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Referees Strike Out At Yankee Stadium On Cotto-Foreman Card

BY George Kimball ON June 06, 2010
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Yuri Foreman, who had come to Yankee Stadium with a well deserved reputation as one of the nicer fellows ever to lace on boxing gloves, demonstrated himself to be among its bravest as well. Foreman’s gritty attempt to fight Miguel Cotto on one leg for the better part of two rounds Saturday night may not have been particularly wise, but it certainly earned him newfound respect and a legion of new admirers that will probably translate into further television opportunities for the rabbi-in-training.

And for his part, Cotto conclusively demonstrated that those who were prepared to write his boxing obituary may have been more than somewhat premature. In winning Foreman’s WBA junior middleweight title, the Puerto Rican star added a world championship at a third weight class to his resume, and raised his personal record to a perfect 7-for-7 in New York main events.

He may still be no match for Manny Pacquiao, but then who is? In this age of multiple champions, Cotto proved that he belongs among them, and in the process revived his own prospects as a box office attraction.

On the other hand, in placing his own personal stamp on the proceedings at Yankee Stadium, Arthur Mercante Jr. seemed less to be laying claim to a lineal birthright as the heir to the legacy of his illustrious father than to staking out his own turf as the East Coast version of Mills Lane.

Employing a tough, no-nonsense approach to his enforcement of the rules, not a few of which he seemed to be making up as he went along, Mercante may have ensured that long after boxing fans have forgotten the names of the participants in the first (and, possibly, only) main event ever fought at the New Yankee Stadium, they will almost certainly remember who refereed it.

* * *

Although its termination came as direct the result of a freakish injury, it would be inaccurate to claim that Foreman lost the fight advertised as the “Stadium Slugfest” because of the seventh-round slip on the canvas that deprived him thereafter of the one demonstrable advantage he enjoyed over Cotto – his foot speed.

(Mea Culpa here: The specific injury, viewing a replay of the telecast confirmed, was indeed to Foreman’s right knee. In real time on Saturday night it looked as if Yuri were favoring his right ankle, and hearing the referee use the word “ankle” as he examined it seemed to confirm that in my own mind.)

But on Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, and probably on any other night, Yuri Foreman wasn’t going to beat Miguel Cotto on two good legs. By the time fate intervened the bout had already passed the halfway point, and it had long since assumed a well-defined course that seemed unlikely to change.

By the time he took his unscheduled tumble to the canvas, Foreman had a bloody nose, was cut around both eyes, and had been solidly out boxed. Cotto was not only beating him, but beating him at his own game. All three ringside judges (Steve Weisfeld, Don Ackerman, and Tony Paolillo) had scored the fourth for Foreman, but with the exception of Paolillo, who for some unaccountable reason also scored the fifth for the champion, hadn’t awarded him any of the other eight completed rounds.

Although Cotto was supposedly the competitor with balance issues, Foreman had to scramble to recover his footing after being knocked from his moorings by Cotto jabs in each of the first two rounds – and one of the two occasions a Cotto punch sent Foreman’s mouthpiece flying across the ring occurred before the seventh-round slip.

The evening did, on the other hand, include several controversial points, and footage of Foreman’s unprovoked tumble alone may provide grounds for an eventual rematch. (And since the fight did not in any sense produce a potential opponent for Pacquiao, a return bout may well be the direction post-mortem activity will take.)

Most reasonable pre-fight analyses had cast Cotto in the puncher’s role, and the question going in seemed to be whether he could cut off the ring on the elusive Foreman, and if and when he did, whether his once-potent power would have survived the journey up to 154. All of that wisdom had gone out the window before the first round was over.

The most significant impact of the addition of Emanuel Steward to the Cotto corner in the trainer’s position came not in terms of fight strategy (though Steward had correctly predicted that Cotto’s hand speed might prove to be at least the equal of Foreman’s), but in the temporizing role the Hall of Fame trainer played once Cotto had seized a clear-cut advantage. In some of its more recent incarnation, an excitable Cotto corner might have pushed him to go for the kill once it became clear that he was dealing with a badly wounded quarry. Steward, on the other hand, wisely counseled patience, recognizing that what was by then a certain win could only be undone if an overanxious Cotto exposed himself to unnecessary danger from his by-then desperate foe.

* * *

Thirty-four years earlier the late Arthur Mercante had been the third man in the ring for the last fight at the old Yankee Stadium. His principal impact on the outcome came not in his handling of the bout, but in his scoring of it. The Hall of Fame referee awarded eight of the 15 rounds to Ali, as did judges Harold Lederman and Barney Smith, resulting in a razor-thin unanimous decision that allowed Ali to retain his title.

The decision to assign his son to Saturday night’s main event of the first boxing card at the New Stadium was, then, in a sense a symbolic tribute to the seamless nature of the sport’s history.

