A Grande Time at the Olde Stadium: Yuri Foreman vs. Miguel Cotto, New York vs. the World

Some things go down in history because they're remarkable: Baby scales Mount Everest, by accident! Some things go down in history because of what they are, whether anyone cares or not: The third summit meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia is happening right now, as a matter of fact. More rarely, an event that's going into the history books by default finds itself blessed with some measure of remarkability. And those are the things that people actually remember.

Boxing returned to Yankee Stadium last Saturday night for the first time in 34 years. That's a historical footnote, automatically. Yuri Foreman, Orthodox Jew, rabbi-in-training, and unlikely world super welterweight champ, was matched against Miguel Cotto, a recently deposed champ himself and Puerto Rico's biggest boxing draw. Cotto's gotten beaten up severely and/or cut horrifically in each of his last three fights, but as promoter Bob Arum noted at the press conference, every Cotto fight sells 110,000 pay-per-views on the island of Puerto Rico alone. So fuck brain cells, let's rumble.

Fortunately for Cotto, Foreman is not the type of fighter prone to actually hurting people. His best attributes are not his fists, but his legs. Foreman bounces side to side as well as anyone fighting today, and his general game plan is to bounce and bounce and bounce circles around his opponent for 12 rounds, stopping every now and then to leap in and throw a couple of quick punches before leaping back and out of the way again. Foreman has a reputation as a light puncher, but he is capable of knocking a man down, provided that he propels himself forward off his back leg and jumps into the punch so that all 154 of his pounds are behind it.

Cotto, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of mangling any boxer on the planet, in the normal fashion. Or was. He was a world-class fighter and multiple champ for nearly a decade, but a nasty beating from Antonio Margarito in 2008 and another from Manny Pacquiao in his last fight had many people whispering that Cotto should think about retirement. And he should; he's a beat too slow to hang with the world's best fighters now, and he's certainly arrived at the point at which each blow absorbed will likely result in some significant quality-of-life declines a decade or three down the road.

Still, the point of this fight was to get the Puerto Rican fans into the Yankee Stadium seats, and supplement that with those who would come out for the sheer novelty of an Orthodox Jewish champ. This was a New York event, and New York was determined to represent in all of its brash glory. Perversely, it turned out to be a terrible night for New York fighters. The undercard began with Jonathan "Little Big Man" Cuba, of New York, New York, being knocked down once, then turning toward the crowd to make a bold jack-off motion with his boxing gloves at some of his detractors, before being knocked senseless again. He staggered out with a TKO and a broken nose. Tommy Rainone, a classic Long Islander who's no stranger to the tanning salon or the place that gives you blond highlights in your hair, suffered a rather humiliating defeat at the hands of Denver's Terry Baterbraugh, a pale skinhead with an ugly, brawling style and even uglier trunks -- the ugliest trunks I've ever seen, in fact, consisting of overlapping strips of purple and green and red plaid in the style of a poor man's kilt. Later, James Moore, out of Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, could not quite handle the nonstop machinelike forward progress of Pawel Wolak, who advances on his opponents and smothers them with hooks; and "Mean" Joe Greene, an undefeated Queens favorite who came out rocking Yankees pinstripes, was picked apart painfully by Vanes Martirosyan, an Armenian with an exceptionally flat nose and a killer right hand that curved on the way to its target, like a Sidewinder missile.

On this, New York boxing's showcase night, in the home of the mighty New York Yankees, four New York fighters had limped back to the locker room defeated. New York's last hope: Yuri Foreman, Brooklyn's fightin' rabbi. Though he was the hometown kid, the 20,000 fans that night leaned heavily toward Cotto. As a stadium half full of restless violence aficionados waited for the final bout to begin, a lone Israeli flag that was raised up in the middle deck brought on a harsh chorus of boos from the surrounding thousand or so boricuas, followed by several minutes of frenzied Puerto Rican flag wavings and chants of "Cotto, Cotto."

Here, at last, was the requisite nationalistic tension! Frankie Negron sung the Puerto Rican anthem, soulfully. A famous Israeli singer whose name I didn't catch -- Shaba something, though not Shabba Ranks, which would have been awesome -- sang the Israeli anthem, operatically. Sixteen year-old Andrea Rosario followed with the U.S. anthem, and was so overcome with the moment that she added an extra "brave" at the end, more shouted with patriotic fervor than sung in any recognizable musical key. A last-minute spurt of Jewish fans had raised the Israeli flag quotient in the stadium to a semi-respectable level. The angry smell of history was in the air.

