NEW YORK — Yuri Foreman is the junior middleweight champion, an aspiring rabbi with an engaging back story. The drawing card is Miguel Cotto, the revered former titleholder beloved by millions of Puerto Rican fans.
It's possible that neither will be the star Saturday night.
That's because their title fight is at Yankee Stadium, the first time baseball's winningest team has hosted boxing since Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton at its old ballpark on Sept. 28, 1976. The Yankees' new, $1.5 billion monument to success and excess might very well capture the spotlight when the television cameras roll.
"The building is built for this," Yankees executive Lonn Trost said Wednesday. "Anyone who realizes the significance of attending the first fight in this facility, and having a ticket to the first fight, that's historical."
History is a word that seems to encapsulate everything connected to the Yankees, whether you're talking about their record 27 world titles or the great players who have performed inside their hallowed grounds — from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, to modern-day stars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.
Boxing stars once plied their trade between the white lines, too, inside a ring that was usually erected on the infield. Harry Greb fought under the famous Yankee Stadium facade, along with Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey and James Braddock — the Cinderella Man.
Joe Louis fought the first of his record 11 bouts at Yankee Stadium, including his famous victory over German champion Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938. The fight had significance beyond the sports pages, because it not only avenged an earlier loss by Louis in the same ballpark, but it struck a blow to the Nazi regime coming to power in Europe.
In later years, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Sugar Ray Robinson were on the marquee, and Rocky Marciano won four straight fights at Yankee Stadium in the 1950s.
"The world used to center around it," said Hall of Fame trainer Manny Steward, who will be in Cotto's corner Saturday night. "Boxing was Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium. That's what the center of the world used to be, not Las Vegas, not Germany. It was here, New York, and those were the biggest fights. Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, that was a certificate of greatness."
Boxing fell out of favor at the old ballpark after the Ali-Norton fight, for a number of reasons. George Steinbrenner, who had bought the team three years earlier, was furious that the ring had ruined the infield, and drainage problems prevented anything from being erected in the outfield. The time period also coincided with the rise of casinos that offered exorbitant site fees, so marquee fights could serve to lure high rollers to their venues.
The Ali-Norton fight itself left a bitter taste for many involved.
Violence was already rampant in the Bronx during the 1970s, and the day of the bout, the NYPD decided to go on strike. Thousands of fans getting off the elevated train looked down at the chaos surrounding the stadium, turned around and went right back to Manhattan.
"We had 108 ticket-sellers for the walk-up, and we sold eight tickets," said promoter Bob Arum, who is also behind the return fight at Yankee Stadium.
"We had everything planned at that point, we had an exact break even, so the walk-up was the profit," he said. "We expected we would walk away with a lot of money and sold eight tickets."
Plenty has changed since that late-September night. The city has grown safer, boxing has become an increasingly niche sport, and the stadium itself has been reduced to rubble. All that's left of the old park, just across 161st Street, are piles of twisted steel and masonry.
The new facility has been designed to host a variety of events. While college football is on tap for fall, Saturday night's fight will be the first sporting event besides baseball since the monolithic structure opened last spring.
The ring will be positioned in right-center field, in the area where Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher is usually tracking down fly balls. Close to 10,000 people will be seated on the field level, with chairs on each side of the ring, and about 20,000 more fans will fill the outfield bleachers and occupy seats down the first-base line.
An enormous canopy will be erected over the ring that will cover the first few rows of seats, in case of inclement weather, with temporary scaffolding and camera towers that need to be put up in short order. The Yankees wrap up a homestand Thursday against Baltimore.
"The unions are having, like, Christmas parties for the last two weeks because they have overtime," Arum said. "They're going to have to work through the night to get it ready."
Earlier this year, Arum brought Manny Pacquiao's latest title defense to Cowboys Stadium near Dallas, and he's staging a fight at the Alamodome in San Antonio on June 26. The owners of the new Meadowlands Stadium are interested in hosting a fight next year, and the Los Angeles Dodgers recently contacted Arum about putting a card in Chavez Ravine.
The idea is to bring boxing back to the fans, Arum said, to stadiums that can help grow the sport back to the lofty perch it once occupied. It's a task that isn't lost on either fighter.
"It's a great, great honor to be fighting in such a magnificent venue," said Foreman, who makes his home in Brooklyn and considers himself a Yankees fan. "It's a great opportunity for me to break in Yankee Stadium."
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