The scene at Yankee Stadium:
The fate of Jewish welterweight Yuri Foreman’s World Boxing Association title was sealed when the fighter slipped in round seven of his Saturday night championship bout against Miguel Cotto. Foreman fell, twisting his right leg awkwardly at the knee, then limped through two further rounds before Cotto won a technical knockout, despite efforts by Foreman’s trainer to stop the fight early.
A Belorussian-born, Israel-bred, Brooklyn-based professional boxer and rabbi-in-training, Foreman had captured imaginations throughout the Jewish community. But, amidst much pandemonium and confusion, it was the Puerto Rican Cotto who captured the belt in the first-ever headline fight at the new Yankee Stadium.
“It was a lot of pain, very sharp pain,” Foreman said of his twisted knee, just moments after relinquishing his title to the older boxer.
The fight’s result was the one the heavily Puerto Rican crowd had been hoping for. Seas of red and blue and countless Puerto Rican flags greeted Cotto as he entered the stadium, and the crowd chanted his name whenever he had landed a solid punch. But the muddled circumstances of the fight’s end made for a somewhat subdued celebration.
The bias of the crowd was apparent nearly 36 hours before the main event, at the official weigh-in in Yankee Stadium’s sweltering Great Hall the previous afternoon. On a broad stage in front of a packed crowd of reporters and fans, both fighters stripped to their underwear and stepped up to the scale. Cotto, wearing blue and red Superman briefs, was cheered heartily while Foreman, who had arrived on stage with tzitzit trailing out from under his shirt, was met with enthusiastic boos.
Standing together for a photo-op, Foreman looked boyish next to Cotto, by far the more experienced fighter. But the ferocity of Cotto’s practiced glare was tempered somewhat by the angle of his neck, which craned upwards to meet the eyes of Foreman, taller by three inches.
“This is little boricua here in the Bronx,” said Curtis Sliwa, radio personality and man-about-town, as the crowd dispersed after the weigh-in, using a slang term for Puerto Rican people. “This has more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. They’ll be out in force.”
Sliwa, who knows New York as well as anyone, was right. Up in the stands during the many hours of undercard fights, Cotto’s fans dominated. A concessionaire, approached early in the evening, said that Cotto’s merchandise was far outselling Foreman’s. And when a segment advertising the evening’s souvenirs aired on screens around the stadium, Foreman t-shirts were jeered.
“It makes the atmosphere a little exciting,” said Anibal Garcia, a Cotto supporter of Puerto Rican descent, of the ethnic pride on display at the event.
Foreman’s march to the ring began with a loud blast on a shofar, and then continued with a recording of the Lubavitcher rebbe singing “Tzama Lecha Nafshi” (“My Soul Thirsts for You”), a Hasidic song. Foreman wore black trunks with a yellow Star of David, and two Israeli flags waved about his entourage in the moments before the fight.
As the two boxer traded blows in the early rounds, Cotto appeared to have a slight upper hand. The tide turned decisively in round seven with Foreman’s fateful slip. There were heated words traded among Foreman’s entourage as the fighter limped into the eighth round. Moments later, a towel flew into the ring from the general direction of Foreman’s corner, the traditional sign that a fighter’s connections want the fight stopped. That towel was later established to have been thrown by Joe Grier, Foreman’s trainer. At the time, though, its provenance was unclear, and pandemonium ensued as cameramen and the fighter’s teams stormed the ring while the referee tried to maintain order.
“The towel came in in the heat of the battle,” said the fight referee, Arthur Mercante, Jr., moments later. “I didn’t know where it came from…There was no need to stop the fight. There was just – in the middle of a good fight, a great fight. That’s what the fans came to see.”
But Grier, speaking later at a press conference, said that he had been concerned for his fighter’s knee. “At the point where he hurt his leg…I recognized that it was a serious injury,” Grier said. “I said, I got to get it stopped, because he’s starting to really get banged up.”
Despite Grier’s concerns, Mercante continued the fight. It only ended in the ninth round, after Foreman fell again and Mercante declared a TKO.
Cotto “definitely has some moral support here,” said Jorge Villamil, a Cotto supporter who came down from Bethlehem, Penn. with three friends, all dressed in the colors of the Puerto Rican flag. The four men said that bars and clubs in Bethlehem, which has a sizeable Puerto Rican community, were all showing the fight that evening.
Supporters of the Jewish boxer, meanwhile, were tough to find before 9:13 p.m., when the sun set and the Sabbath ended.
One Foreman supporter, carrying an Israeli flag, seemed swept up in the evening’s ethnic overtones.
“Just like all the Puerto Ricans out here tonight are supporting Cotto, I got to support my Jewish brother,” said Jordan Levine, 21, a recent graduate of New York University. As the hour grew later, and Foreman’s fight neared, a bit of blue and white began to pepper the stands. In the bleachers, a waving Israeli flag was met with shouts and scores of Puerto Rican flags.
Down on the field, Foreman’s public relations man, dressed in a white blazer with Foreman’s lion-in-a-Star-of-David logo in black on the back, handed out little plastic Israeli flags. Meanwhile, Foreman’s striking blonde wife, Leyla Leidecker, looked nervous. She said that she doesn’t like watching her husband’s fights. “I’m too much involved,” she said. Asked what she would do if Foreman won, Leidecker said, “We’ll talk about it later.”
Boldface names spotted ringside included Liev Schreiber, former New York Met Daryl Strawberry, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, and superstar boxer Manny Pacquiao, who beat Cotto in Cotto’s last outing.
Cotto and Foreman faced off in the seventh fight of a lengthy card. Fighters of Puerto Rican descent were entered in three of the early fights, and won in each of their showings. The first of the set was Christian Martinez, who stood on the ropes and made a throat-slitting gesture after knocking his opponent, Jonathan Cuba, off his feet and winning by TKO in the third round.
After the fight, Martinez stood amidst a small entourage near the stadium’s food concessions, not recognized by the crowd. His big, dark glasses didn’t quite hide the cuts on his face.
“I came here to do the business,” Martinez said. “It’s my business to win.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.