In retrospect Mercante Jr. may also have viewed his first high-profile assignment since his father’s death (two weeks before Cotto-Foreman, Junior did work an off-TV card at the Mohegan Sun) as his opportunity to reinvent himself as his own man, with a distinct style incorporating the cult of personality into his strange concept of a referee’s duties.

It was also evident that at least one aspect of Mercante Sr.’s guiding credo (to wit: “stay out of the picture”) did not occupy a high priority in his son’s vision of the referee’s role, in which he seemed to envision himself less as an honest broker there to enforce the rules than as a co-equal participant whose high-profile function was at least as important to the proceedings as that of the boxers themselves.

Cotto, of course, had lost his own father in the year since he and Mercante last shared space in the ring, but while the referee’s nod to the recently departed (“Miguel Senior and Dad, Rest in Peace!”) just before the fight commenced might have seemed a compassionate touch in some quarters, it could easily have been interpreted as inappropriate in others.

Referees aren’t supposed to be influenced by ghosts – their own, or those harbored by the men whose conduct they are administering.

Mercante’s interaction with the boxers (particularly with Foreman, both before and after the pivotal injury) was over chummy throughout the evening. On at least four different occasions he addressed Foreman as “champ,” and his encouragement of the latter may well have crossed the line of propriety as well, particularly when it strayed into an area in which he seemed to be evaluating the boxer’s performance in a fight that was still in progress.

How much difference is there, really, between Arthur Mercante Jr. telling asking Yuri Foreman, “Want more time?,” and telling him, “You’re a game guy!“ or “Suck it up, kid!” and Laurence Cole advising Juan Marquez that it would be propitious to quit because “you’re winning the fight”?

Not much, it says here. And, it might be noted, the latter was both fined and suspended for his actions.

The immediate cause of the injury remains open to question. When it initially occurred, a startled Jim Lampley suggested on live television that Foreman might have tripped over a ringside photographer. Once that was demonstrated to have been inaccurate, the broadcast team proceeded on the assumption that, since Foreman wears a knee brace as the result of an old injury, he had aggravated a pre-existing condition and that his knee “just gave way.” (Our view at the time was that Foreman’s legs seemed to shoot right out from underneath him exactly as if he’d hit a wet patch on the canvas. Having watched it repeatedly, it still looks as if he slipped, perhaps on a logo painted on the mat. In other words, until presented with testimony to the contrary the assumption here is that when Yuri slipped and fell he aggravated the prior injury, not that the old injury caused the slip in the first place.)

Mercante properly informed Foreman that he had five minutes to recover, but even though he was at this point hopping about on one foot, the boxer elected to resume action almost immediately. When the leg collapsed yet again before the round was over, Mercante once again intervened to chase Cotto away and allow Foreman time to collect himself and survive the round.

All of the confusion attending Saturday’s eighth round could have been avoided, of course, had Foreman’s corner done the right thing and stopped the bout after the seventh. At that point their man had been reduced to a one-legged boxer, was bleeding from at least three places, and was pretty hopelessly behind on the scorecards to boot.

The chance that a hobbled Foreman be abruptly transformed into a 2010 version of Willis Reed or Kirk Gibson was approximately zero.

We’re talking, after all, about a guy who had been able to stop only eight of his 28 victims when he had two legs underneath him. Sending him back out for the eighth was so wrong-headed that it bordered on the sadistic, and a minute or two later Joe Grier apparently realized this when he tried to stop the fight by throwing in the towel.

A bit of explanation is in order here. A referee is under no obligation to recognize a towel thrown into the ring as a legitimate indication of surrender. In fact, commission guidelines, including New York’s, commonly suggest that the referee ignore that time-honored gesture unless he’s absolutely certain where it came from, and that, moreover, the towel-tosser is someone with the authority to actually stop the fight.

For the same reason, a boxer’s seconds are advised not to try to end a fight by throwing in the towel, but rather, to communicate their decision to the corner inspector assigned by the commission, who is in turn supposed inform the referee of the desire to surrender.

The problem is, Foreman’s corner men had followed these guidelines to the letter of the law. When Grier told Ernie Morales, the NYSAC-appointed inspector, he wanted to stop the right, Morales started up the corner stairs to so inform Mercante. The referee pointed to the inspector, and rather heatedly directed him to climb back down the stairs and stay away from the ring. (Whether Mercante, in the heat of the battle, didn’t recognize Morales, or was refusing to submit to his authority, remains unlearned.) It was only then that Grier went into a full windup and heaved the towel as far as he could throw it.

The interaction between the inspector and the referee occurred off camera; of the HBO broadcast team, only Roy Jones Jr. appears to have even noticed it. RJ did speculate for the benefit of HBO viewers that when “the commissioner” started up the steps, Mercante “didn’t recognize him” and hence shooed him away. None of Jones’ broadcast team partners so much as alluded to the episode.

