Minutes after Jewish boxer Yuri Foreman lost his super welterweight title to Miguel Cotto, making the Puerto Rican superstar the new world champion, a second fight erupted in the press room.
In one corner were scores of reporters trying to make sense of the match’s wild eighth round, when a towel hurled into the ring failed to stop the action. In the other corner was Bob Arum, the bout’s pugnacious 78-year-old promoter.
“Would you shut up? You don’t know hell what you’re talking about,” Arum shouted at a reporter who insisted that he had seen the towel come from Foreman’s corner. “Just sit down.”
The towel, Arum said, “looked like it was somebody from the crowd.” Reporters who thought otherwise shook their heads.
Short and solid, with rosy cheeks and reddish hair, and with a paunch that flows over his belt buckle, Arum resembles Norman Mailer — had Mailer grown old in Las Vegas.
Like the Belorussian-born Foreman, who grew up in Israel and resides in Brooklyn, Arum is a Jew in a sport that has been largely forsaken by Jews — both as participants and as fans.
But Arum’s Stadium Slugfest — the first fight night at the new Yankee Stadium — featured a Jewish fighter in a main event in the United States for the first time in recent memory. “It’s great, like the old times when you had Jewish and Irish and Italian fighters,” Arum told the Forward in April while promoting the June fight. “It made for a lot of interesting drama.”
The result of the Cotto-Foreman match was the one the heavily Puerto Rican crowd at the stadium 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.
A concessionaire said that Cotto’s merchandise was far outselling that of Foreman. When a segment advertising the evening’s souvenirs aired on screens around the stadium, Foreman T-shirts were jeered.
Even the day before the fight, the crowd’s preference was clear.
“This is little boricua here in the Bronx,” Curtis Sliwa, radio personality and man-about-town, said, using Spanish slang for Puerto Rican people at the weigh-in the day before the match. “This has more Puerto Ricans than San Juan.”
But a smattering of blue and white did show up in stands. In the bleachers, though, a waving Israeli flag was met with shouts, and countered by scores of waving Puerto Rican flags.
The age of boxing as a Jewish sport was already waning when Arum began his career as a promoter in 1966. “There were still some Jewish managers, [but] there were no Jewish boxers to speak of,” he told the Forward the day before the Cotto-Foreman matcḥ
Arum himself had little interest in the sport before it became his business. He said he had never been to a live fight when he was first introduced to Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight legend who would become his first client.
“The only reason I went in was because Ali was the heavyweight champion, and I thought it would be fun to do that promotion,” Arum said. “Then my idea was I was gonna get out.”
In order to represent Ali, Arum needed the permission of Elijah Muhammad, then the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, of which Ali was a prominent member.
Arum remembers Elijah Muhammad as being “very smart.”
“We would talk business for like 20 minutes,” Arum said. “And after 20 minutes his eyes would glaze over and [he would] talk about white devils and space ships, and that would then stop and then he would go back to talking business.”
For some reason, Arum said, Elijah Muhammad decided to trust him with Ali.
Within six years, Arum had resigned from the prestigious New York law firm where he was a partner and was dedicating himself full time to promoting fights.
“My mother, particularly, was appalled,” Arum noted.
Currently, Arum’s company, Top Rank, Inc., represents more than 40 fighters, including Cotto and Foreman, who met June 5 at the main event at Yankee Stadium.
There, as the two boxers traded blows in the early rounds of their title match, Cotto appeared to have a slight upper hand. The fight’s decisive moment came in the seventh round with Foreman’s fateful slip.
Heated words were 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 chaos ensued as cameramen and the fighters’ teams stormed the ring while the referee tried to maintain order.
“The towel came in the heat of the battle,” the fight referee, Arthur Mercante Jr., said in an interview broadcast over the stadium’s big screen moments later. “I didn’t know where it came from.…There was no need to stop the fight.”
But at the post-fight press conference, Grier 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 allowed the fight to continue. It eventually ended in the ninth round, after Foreman fell again and Mercante declared a technical knockout.
Puerto Rican flags waved as black-shirted Foreman supporters stood near the ring in mild shock.
Despite building and promoting a card of fighters that split the audience quite sharply along ethnic lines, Arum maintains that who is and isn’t Jewish on the business side of boxing is no longer relevant.
“Nobody pays attention to it anymore,” Arum said. “You know, when I was growing up it was different. In Catholic schools, when they went off to Catholic schools, first thing they taught them was that the Jews killed Christ, and that’s when the fighting started. But now its totally different. Totally different.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org