 

The most fundamental appeal of sports lies in the question "What will happen?" It's the type of thought that, once it takes root in the human mind, drives us to embarrassingly intense fits of speculation and leaves us obsessed with anticipation. It is not even watching the race, or the ballgame, or the fight that lures so many thousands of otherwise bright people to devote ridiculous portions of their waking conversations to the topic of sports; it is the inescapable need to know. What will happen? Is Foreman, perhaps, better than everyone thinks? Will Cotto finally get a chance to knock someone out, for a change? What will happen?

Cotto received a rock star's welcome on his way to the ring. Then he and his entourage stood around as Yuri Foreman was called to the ring by the shofar, the traditional Hebrew horn with an undignified sound, like a kazoo stuffed inside a large paper cone and amplified. Halfway to the ring, Yuri's entrance music changed to heavy metal, presumably to offset the shofar's decided lack of adrenaline stimulation.

The fight began. Seconds into the first round, Cotto stuck his jab into Foreman's chest and sent him reeling backwards across the ring, grabbing the ropes for support. This was accurately interpreted by the crowd as a foreboding sign. Everyone knew that Cotto was stronger than Foreman, but the way Yuri went shooting backwards gave his fans a momentary sickening vision of a first-round knockout, and the end of Jewish boxing as a meme for another 50 years.

But Yuri recovered! He was just nervous! He began moving, circling, his trademark side-to-side dipping and dodging, jumping in to engage with Cotto in uncharacteristically ferocious (though brief) exchanges, then back out. Move right, feint. Move left, jab. Circle left, one two. Cut back right. Cotto won the first two rounds, but Foreman found his rhythm in the third and fourth, and the fight was tied. Cotto was the stronger man, but maddeningly deliberate, and unwilling to press the action. Cotto seemed to take the fifth and sixth rounds, but Foreman's agility was keeping the outcome in question.

Seventh round. Foreman, pursued, is circling to his right along the edge of the ring. And suddenly, he's gone. Disappeared. He'd crumpled to the mat, without a punch being thrown. At the single biggest moment of his career, Foreman's knee had just given out. He rose slowly, hobbling. It did not look good. He was limping, barely able to put weight on his right leg. Here we had Foreman minus his legs, which is like the average boxer minus his arms. His legs are his thing. But -- what's this? -- Yuri wanted to continue! He wanted to fight! And the ref called for the action to resume. Foreman, now able only to shuffle forward and backward like an osteoporosis patient, bravely traded blows with the much stronger Cotto. The entire stadium could now smell a knockout. And Foreman's knee gave out again! He crumpled to the canvas! Not from a blow, but from the curse of weak cartilage! Painstakingly, he pulled himself up again, and motioned for the fight to resume. Though at times he had to lean against the ropes just to remain upright, he made it out alive; Cotto seemed almost too embarrassed to knock out a cripple without at least giving him a round or two to poke back.

This was Hollywood shit. Really. The holy fighting rabbi is afflicted with an untimely injury in the championship fight at Yankee Stadium but demands to fight on, gutting his way miraculously through the round? It's too trite for Stallone, almost. Somehow, Yuri emerged from his corner for the eighth round, dragging his useless leg behind him. And shortly after the round began, as Cotto began hammering Foreman, as things were looking grim, as this feel-good story was drawing to its inevitable conclusion, a bright white towel came arcing up into the sky, over the ropes, and landed in the center of the ring. To complete this Hollywood tale, Foreman's corner had thrown in the towel, literally.

But the fight could not end. It would not end! The drama would not stop. As dozens of officials, cornermen, and security guards flooded the ring, the gruff referee waved his hands: The fight was not over. He simply rejected Foreman's trainer's demand for mercy. The ring was cleared, and the insane spectacle continued. As a hundred hack writers dreamed of easy scripts they could pitch about a nice Jewish boy who proves his mettle on the big stage, Foreman somehow made it through the eighth. In the ninth, Cotto finally hit him with a hard left hook to the ribs; Foreman dropped to the ground, and the referee mercifully called the bout to a close.

A Jewish boxing champion's rare title defense in the spiritual descendant of the hallowed ground where Ali beat Norton and Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling was going to go down in history, no matter what. The fact that it turned into one of the most bizarre title fights since a man in a fan-powered parachute crashed into the middle of the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe match in 1993 means that it will be remembered. Five New York fighters lost Saturday night, including Foreman, who lost his super welterweight title belt in his very first defense. But New York City won. The Puerto Rican majority went home happy. And everyone else will remember where they were when Foreman's knee gave out and all hell broke loose. They brought boxing back to Yankee Stadium, and sure enough, some crazy shit happened. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Reporting by Hamilton Nolan


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