the fan-friendly brawler from an elite-level operator. Fury is better when disciplined, power when utilised sparingly and in a timely manner. A combatant’s natural fire should never be fully extinguished, merely harnessed and incorporated into a formidable, effective package. This became training legend Emanuel Steward’s mission after he was commandeered to work with Miguel Cotto – temporarily as it transpired.

The Puerto Rican hero was coming off his second punishing stoppage defeat – to Manny Pacquio, the first against Antonio Margarito – and Steward had noted, through his role as an HBO announcer, that while Cotto’s tenacity and fitness remained unrivalled, his technical skills and tactics bore little resemblance to those exhibited by the former World Junior silver medallist and 2000 Olympian in his amateur days.

“I thought he fought with unbelievably bad balance, his head was too low – he’s about 5ft 7ins, but he was fighting as if he was about 5ft 2ins,” Steward explains. “Later, we were working one day on the pads and I stopped and said, ‘Let me show you something’, and I measured him: he was like 4ft 10ins. I said, ‘Look, this is how low you’re fighting. Sometimes you have to lean in the ropes and block punches because you fight too low and your feet are spread too far apart.’ His elbows were out too high, but the first thing I started working on was his balance, getting his weight evenly distributed.

Miguel Cotto
Cotto had a habit of fighting too low Miguel Cotto Promotions, LLC

“Then, one Sunday, he told me to come over to his house. He showed me a tape of him as an amateur, boxing an international match against an American fighter, on television. If you didn’t know it was him, you’d think it was Ray Leonard. He was on his toes, throwing combinations, moving in and out – a very flashy fighter. He said, ‘That’s me as a 17-year-old and what you’re trying to achieve is what I used to do. I’ve got to go back to what I used to do.’”

Steward was dropped by Team Cotto in the run-up to the fighter’s rematch with Margarito. What made the decision all the more perplexing was that Cotto had looked formidable in his last two contests, both fought under Steward’s care. However the work they did together still bears scrutiny as a template for adding finesse and tactical nous to a born scrapper.

Before Steward’s arrival, Cotto had been prepared by his uncle Evangelista and then, for the 12-round Pacquiao reversal, Joe Santiago had stepped up from the assistant trainer role after the family members fell out. This set-up had been sufficient to carry ‘Junito’ (‘Junior’) to world titles at two weights – light-welter and welter – but the one-time all-rounder had gained a warrior’s reputation arguably at the expense of losing his two biggest fights and sustaining inordinate punishment in the pursuit of victory. Given the plan called for Miguel to move up once again, this time to the 154lb light-middleweight division – facing taller, naturally heavier opponents – the need for adjustments, both technical and tactical, became paramount. South African-born S&C coach Phil Landman had been putting Cotto through his paces since the fighter first moved up to welterweight in 2006, and welcomed the addition of Steward.

Miguel Cotto
Cotto worked with a variety of different trainers Hector Santos Guia/Roc Nation Sports/Miguel Cotto Promotions, LLC

“The synergy between myself and Emanuel is really good because he understands what I’m doing and how it benefits Miguel, and he also understands the importance of rest and recovery,” Landman revealed shortly before the split. “There is this old-school view that just running on the track and being in the gym makes you a good boxer and that’s not true. A big challenge of mine has been working with trainers who don’t acknowledge or understand the benefit of a strength and conditioning programme for boxers. It’s a thousand per cent better now, the dynamic. It’s very important that that synergy is there.”

Landman would work with Cotto for around six weeks of a 10-week fight camp before Kronk legend Steward joined the team. That preparatory work allowed Cotto and Steward to focus almost solely on boxing for the final four-five weeks leading up to a fight. This concentrated technique training proved vital, especially early on in their relationship, as Steward felt he had a great deal to accomplish before Cotto challenged WBA 154lb title-holder Yuri Foreman.

Balance, as already expressed, was significant but Steward’s masterplan extended beyond that fundamental skill. He demanded that Cotto, like all his other fighters, developed and used a solid jab, that he worked on his right hand and that his pad-work and sparring were geared more towards the specific opponent he would be facing.

Cotto may not be the tallest at his weight, but has a fine lead, one that had been criminally underused in the bouts leading up to Steward’s appointment. “I told him that he’s got to keep his elbows close and work his left jab at the opponent’s left eye – it must be a straight line,” Steward recalls. “So when he came up against Yuri Foreman – who’s 5ft 11ins – people were surprised when he came out in the first round and the balance was there, and he was knocking Foreman all off balance and all around the ring with his jab.

“Every one of my fighters has a jab; Miguel, as short as he is, had a jab and it’s what’s been taking him through his last two fights.”

The right hand was more problematic. A long-term shoulder injury – and the psychological effects of the complaint – had rendered the limb almost redundant as a fight-altering tool. Belated arthroscopic surgery may have repaired the physical damage but Steward had to instil the confidence in his charge to fully commit with the arm.

That said, the biggest problem remained the Puerto Rican’s balance but Steward prescribed a rigorous programme of pad-work, shadow-boxing and sparring with a slick, opportunistic partner to eradicate the deficiency and return Cotto to the sure-footed stylist of old.

Miguel Cotto
As good as his left lead was, Cotto needed to improve his right Mikey Williams/Top Rank

“I would make him throw punches – one-two-three – then take a step back, move off,” Steward elaborates. “Everything before was bob and weave, come up, punching forward and lunging forward. I made him throw combinations then step back and step in. He had to keep his weight evenly distributed to allow for those transitions.

“I also brought in Dominick Dolton. He’s maybe one of the most technical boxers there is – almost a combination of a Ray Leonard and a Donald Curry, a very great physician, always in position to take advantage of mistakes. He boxed with Cotto a lot and that sharpened up his boxing. All these things were improving his coordination and making him think more in the ring.”

