Monday, June 7, 2010

A Puerto Rican and A Jew Walked into...

Yankee Stadium.  Actually lots of Puerto Ricans, lots of Jews and a lot of other people walked into Yankee Stadium Saturday night to watch the junior middleweight title fight between Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto.  As you may have guessed the twenty-nine year old Foreman is the Jew.  Born in Belarus, his family emigrated to Israel when he was nine.  He trained at an Arab gym.  "The first time I walked in, I saw the stares.  In their eyes, there was a lot of hatred.  It was scary.  But I needed to box; and boy, did they all want to box me," Foreman said, able to chuckle about it with the distance of time.  Box he did--and well.  But after winning three national boxing championships, his career hit a crossroads and he emigrated again.  This time to Brooklyn.  Saturday night the Orthodox Jew and rabbinical student was on the first fight card in the new Yankee Stadium.  He arrived after sundown because he was observing the sabbath.

The Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto is 85 days younger than Foreman, but he brought a far more accomplished boxing resume into the ring with him.  Cotto had lost two of his last four fights, the most recent an ass-whipping from Manny Pacquiao, and many questioned whether he was done as an elite fighter.  Cotto switched trainers for this tilt and now had the legendary Emanuel Steward in his corner.  Steward said Cotto's footwork and technique were a mess when he arrived, and the two spent training camp trying to find the form that once made "Junito" the most devastating body puncher in the game.  A prideful yet humble man Cotto learned English on his rise through the ranks and it was clear in his pre-fight interviews that he had something to prove.

The popularity of boxing has ebbed and flowed, but mostly receded over the years.  The old Yankee Stadium hosted many great fights--Joe Louis fought there twelve times--but only one in last last fifty years.  Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton in 1976 but Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was so mad about the damage done to the playing field he refused top permit another fight card in the House that Ruth Built.  Boxing, like all else, followed the money and the money was in Vegas and in the last forty years the sport has made its living on pay-per-view.

But times are changing once again.  Big outdoor venues have regained popularity.  Cards in Europe have gotten huge audiences at soccer stadiums and 50,000 filled Cowboys Stadium in March to watch Manny Pacquiao destroy Joshua Clottey.  On Saturday Bob Arum and Top Rank were relying on the venue and the City's strong ethic ties to put people in the seats.

Twenty thousand showed up and they got a better show than expected.  Everyone knows that styles make fights.  It's the defining statement in boxing.  The fear here was that Foreman's quickness and agility could be a problem for Cotto and as a result action would be limited as Foreman would be less inclined to slug it out.

Cotto got ahead early, effectively using his jab while Foreman tried to find his rhythm.  By the third round it was on as the Jew found that his straight right could land effectively.  The Puerto Rican countered with jabs and left hooks to the body and Foreman soon had a bloody nose, a result of some of his forays in close.  It was a good fight.  Unfortunately in the seventh Foreman slipped and his knee, injured years ago, gave out on him.  Now the fight became memorable.  Foreman couldn't move.  Literally he was dragging his right leg around the ring.  Quickness and agility, the two assets that gave him a chance in this fight, were gone.  But heart was not.

Foreman had no choice but to change tactics.  He chose to continue fighting when most would have retired due to injury.  He chose to get in close and see what damage he could do.  Good on him.  To say he has a pop-gun arsenal would be underselling it, but Cotto has heavy artillery in comparison.  It was only a matter of time.  A bizarre incident with a towel-of-surrender thrown from Foreman's corner appeared to end it in the eighth, but referee Arthur Mercante, Jr.*, the only person with the authority to stop the fight took charge.  He asked Foreman if he wanted to continue and then had to clear the ring of the throng that had amassed, assuming the evening's pugilistic happenings were finished.

*In a nice nod to history, Mercante's father referred the Ali-Norton fight in 1976.

Foreman went another round but was finished by a left hook to the body, Cotto's signature punch of yore.  Foreman probably gained more fans in defeat than he ever imagined.  He fought well throughout, but earned tremendous respect for gamely trying to continue when he knew his advantages had already exited the ring.  Cotto gave notice that he is, once again, the fighter we've come to love.  He was tremendous Saturday and exited with a new belt for his efforts.  Crisp, powerful and tactically astute, he was always in control.  Steward is clearly more than a steward and having him in his corner will be a big advantage for Cotto going forward.

I didn't get to attend the fight.  I did however get to see it on HBO and you can as well.  They will re-air it Monday night at 12:45 am or Tuesday at 11:00 pm.  If you watch that broadcast you will get to hear the best play-by-play man in sports in Jim Lampley and some insightful banter from Max Kellerman and Roy Jones.  It's a good ninety minutes of entertainment.

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