I am not a boxing fan, but I am really anxious to find out how Yankee Stadium performs as a boxing venue this weekend. The new Stadium will be hosting its first fight when Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto meet.
Yankee Stadium has a long, special tradition with The Sweet Science, offering up its vaunted mystique and aura as a backdrop for many of the greatest fighters of all time. Just as Mantle and DiMaggio were larger than life in the Bronx, so, too, were men like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Dempsey.
Back when boxing's popularity rivaled those of other sports, other legendary baseball stadiums joined Yankee Stadium in hosting the greatest fighters in the world. With upward of 50,000 people in attendance, a big-time fight was just as noteworthy an event, if not more so, than the games for which the stadiums were mainly intended. The great fighters of the past were almost mythical in stature, and holding cards in stadiums in front of enthusiastic crowds offered them an appropriate setting for their battles.
"That's where boxing had its heyday -- the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park -- there was always outdoor boxing," said WFAN-NY sports radio host Tony Paige, former president of the Boxing Sportswriters of America. "I remember the first Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, where it rained, and it was just postponed a day. People would just go nuts if that happened today."
Obviously, many things have changed since boxing's glory years, as has the way the sport is presented to the public. Factors such as closed-circuit theaters, and later, pay-per-view and Las Vegas casinos, took boxing out of stadiums, while its declining popularity made it more of a niche sport. Mixed martial arts, which tends to be flashier, has also siphoned off a decent amount of boxing's thunder, particularly with younger fans.
But as boxing returns to Yankee Stadium for the first time in nearly 34 years on Saturday night, when WBA junior middleweight champion Foreman defends his title against former welterweight champ Cotto, the baseball and boxing worlds have been led to recall the great tradition that the night will uphold, while hoping the evening ushers in a new era of fans who take in a boxing match the way many believe it was meant to be experienced.
"I was born and bred in New York ... this is my city," Top Rank's Bob Arum, who promotes both fighters, said while watching Cotto work out in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. "I live in Las Vegas now, but Yankee Stadium always had a special place. The Yankees were the premier team when I was growing up, Yankee Stadium was a tremendous place -- and remember, I promoted the last boxing match in Yankee Stadium [before Saturday]."
That fight -- on Sept. 28, 1976 -- pitted Muhammad Ali against Ken Norton in the rubber match of their trilogy.