In the current landscape, local boxing events in the United States are uncommon, relative to boxing’s Golden Age. Nationally televised prizefights are rarer still. Stadium fights, meanwhile, are beyond rare they’re extinct.
Or at least they were, until this year’s boxing extravaganzas in Texas and New York. At the homes of two mainstay American sports powers, and for at least a single night each, boxing became the attraction again. Manny Pacquiao’s clash with Joshua Clottey set the stage. Last Saturday night, did Miguel Cotto’s encounter with Yuri Foreman set a precedent?
For this particular match, I forewent my customary request for press credentials. My Jewish friend AJ wanted to cheer on Foreman, his Hasidic counterpart, and so I agreed to watch the fight with him from the cheap seats. We both decided to drag our Hispanic buddy Chals along.
I sat on the uptown subway with the two of them, seeing the sights and smelling the scents of the City. This train seemed fresher than others I had ridden on the day before, when aromas of street meat and designer perfume assaulted my nose. I spied one or two Puerto Rican bandanas atop some of the subway residents. They would be the first of many.
When the monolithic Yankee Stadium came into view after we emerged from the subway tunnel, I felt grins creep across the faces of my people and me. One writer called the new Yankee Stadium a modern-day Coliseum and with its tall columns and gaping windows, maybe it was.
After our descent to the street-level outside the Stadium, our eyes met thousands of fans milling about. The Stadium’s Hard Rock Café extended a line that coiled back onto itself before the Café’s doorway. Once we entered the Stadium, the venue’s classical veneer gave way to sleek, iBlank efficiency. View screens littered the walls and projected advertisements at unnecessarily clean levels of definition. The stainless steel elevators looked like something out of some Asimovian fantasy. We took said elevators and began our journey to the top.
After two more sets of stairs, we arrived at what we believed were our seats. The overhang above protected the fans here from any rain, but our view of the ring was obstructed. We, of course, expected the significant distance, but we did not expect to be seated behind a steel column. The metal structure erected on the Yankees outfield had four columns that fed on-high to an arcing tarp. One of these erector-set pillars blocked at least a fourth of our view of the ring. I took solace in the colossal, crystal-clear display screen to my right.
Because of our collective misunderstanding of the event’s start time, we arrived only to catch the penultimate undercard match. Local Pole Pawel Wolak was grinding down a fellow named James Moore. I had seen Wolak back in January, and I remembered that his fights were less exciting than they should have been. Wolak worked hard and threw often, but his punches seemed to lack the steam that they perhaps could have had. As such, his fights became rather tiresome.
All the screens around the ring featured the COTTO*FOREMAN: STADIUM SLUGFEST graphic in the in-between times. The graphic had a western look about it, set against a dusty backdrop and complete with a cowboy star separating the fighters’ names.
“That western stuff doesn’t go with either fighter,” I said.
“Is it western, though?” said AJ. “I guess it is.”
“They probably chose the western theme to be neutral. Maybe it doesn’t go with either of them for a reason.”
After Wolak’s hard-earned yet hypnotic victory, the three of us decided to grab a drink before the televised undercard began. While we were in line, a lady waving a Polish flag walked by.
“Go Foreman!” said a fan in line, mistaking the flag for a Puerto Rican pennant.
His friend joined in. “Yeah. Go Foreman!” he said, half-in-jest.
“Hey AJ,” I said, “show them the Star of David on your shirt.”
No longer hesitant amid the various Puerto Ricans, AJ revealed his blue undershirt with the Star of David on the front and the phrase “Let’s get ‘Chai!” as in the Jewish toast, L’Chayim on the back.
Impressed, the first fan wanted a picture of the shirt. After capturing the phrase across AJ’s back, he thanked him. “You’re a real Mitch,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
On our way back, we realized that we had been sitting in the wrong section. Our new seats removed the erector-set pillar blocking our view. We sat down just in time to see Cotto and his determined mug appear on the large display screen. The crowd cheered.
