The old-school appeal of a ballpark fight at night isn't negligible, but another significant reason Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto are fighting at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night is tax law. So said venerable fight promoter Bob Arum as he he schvitzed in the humid air and worried about rain before Friday afternoon's weigh-in. It's been 34 years, since Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton in fifteen rounds in 1976, since someone rented out the joint for a fight. In part, that's because boxing's best matchups have increasingly featured foreigners — and thanks to New York's tax laws, stars like Manny Pacquiao would have to pay more of their purse to fight here than citizens. But Cotto is Puerto Rican, and Foreman lives in Brooklyn. So they're not scared off by the portion of their take (Cotto's getting $2 million to Foreman's $750,000 and is favored even though he's the challenger) they'll have to share with the government as they fight for the WBA junior middleweight title.
It will be the Haifa-born Foreman's biggest payday ever. He moved to New York as a teenager with trainer Michael Kozlowski, finding work initially in a linen-packing plant. When he turned pro, he changed trainers, triggering a bitter feud with Kozlowski, during which a man in a mask showed up at Foreman's apartment with a bag that contained a bullet. The message was clear: Go back to your trainer. Foreman didn't, and went on to string together an undefeated record with an Über-cautious boxing style that is based on illusive movement rather than punishing blows. And in the shrinking pugilistic economy, where fighters constantly struggle with ways to market their talent, Foreman has a hook: Along with another New York fighter, Dmitry Salita, he's a practicing Orthodox Jew. Foreman wants to rabbi, and the story line is an irresistible one for many fans nostalgic for the turn-of-the-century days when Jewish fighters like Leach "the Fighting Dentist" Cross and Benny "the Ghetto Wizard" Leonard held championship belts.
What Foreman offers in narrative, Cotto (34–2, with 27 knockouts), a four-time world champion with fifteen title defenses, possessed in raw talent, boxing IQ, and experience. He had devastating knockout power in both hands. He could throw efficient punches, especially the left hook; he could box southpaw, to confuse opponents. And he was a stalker, cutting off the ring like a boa constrictor squeezing life from his prey. But we're using the past tense for a reason: in the past two years Cotto has taken beatings from Antonio Margarito and Pacquiao so brutal insiders wonder if Cotto should consider retirement.
Foreman's still thought to be in his prime, but has only eight knockouts in his 28 wins. Does he have enough power to hurt a fighter of Cotto's stature? He does have an advantage in size; he's a natural junior middleweight, while Cotto has never fought this heavy. At the weigh-in, Cotto stripped into Superman underwear, stepped on the scales to a cheering crowd, and weighed 153 and a half pounds. His new trainer, the legendary Emmanuel Steward, told me that to help Cotto focus and improve upon his natural rhythm, they trained to salsa music. Cotto's father also recently passed away, so he'll have significant emotion on his side, as well as the desire to avenge those two prominent losses.
For Foreman this is another chance to keep his almost fairy-tale-like story going. At the weigh-in, he stripped down to camouflage underwear and stepped on the scale to boos. His weight, much like his boxing style, was precise: 154 pounds. He put on a pair of tzitzis, a Jewish prayer shawl worn under the clothes, took a few slugs of coconut water, then disappeared to prepare for the Sabbath.