The sun was high in the western sky just above the rim of Yankee Stadium at 6:45 last night when boxing returned to the ballpark for the first time in 34 years. The Stadium sported the familiar iconic facade, but of course, this is the new incarnation of Yankee Stadium in just its second season of existence.
The place where heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton last fought on Sept. 28, 1976 has been reduced to a pile of rubble across 161st Street. Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante Sr., a longtime resident of Garden City who died in April at the age of 90, was the third man in the ring for that bout. So, it was fitting that his son, Arthur Jr., was named to officiate the main event between WBA super welterweight champion Yuri Foreman (28-0, 8 KOs) and challenger Miguel Cotto (34-2, 27 KOs) and continue his father's great legacy.
Promoter Bob Arum said 17,000-plus tickets had been sold by Friday and expressed hope that walkup sales would push attendance toward the 23,000 mark. Still, that was well short of the 29,000 capacity for the boxing configuration. Besides the fans seated on the field at ringside, most fans sat in the stadium seats from the first base dugout all the way around to the rightfield bleachers.
The only exception was young Scott Ballan's bar mitzvah party, which was located in the loge section luxury box behind home plate. When Arum made the fight, an accommodation had to be made with Ballan's party, which previously had reserved the date and, most importantly, use of the video board in center that was necessary to show the fight.
Obviously, all parties were satisfied, and Ballan was introduced at the final news conference on Wednesday and got to meet Foreman, the first Israeli world boxing champion who also happens to be a rabbinical student living in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community.
Foreman still was ensconced at his hotel on 91st Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan observing the Jewish Sabbath when boxing returned to the Stadium in the form of New York super lightweights Christian Martinez and Jonathan Cuba. Perhaps as a symbol of how much things have changed, Martinez and Cuba were joined by female referee Sparkle Lee.
The first real mayhem occurred when Martinez floored Cuba with an overhand right that landed at the same time as the bell ending the third round sounded. Cuba got to his feet, and Lee motioned for the fight to continue when she should have sent the fighters to their stools.
She got it sorted out with ringside officials and stepped between the fighters. Martinez won by technical knockout at 1:18 of the fourth round.
"It was great to be the first man ever to win a fight at [new] Yankee Stadium,'' Martinez said. "It feels historic.''
Yankees CEO Lonn Trost said he's mindful of the Stadium's place in boxing history and planned to make this the first of many big-event boxing cards. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg was planning to showcase the Stadium to dramatic effect, and the presence of Foreman added to the drama as HBO followed his motorcade from Manhattan to the Bronx by using a helicopter to track the police escort after sundown.
Greenburg said his hope is to bring the masses back to boxing at such a spectacular and important venue.
"Lonn understood the tradition of boxing at Yankee Stadium, as well,'' Greenburg said. "He figured it would give them another leg up in the city as an attraction, and he's right.''