The irony here is that when the evening’s assignments were initially handed out, Morales had oversight of the Cotto corner and Felix Figueroa had Foreman’s. For reasons that remain unexplained the roles were switched before the main event. Our guess is that the commission may simply have wanted the senior inspector in the opposite corner as a safeguard against Steward throwing his weight around had things gone badly for the challenger.

The entourages of both boxers, in any case, swarmed into the ring, assuming the fight to be over, but Mercante, who assumed the towel had come from the guy he had just chased out of the ring and not from Grier, immediately ordered the ring cleared. Morales pitched in to help herd Grier & Co. out of the ring, though he didn’t look especially happy about it. (Our interpretation of the withering glare the inspector cast in Mercante’s direction was, “anything that happens now, it’s on you.”) After giving Foreman another pep talk, Mercante directed that action resume, and while Foreman somehow remained erect for the balance of the round, he absorbed even further punishment.

During that five-minute eighth round, by the way, Mercante’s dialogue with Foreman included such cheerleading gems as “You’re fighting hard! I don’t want to see you lose like that!” and “You all right, champ! Come on, walk it off!”

Think about this for a minute: Just suppose by some miracle Foreman had come back from all of this and somehow won the fight. The tape of Mercante’s ongoing chatter with Foreman would have been Exhibit A in any review of the proceedings. Doesn’t it seem possible that the referee’s litany of encouraging mots to the guy he kept addressing as “champ” might have been considered evidence of misconduct?

HBO’s assessment of the referee’s bizarre actions?

“What a take-charge job by Arthur Mercante!” exclaimed Lampley.

Before the ninth, Michael Buffer was instructed to announce that the towel was not recognized because it had come from an “outside source,” which was particularly laughable since at that very moment HBO viewers in their living rooms and those watching the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium alike were treated to a replay clearly showing that the “outside source” had in fact been Foreman’s chief second.

The end, in any case, came just 42 seconds later. Cotto landed a left to the body that drove Foreman backward into the ropes, at which point his right leg once again splayed and he went down again. This time Mercante stopped it on his own.

If Mercante’s handling of the bout invited criticism, it should probably also be noted that for all his against-the-book transgressions, his was only the third-most egregious refereeing performance of the night. The usually competent Sparkle Lee swept both first and second place honors with her botched handling of the only two bouts she worked -- the Christian Martinez-Jonathan Cuba prelim and Jorge Diaz’ sixth-round TKO of Korean Jae Sung-Lee. (See Saturday night’s ringside report for full details.)

* * *

There were constant reminders that Saturday night’s card was destined to be Bob Arum’s second-most successful ballpark promotion of 2010. At Cowboys Stadium back in March the atmosphere had been positively electric from the moment the gates were opened to the public, and the Dallas card managed to sustain that high-energy air of expectation throughout the night despite what turned out to be a relatively tedious Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey main event.

There seemed to be little juice among the crowd during the early bouts at the Bronx. The same Top Rank representatives who had claimed an advance sale of 30,000 voiced their expectation that, like Foreman himself, significant portions of the audience would be late in arriving, but that never happened. Cotto-Foreman was preceded by three anthems. (It could have been worse; somebody with an eye for strict historical detail could have insisted on the Soviet and Belarus anthems being played as well.) By the time the final note of the last of these faded away, it was clear that what you saw was what you were going to get.

The final tally of 20,272 was a number that could have been accommodated with a lot less trouble at Madison Square Garden, and it suggests that the fight’s exotic locale, the sometimes heavy-handed attempts to bolster its appeal with sometimes tenuous historical connections, and the hard-sell push to tap into metropolitan New York’s two million-strong Jewish population by appealing to Foreman’s tribal affiliation had all in the end been non-factors.

As the crowd response to Buffer’s introductions of the main event principals made clear, by fight time Cotto fans may have outnumbered Foreman fans by as much as five or six to one. (If the latter were no match for the former vocally, their presence was somewhat more conspicuous in that most of the Israeli flag-wavers seemed to be concentrated in the more expensive sections nearest the ring. The Puerto Rican fans, on the other hand, were everywhere, from ringside to the $50 nosebleed seats in the upper deck.)

But then Cotto’s hard-core New York audience was a known factor. In six prior headline appearances at Madison Square Garden and its Theatre adjunct he had attracted an average of nearly 15,000. Throw in the small but enthusiastic bands of supporters the likes of Foreman, Joe Greene, Pawel Wolak, and James Moore might bring to, say, the Hammerstein Ballroom on a routine night, and you’d come up with a number pretty close to 20,000.

In other words, almost nobody came because the fight was at Yankee Stadium, and it could be reasonably argued that many boxing fans stayed away precisely because of the venue. So much for the House that Steinbrenner built.

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