NEW YORK - As promised, boxing history was made Saturday night in the new Yankee Stadium, but the express route to the Hall of Fame - that would be the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the shoes worn by the main-event winner, Miguel Cotto, are headed this week - took a few unexpected detours in the seventh and eighth rounds before Cotto officially gained possession of Yuri Foreman's WBA super welterweight championship in the ninth round.
Foreman's badly twisted right knee caused him to go down twice without being punched, which led to an attempt by his near-hysterical wife to have the bout stopped, which apparently prompted a white towel of surrender to be thrown into the ring by Foreman's trainer, Joe Grier. Officials of the New York State Athletic Commission and representatives of both fighters, believing the bout to be over, then clattered inside the ropes in the customary fashion.
Only one problem: Referee Arthur Mercante Jr. had already determined that a gimpy leg, distressed spouse and tossed towel are not sufficient to bring about a fight's conclusion, the sole responsibility for which falls to those in his position of ultimate authority. After a few minutes of mass confusion, the ring was cleared at Mercante's insistence and the fighters were instructed to go back on the attack.
Foreman (28-1, 8 KOs), wincing in pain and limping noticeably, somehow made it to the end of the round, at which point Grier could simply have instructed him to remain on his stool. But Foreman, an Orthodox Jew and aspiring rabbi determined to put on a good show for his Israeli flag-waving supporters in the crowd of 20,727, offered himself up for 42 seconds of additional punishment. He went down again, this time with some assistance from Cotto (35-2, 28 KOs), who landed a vicious left hook to the body. That big shot was enough to convince Mercante that enough was enough.
At the time of the stoppage, Cotto, a Puerto Rican with a huge New York following, led on the scorecards by 79-73 (twice) and 79-74, en route to his fourth world championship.
"The towel came in, I don't know where it came from," said Mercante, the son of the late Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante Sr. and no stranger to controversy. "About 10 seconds later, somebody in [Foreman's] corner stepped up and said, 'Stop the fight! Stop the fight!'
"But there was no need to stop the fight. It was a good fight, a great fight. That's what the fans came to see. I felt I did the right thing."
Mercante said he was influenced by Foreman's attempts to hang in there and, well, who's to say the champion didn't have it in him to dig deep and launch a miraculous rally? It's happened before in boxing.
"I went over to Yuri and said, 'Suck it up, kid.' He's game. He went down, he got back up. That's the heart of a true champion."
Foreman didn't dispute that he was willing to ignore the entreaties of his wife, Leyla Leidecker, and Grier if it meant a longshot opportunity to retain the 154-pound world title he had won only 7 months earlier.
"I didn't want it to stop," he said. "I wanted to continue. I'm a world champion - well, now a former world champion. I'm not quitting."
Mercante, asked if he was aware of Leidecker's impassioned attempts to gain his attention, said, "Yeah, I saw. She was yelling and screaming. That's why wives should be in the 15th row."
The bizarre nature of Cotto-Foreman now joins a list of notorious boxing incidents that includes the "Fan Man" paraglider intrusion in the second Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight and Mike Tyson's ear-chewing disqualification in his rematch with Holyfield. It probably overshadows the fact that this was the first boxing match to be held in some version of Yankee Stadium in nearly 34 years, and only the second since 1959.
"This facility is so spectacular," promoter Bob Arum said of Yankee Stadium. "I mean, Cowboys Stadium [where Arum staged the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey fight on March 13] was great. But Yankee Stadium . . . just those two words mean so much. It was a great, great experience, I think, for everybody."
It would probably have been a more satisfying experience, if less memorable, had Foreman's fighting heart not been buried at Wounded Knee. Mercante probably got this plum assignment because his late father had worked the most recent Yankee Stadium headliner, the rubber match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton, which Ali won on a disputed unanimous decision on Sept. 28, 1976. But he now probably is apt to be as remembered for his central role in this fight as he was for being the third man in the ring for the June 26, 2001, bout in which super middleweight Beethavean Scottland died after being stopped in the 10th round by George "Khalid" Jones.
Cunningham regains title
Southwest Philadelphia's Steve "USS" Cunningham earned the vacant IBF cruiserweight title with a fifth-round technical knockout of Troy Ross on Saturday, in Neubrandenburg, Germany.