Landman does three strength workouts with Cotto each week and the same number of conditioning sessions at the track, while Steward trained Miguel five days a week. Landman was reinvigorated by Steward’s buoyant support and began to take Cotto’s strength and conditioning to the next level but, as the Florida-based taskmaster pointed out, his 30-year-old pupil had already made huge strides since 2006.

“Before, there was too much consistency in stuff that eventually becomes redundant,” the former cyclist commented. “There was way too much monotony. You have to keep the body guessing and a lot of what they were doing was very repetitive, so we changed that immediately. So there were a lot of changes when I came in, a lot of things that were new to him, especially with the strength work which he’d obviously never done before. Ever since then, he’s taken onboard everything I’ve brought.

“All the conditioning work is done on the track and only the road work is done out in the street. I focus more on recovery than anything. I think that’s the most important thing in boxing. We’ll work on overall fitness for 12-round fights then we’ll work on what will happen within the fight. So short, hard, intense intervals with short recovery times as well. The gym work is very similar – very short and intense, anaerobic work with short recovery. And we’ll alternate that with general endurance work. This is so he can explode, and help him to adapt to a short recovery, especially between rounds.

“We use some dumbbells, but it’s mostly bodyweight – almost all of his upper body is done without any dumbbell work. In camp it’s all plyometric stuff – jump-squats, pull-ups, bodyweight stuff to help him with explosive power and recovery. We usually go to failure. All his gym sessions are super-intense so only 45 minutes long, with 30 minutes of actual work.”

miguel cotto
Cotto also improved his explosive power Jake Roth/USA Today Sports

Though Cotto was improving both physically and technically, Landman helping him develop into a strong light-middleweight, a crucial challenge remained, one that refers back to Steward’s overriding objective.

While Cotto had invariably been a taciturn, inscrutably stoic fighter, that ice-cold composure began to melt, and built into a blistering blaze, whenever Miguel was hurt in a bout. He would often abandon the gameplan and look to wage war, desperate to gain instant vengeance. This would inevitably lead to more pain, decimation and, certainly in ‘La Battala’ against Margarito, a gas tank rapidly emptying its load in the later rounds.

Steward had a puzzle to solve: how to keep Cotto’s indomitable spirit intact but also in check. In the end, practise made perfect. “I don’t do pad-work like everyone,” Steward points out. “I simulate boxing. I see all this, ‘Pop, pop, pop’ pad-work like a form of speedbag and I think it’s terrible. The body never follows through because the pads are meeting the gloves halfway. I actually simulate the opponent. So I was moving like Foreman. He doesn’t really jab when he’s moving; he moves around then all of a sudden he runs in and throws a little flurry with his head down. So I had Miguel box, time when he was ready to come forward then shoot a hard jab. Sometimes I’d have him take a little step back, let Foreman lose his balance, and then jab. We make it so there’s things you do without even thinking.

“I love the warrior spirit but he’s a natural boxer. You saw against Ricardo Mayorga, Mayorga would hit him and try to entice him but Cotto danced away and waited, very patient and boxed. In pad-work I worked to the same rhythm as Mayorga – pounding his chest, ‘come on, fight me, fight me’, and I would purposely run in and throw wild shots. So he had actually boxed with Mayorga many times. Same with Foreman. Everything was routine, we’d rehearsed it over and over.”

Steward had his own strategy prepared for the rematch with Antonio Margarito. “Balance is key to this fight with Margarito because in the first fight, after he finished every combination, he was getting away and that’s when Margarito made him spread himself out,” Steward reflects. “Margarito would run to him, block and make him throw a lot of punches. Miguel was trying to get away real quick but Margarito burned him out by making him fight at a faster pace. So this time he needs to jab with balance where he can actually hurt and do damage to Margarito, to make him lose balance so he won’t be in a position to keep moving forward.

“My goal was for him to avenge his two losses and I won’t achieve that now. But the fact that he’s shown a lot of heart in a lot of his fights is why he’s one of the top-rated fighters on TV and one of the biggest attractions. I run across a lot of people who say, ‘I love Miguel Cotto because he is a true warrior.’”

Miguel Cotto
True warrior Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions

The Cotto top five:

Miguel’s S&C coach Phil Landman explains the circuit training his charge does and picks out his top five exercises for Fighting Fit readers to try

I only do two sets of each – I’ll set up six-eight exercises in a circuit, including two core exercises. He’ll go from one station to the next and work through the entire circuit, then recover and do a second set; it’s very intense. With the correct effort, the third set should not be something he can do. We do stretching before and after.

I think in many sports a lot of power comes from the legs so we do a lot of leg work.

Walking lunges
Forward and reverse.

Squats with the cable row
This is an awesome exercise because it involves pretty much the whole body. You’ll have a cable pulley at floor level. You’ll squat and reach towards the weight stack and as you explode up, you explode with a twist as well, with the cable in your hand and keeping your arms straight. You rotate at the hips and the waste. It’s almost like a tennis stroke, from low down, with your arms straight. Miguel will start off doing 10 and at the end of camp – after 12 weeks – he’s up to 15 or 20.

Push-ups on the medicine ball
You take a smallish 4lb ball and, for example, put it in your right hand, your left hand goes on the floor. As you explode up with the push-up you’ll switch the ball over to your opposite hand and then come down.

Push-up with a dumbbell row
You’ll be in a push-up position with your feet wide, holding dumbbells, palms facing each other. You’ll push up and as you come up into the elevated position, you’ll row with the dumbbell into your hip. Then you’ll go down again, push-up and row with the other hand. It’s a great full-body exercise.