I'm a midwestern boy. I grew up in a small town in Michigan, and now live in a college town in Indiana, considered the furthest east "suburb" of Chicago. In short, a far cry from the bright lights of New York.
I've always hated the Yankees. I won't lie. But I see the Yankees, also, as a necessary evil. After all, what would the rest of us hate if not the Yankees? And why would we hate the Yankees if not their unparalleled greatness in the 20th century?
So I've always had a soft spot for Yankee Stadium. The original "House That Ruth Built" was a sports cathedral. On that hallowed ground, some of boxing's greatest moments occurred. In 1936, for instance, Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis to become heavyweight champion of the world. Not to get too political, but by 1938, when the two rematched, German dictator Adolf Hitler had been crowing about his master race. Louis knocked out Schmeling in one round. (Louis and Schmeling, it should be noted, had great respect for one another, and were friends.)
The last fight to take place at Yankee Stadium came on September 28, 1976, when Muhammad Ali faced Ken Norton for a second time. Ali won a debated 15-round decision.
For 33-plus years, boxing had been gone from Yankee Stadium, once a home to major fights and events in the world of the sweet science. On Saturday night, Miguel Cotto challenged Yuri Foreman for the WBA's version of the junior middleweight (154 lbs.) title at the new Yankee Stadium. Bob Arum's Top Rank company had succeeded in bringing boxing back to the Bronx.
For years, much of America's major boxing has been held in Las Vegas, where the casinos can pay exorbitant site fees and pass out tickets to their high rollers. Stadium shows have fallen by the wayside. In March, Arum brought a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey to Arlington, Texas, and Cowboys Stadium. His next goal was Yankee Stadium. Pairing up Cotto, a Puerto Rican who has fought many times in New York, against Foreman, a Brooklyn resident and aspiring rabbi, made all the sense in the world.
Top Rank probably drew a few less fans than they wanted to. Their goal was, as they said, about 30,000. At last report, 22,000 tickets had been sold. To be entirely truthful, a fight between Foreman and Cotto was not the best fight that could have been made for the venue, or for any venue. Foreman was a press darling because of his story and the fact that he's a great guy, but he's never been a bankable star. Cotto has been, but "Junito" was coming off of a bad loss to Manny Pacquiao in November.
The HBO-televised night started off with junior middleweight prospects Vanes Martirosyan and "Mean" Joe Greene battling. Martirosyan won a ho-hum fight where both fighters underwhelmed. Like the Cowboys Stadium card in March, the mass of area provided for the crowd made for something less than wild out of the audience reaction for this fight. The hope was that the atmosphere would pick up for the main event.
And it did. Cotto, 29, made his way in to fine support from the Puerto Rican faithful in attendance. Foreman, also 29, had his supporters, but they were vastly outnumbered. Once the bell rang, though, the audience was responsive for a fight that may not have been great, but provided some real intrigue. The comebacking Cotto showed he was far less than shot as a fighter, backing the bigger Foreman down repeatedly in the early going. Foreman had trouble establishing offense for the first three rounds.
When Foreman's knee gave out on him in the seventh (an aggravation of an old injury), it appeared to be over. But the brave titlist marched on, refusing to quit even when his corner threw in the towel. Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. allowed Foreman to keep fighting through the eighth, even though it was quite apparent the knee would not be getting better. It seemed ready to buckle at any moment.
As Foreman struggled but bravely soldiered on in the bout, it seemed as though the fans at Yankee Stadium -- even the Cotto fans -- gained a great new respect for Foreman. He was showing heart straight out of a screenplay. Instead of saying, "Well, I'm injured," he refused to lose his belt in any way that didn't have Cotto cleanly beating him.
In the ninth, a body shot put Foreman on the canvas, and Mercante called the bout off. Miguel Cotto (33-2, 28 KO) had blemished the record of Yuri Foreman (28-1, 8 KO) and solidified his latest run with a fine comeback victory. Prior to the injury, he had simply been more effective than Foreman. But Foreman, living up to his nickname ("The Lion of Zion") showed that he was tougher than many thought he may be.
Top Rank, which promotes both fighters, has shown that sometimes, when you have a fight that isn't exactly a red-hot ticket (this one, Pacquiao-Clottey), you can use a venue as another star. The intrigue surrounding the Cowboys Stadium bout and this one at Yankee Stadium helped both shows as events. And with boxing as a niche sport, I think it definitely helps to simply present something different. UFC has become the pay-per-view and box office force in combat sports in America, but even they don't run shows like this one.
These fights don't match up to the Vegas bouts for pure money. 15,000 in Vegas equals more money than 60,000 in Texas. You can charge that much more for tickets. But if you can't do 15K in Vegas, why not do 20-30K at Yankee Stadium, establish a brand name there, and move forward with potential future shows?
The new Yankee Stadium didn't get off to a roaring start with boxing, perhaps, but it was a fine host for the sport on Saturday night. The main event drew a lot of reaction from those who showed up, and the hope now is that those people will come back next time, and convince others that it's awesome to see a fight in a place like Yankee Stadium. A bigger fight could easily do twice the audience that this one did, and re-establish Yankee Stadium as a major host for big-time boxing.
The real key is, did the people in attendance enjoy the experience? I can't say that for sure, but the crowd was responsive to the main event and got a memorable performance from both fighters. Overall, the Stadium came off well on television, Top Rank's setup looked good, and something bigger could and would look even better. Boxing is not nearly as dead in the States as the uninformed likes of Tony Kornheiser might have you believe. But it is a niche sport, and expanding that audience requires something new. Clearly, the status quo hasn't worked in making boxing a major sport in America. Expanding into "special" venues like Yankee Stadium is a big step by promoters, or at least Top Rank's Bob Arum. Let's hope the people in charge were happy with the results.
(Read more of Scott Christ's take on the fight, and boxing in general, at SB Nation's 'Bad Left Hook.')