Undefeated New York native “Mean” Joe Greene made his way to the ring to begin the televised portion of the program. His Yankees trunks inspired small patches of applause around the audience. The equally unbeaten Vanes Martirosyan followed next, flanked by superstar trainer Freddie Roach. Martirosyan came out to Eminem’s “Not Afraid” the third fighter I’ve seen in eight days to use the new single as a ringwalk anthem. The previous two failed to live up to the song’s title.
Greene pressed the action early, but left his chin up and open for counters. A low blow from Greene and a few Martirosyan calisthenics closed out the first. I noticed that half of the fans watched the large display screen while the other half peered down at the ring. Martirosyan took the second off of cleaner punching. In the third, Greene dropped his high guard and adopted more of a slickster stance, hanging his hands low and using his speed. I gave him the round, even though Martirosyan kept it close.
“Neither of these guys are impressing me,” said AJ, his eyes rolling a bit.
“Who do you think this guy in front of us is rooting for [in the main event]?” asked Chals, referring to a kid in a red cap. The kid’s skin was ambiguous light enough to be Israeli, but dark enough to be Puerto Rican. We kept an eye on him.
In the fourth, Martirosyan returned the low blow. When the bell rang to end the round, I noted its volume. “That’s a loud-ass bell,” I scribbled. We were at the top and yet the bell was still, well, clear as a bell. Both fighters fought close through round 8, with Martirosyan threatening uppercuts and each fighter’s eyes beginning to swell. I believed Martirosyan edged most of their skirmishes.
Between the eighth and ninth, the obligatory montage of famous attending faces flashed on the display screen. Tommy Hearns received a loud ovation, but poor Ray Mancini was swamped by the boos levied against Cotto-conqueror Manny Pacquiao, who’s face was shown just before ol’ Boom-Boom. At the montage’s close, New York City affectionate Spike Lee welcomed the most boisterous praise yet.
Rounds 9 and 10 were identical, except for the rabbit-punch knockdown Greene suffered in the final seconds. Greene didn’t seem to complain. Martirosyan scored the unanimous decision and was met with jeers from the throng of New Yorkers. Despite the win, I was unimpressed. Even if Martirosyan was “Not Afraid,” he was also “Not Very Good.” Still, anyone with Olympic-level athleticism and Freddie Roach in their corner might go far in this game, so perhaps I should reserve my judgment for some other time.
Before the main event, the once-indistinct fan in front of us pulled out a Puerto Rican flag and wrapped himself in his homeland’s colors.
“Check your boy,” said Chals. Mystery solved.
Even more flags surfaced during the national anthems. The Puerto Rican colors came out, of course, but Israeli banners popped up here and there once “Hatikvah” began on the loudspeaker. The Puerto Ricans overwhelmed the anthem with an incessant “CO-TTO!” chant.
“Hey, at least they’re not booing,” I said to AJ.
The promoters treated the now-healthy crowd to a brief, collective, boxing retrospective on the various display screens. The video featured several hall-of-famers engaging in what were now classic encounters among them, Marvin Hagler’s crushing of Hearns and Alexis Arguello’s pummeling of Mancini. I half-wished for the video to breakaway to Hearns and Mancini’s expressions.
Next, Cotto made the long walk around the infield to the ring. Ring stalwart Manny Steward accompanied his new charge, dressed like a boxing Sammy Sosa. Foreman followed, and took in several strident cheers from the many Jewish fans seated near ringside. The Foreman cheers up in the cheap seats were fewer.
Foreman began the fight shifting back and forth.
“Foreman looks really, really nervous,” said AJ.
“Nervous as hell,” I said.
Cotto started scoring with the jab. I noted that the beating he took from Pacquiao had not yet compromised his handspeed and balance. Foreman shifted even faster in the second, and Cotto tried to counter on the few opportunities Foreman gave him. Foreman landed one noticeable power shot, which seemed to have little effect on his opponent. The third saw Cotto lining up a counter left hook over Foreman’s guard. Foreman looked uncertain in there.
“Cotto’s a different class of fighter,” AJ said. “I don’t know what he has left, but going from Pacquiao to Foreman is a big step down.”
