It took 34 years for boxing to make its return to Yankee Stadium, and it was so well received by a raucous crowd of 20,272 that it had to end twice before referee Arthur Mercante Jr. officially called a halt to the proceedings Saturday night.
The fight turned in the seventh round when Foreman (28-1, eight KOs) slipped twice and came up limping badly. His right knee was encased in a brace to protect an old injury. When the knee buckled again in the eighth under an onslaught by Cotto (35-2, 28 KOs), Foreman's trainer, Joe Grier, threw a towel in the ring, the universal sign of surrender. The ring immediately filled with members of both camps.
But even as Cotto's corner was starting to celebrate, Mercante called timeout and told both sides the fight was going to resume. Ring announcer Michael Buffer then called for the ring to be cleared, saying the towel came from an outside source. HBO threw up a replay on the video board that showed Grier tossing it.
No matter. Mercante was in charge. "I heard someone yell, 'Stop the fight! Stop the fight!' '' Mercante said. "The towel came in the heat of battle when there was a good exchange going on. I felt it wasn't necessary. There was no need to stop the fight. It was a great fight. I felt I did the right thing to let it continue.
"I called time, and it gave both time to rest. I went to Yuri and said, 'Suck it up, kid.' You saw he was game, the true heart of a champion.''
Indeed, Foreman disagreed with Grier's move to protect him. Reality is that without the ability to move swiftly around the ring, Foreman was a sitting duck for Cotto's punches. But that's not how Foreman wanted to go out, and the crowd roared its approval when the fight resumed.
Foreman said the brace was for an old injury that betrayed him. "I was making side-to-side moves, and it gave way,'' he said. "It was sharp pain. But when you have the title, you never quit.
"You see the white towel and you think it's over. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to continue.''
The last fight at old Yankee Stadium was between heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton on Sept. 28, 1976. The third man in the ring then was Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante Sr., a longtime resident of Garden City who died in April at the age of 90. In a fitting bow to history, Arthur Mercante Jr. was named as the arbiter for Foreman-Cotto. He wore a black armband in memoriam for his dad, and after greeting both fighters, he said, "Dad, rest in peace.''
Just as new trainer Emanuel Steward asked him to do, Cotto started working his jab early in a strong first round, coming in behind it and staying square to the elusive Foreman. At one point, a Cotto jab sent Foreman into an awkward backpedal. Foreman stumbled again in the second at the end of a Cotto jab but landed a sharp left near the end of a close round.
Early in the third round, Cotto landed a jab-left hook that made Foreman spit his mouthpiece. Foreman landed his best punch of the fight to start the fourth, a hard right to the gut. But Cotto came back with a left uppercut that cut Foreman over the right eye.
Foreman held his own in the fifth and sixth rounds and regained some equilibrium. It was one minute into the seventh round when Foreman slipped for the first time, wrenching his knee and necessitating a brief timeout. After getting up, Foreman fought courageously, but there was no escaping Cotto.
"I thought Cotto fought the perfect fight,'' Steward said. "He had a good jab, good footwork and nice body work. I was very pleased.''
The outcome was inevitable, but not necessarily the manner of the ending. Rather than let boxing's return to the Stadium end on a sour note, Mercante put it in the fighter's hands. His dad would have appreciated the job Arthur Jr. did.