Stadium set to renew storied boxing history

Stadium set to renew storied boxing history

NEW YORK -- It's been quite some time since Yankee Stadium has been synonymous with boxing -- and for good reason. Until Saturday night, when Yuri Foreman will face Miguel Cotto in the new Stadium (gates open at 5:45 p.m. ET), there had not been a fight at the home of the Bronx Bombers since 1976.

But make no mistake, Yankee Stadium has a long, special tradition with The Sweet Science, offering up its vaunted mystique and aura as a backdrop for many of the greatest fighters of all time. Just as Mantle and DiMaggio were larger than life in the Bronx, so, too, were men like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Dempsey.

Back when boxing's popularity rivaled those of other sports, other legendary baseball stadiums joined Yankee Stadium in hosting the greatest fighters in the world. With upward of 50,000 people in attendance, a big-time fight was just as noteworthy an event, if not more so, than the games for which the stadiums were mainly intended. The great fighters of the past were almost mythical in stature, and holding cards in stadiums in front of enthusiastic crowds offered them an appropriate setting for their battles.

"That's where boxing had its heyday -- the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Comiskey Park -- there was always outdoor boxing," said WFAN-NY sports radio host Tony Paige, former president of the Boxing Sportswriters of America. "I remember the first Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, where it rained, and it was just postponed a day. People would just go nuts if that happened today."

Obviously, many things have changed since boxing's glory years, as has the way the sport is presented to the public. Factors such as closed-circuit theaters, and later, pay-per-view and Las Vegas casinos, took boxing out of stadiums, while its declining popularity made it more of a niche sport. Mixed martial arts, which tends to be flashier, has also siphoned off a decent amount of boxing's thunder, particularly with younger fans.

But as boxing returns to Yankee Stadium for the first time in nearly 34 years on Saturday night, when WBA junior middleweight champion Foreman defends his title against former welterweight champ Cotto, the baseball and boxing worlds have been led to recall the great tradition that the night will uphold, while hoping the evening ushers in a new era of fans who take in a boxing match the way many believe it was meant to be experienced.

"I was born and bred in New York ... this is my city," Top Rank's Bob Arum, who promotes both fighters, said while watching Cotto work out in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. "I live in Las Vegas now, but Yankee Stadium always had a special place. The Yankees were the premier team when I was growing up, Yankee Stadium was a tremendous place -- and remember, I promoted the last boxing match in Yankee Stadium [before Saturday]."

That fight -- on Sept. 28, 1976 -- pitted Muhammad Ali against Ken Norton in the rubber match of their trilogy. With the talent involved, it's hard to believe that it would become the final boxing match at the Cathedral for over three decades, but several circumstances made the night less than successful.

For one, both fighters were past their primes and staged a lackluster fight by their standards, especially those of Ali. But far more significantly, the New York Police Department was on strike for a new contract, creating a remarkable moment in history in which rioters and looters were out of control around -- and even inside -- the Stadium. Walk-up ticket sales were curbed, and even people who had tickets were afraid to attend the fight.

"I didn't go to that fight," Paige said. "I was supposed to go cover it for a small paper, and one of the salesmen swiped my ticket to go see it. I remember so many people got their pockets picked and stuff like that, and that's one of those things. Had the police not gone on strike, there might have been more fights at Yankee Stadium."

"But when you have a venue that's not used to having a sport like that, they'll give it a fight, and if it gets messed up they don't want to be bothered again."

Of course, the Bronx ceased burning years ago, and the sparkling new Stadium and its surrounding areas don't occupy a neighborhood nearly as dangerous as the South Bronx in the 1970s. But, there was another logistical situation from the Ali-Norton fight that needed to be ironed out before fights could return.

"We made a couple of mistakes," Arum said. "We put the ring on the infield, and the infield got messed up, and [Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner wasn't happy about it. And [while discussing potential subsequent fights], when they thought about putting the ring in the outfield, they couldn't do that in the old Yankee Stadium because they had drainage problems."

"So now, this new Yankee Stadium, the first thing they said to me is they're not going to have the ring on the infield. So we put the ring in right-center field, we put 10,000 seats on the ground ... and it works out really well."

As the Ali-Norton fight showed, fights in Yankee Stadium had the potential to not just make history within the sport, but to carve an indelible spot in American history, as did two fights between Louis and Schmeling in the run-up to World War II. The German Schmeling -- with the vocal approval of Adolf Hitler, a boxing enthusiast who viewed the fighter as representing his regime -- dealt an unfocused Louis his first career defeat at the Stadium in 1936.

With the eyes of the world on him for the 1938 rematch, and so much more than his World Heavyweight title at stake, Louis -- who went 10-2 with nine knockouts at the Stadium -- unleashed a blistering assault and took out Schmeling in the first round, a result that reverberated far beyond the world of boxing.

Louis, who was implored to win the second fight by no less than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a hero in general but especially in the African-American community, a true precursor to Jackie Robinson. Schmeling -- who had been demonized because of his association to Hitler as the war steadily approached -- actually had a Jewish manager and came to be opposed to the policies of Nazi Germany. Bound by their shared history, Louis and Schmeling became close friends later in life.

"The Louis-Schmeling fight is a major, major event in the history of the world, and that took place in Yankee Stadium," Arum said. "Anyone writing about the Second World War and the events leading up to the Second World War always mentions the symbolic nature of the Louis-Schmeling fight."

A new structure has taken the place of the one in which Louis and Schmeling did battle, but it still has that special mystique. And when Yuri Foreman enters the ring to face superstar Miguel Cotto, they have the chance to begin creating a new chapter in a cherished tradition. Both sports hope it symbolizes the rekindling of what was once a beautiful relationship.

"Tradition does mean a lot to me, and this is an old tradition in boxing," said MaxBoxing.com writer Gabriel Montoya. "Bringing it into the stadium, all these people pour in, and the guys in the cheap seats look down and the ring is just a stamp -- but they want to be part of the event and the energy of that.

"I think it's a great thing."

Bryan Horowitz is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.