At some point in the fourth, Foreman landed what looked to me like his version of a haymaker on Cotto and rocked the Puerto Rican’s head back. Cotto, though, again showed little to no ill effects. Cotto began landing his timed counter left hook again and again. The Puerto Rican crowd came alive along with their fighter.
Cotto threw different combinations at Foreman in the fifth, certain ones I imagined Steward helped hone. Cotto’s flush shots, however, did not seem to phase Foreman as they did Cotto’s opponents seven pounds south. Cotto went slightly inactive in the sixth, and Foreman had his best round of the fight.
The seventh saw the beginning of the night’s bizarre proceedings. In the middle of the round, Foreman collapsed without a punch being thrown and gripped his braced knee in agony. I thought he had slipped on a logo, but then he fell again shortly afterward on a different section of the canvas. Foreman’s hobbling hampered his mobility, and Cotto unleashed longer strings of punches than we had seen from him all night. Referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. watched Foreman and Foreman’s knee closely.
Early in the eighth, with Foreman still immobile and limping in-round, a white towel flew across the ring, ending the fight in Cotto’s favor. Sensing the towel’s appropriateness and wanting to beat the masses to the subway, we exited our seats and started to descend down the Stadium. When we arrived at the exit, the event staff informed us that the fight was not over, and that by some strange happening the white towel was deemed invalid. I rushed back to a Stadium railing to catch Cotto catching a shambling Foreman with a clean left hook to the body. With Foreman on the floor, Mercante waived the fight off. I learned later that Mercante himself made the decision to ignore the white towel and let the fight continue, after consulting with Foreman and his corner.
The three of us luckily located seats on the subway back downtown. The subway filled, and we found ourselves in close-quarters with several fight fans. We chatted amongst ourselves.
A young, goateed man in a black button-up, apparently on a date, turned to our seats and asked, “You guys were at the fight, right? Look, I say, to hell with Mayweather Pacquiao. I wanna see Mayweather Cotto.” His proposition elicited groans from several of the subway denizens. “What?” he said, smiling. “Am I alone in this?”
“That fight was fresh two years ago,” I said. “Not now.”
“Mayweather would crush him, at any weight,” said another man, standing to my left in a flat-brimmed ball cap.
“But we ain’t gonna see Mayweather Pacquiao!” said the goateed man. “Why? Because Mayweather’s scared.” I heard more groans.
“Mayweather ain’t afraid of Pacquiao,” said the man in the ball cap. “Mayweather’s afraid of steroids.”
“What’s wrong with the 14-day cutoff?”
“Why even have a cutoff? Why not just test all the way through? You can’t have steroids in boxing. You can’t. In track and field, if I’m on steroids, all I’m gonna do is dust you by a few yards. In boxing, I’m gonna pound you. And I’m gonna keep poundin’ you.”
“Whatever. Mayweather’s just afraid of the better fighter.”
“I don’t know about that,” said AJ.
“What happened when [Floyd Mayweather] fought [Oscar] De La Hoya?” said the goateed man.
“Decision,” said AJ.
“What happened with Manny?”
“That’s ridiculous. Oscar came in WEIGHING LESS than Manny. Something was wrong.”
“Weak argument, anyway,” I said. “That’s a fight-by-fight thing. Mayweather blasted [Juan Manuel] Marquez. Manny didn’t do that. Don’t mean nothin’.”
“In your heart-of-hearts,” the goateed man asked me, “who’s better: Manny or Floyd?”
“Who’s better, or who’s more accomplished?”
“Manny’s more accomplished. Floyd’s better.” I paused, wondering if that was what I really believed.
The lively Stadium audience and the spirited subway discussion told me, once again, that boxing wasn’t dead, no matter how many times pundits liked to say it. Tens of thousands paid money, got excited, and left happy all because of boxing. As long as that continued, stadium matches in this country could also continue. That was two sightings in three short months, after a decade or more of extinction.
I hoped that stadium matches didn’t go back underground any time soon.