NEW YORK (AP) – Miguel Cotto shone brightly once again, this time under the twinkling lights of Yankee Stadium.
The pride of Puerto Rico stopped a game Yuri Foreman in the ninth round Saturday night to win the junior middleweight title, delighting thousands of his flag-waving fans in the first fight at the Bronx ballpark in more than three decades.
It didn't come without a bit of controversy, or at least an interesting footnote.
Foreman slipped in the seventh round and badly twisted his right knee, then slipped to the mat again later in the round. He survived to the end but could barely move around the ring, getting tagged at will by Cotto and limping on a knee that was already covered by a black brace.
Between rounds, Foreman's wife leaned over the railing and implored his trainer to stop the fight. Someone in Foreman's corner obliged and threw in the towel early in the eighth round, but referee Arthur Mercante Jr. angrily tossed the towel right back out. He asked Foreman if he wanted to continue, and the aspiring rabbi with the compelling back story elected to fight on.
The ring had filled with people and needed to be cleared before the fight continued.
"I looked at the screen and I saw his trainer throwing the towel in the ring," Cotto said. "The referee said someone from outside the corner threw the towel into the ring."
Foreman (28-1) was able to move better later in the eighth round and survived to the ninth, when Cotto caught him near the ropes and dropped him to the canvas again. This time, Mercante stepped in and called it off at 42 seconds of the round.
"I was making side to side movement and it gave out," Foreman said of his right knee. "It was a lot of pain, a lot of sharp pain. Couldn't do a lot of moves."
The victory was vindication for Cotto, who had endured a pair of savage beatings at the hands of Antonio Margarito and pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, who watched the fight ringside. Those losses and a few difficult wins had many critics wondering whether Cotto still had it.
He proved that he certainly does, winning a title in his third weight division.
Cotto (35-2, 28 KOs) set the tempo with his left jab from the moment he stepped in the ring, showing that he's perfectly comfortable at 154 pounds. Well before the bizarre middle rounds, when it looked like the outcome might go to the scorecards, Cotto was always in control.
He even had time early on to make sure that Mercante was OK after an errant hook nearly hit the referee during the fifth round. Mercante just smiled as the fight carried on.
"There was no need to stop the fight," Mercante said of his decision after the towel hit the ring, when boos were raining down. "They were in the middle of a great exchange, a great fight.
"People came to see a great fight and I felt like I did the right thing."
The fact that Mercante was in charge of the fight was yet another string that tied the fight to the glory days of the old ballpark. His father, the late Arthur Mercante, refereed the final bout at the old Yankee Stadium in September 1976, when Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton.
An early arriving crowd filled the field-level seats and into the upper reaches, just below the iconic facade that returned with the new stadium. As expected, it was heavily in favor of Cotto, who has sold more tickets to fights in New York City than any other boxer over the past decade.
His fans brought the same verve they usually bring to Madison Square Garden, cheering whenever he was shown on the video screen in center field and the smaller screens that were hoisted to the canopy covering the ring in right-center field.
Sprinkled among the thousands of people waving Puerto Rican flags were fans of Foreman, who was born in the former Soviet Union but raised in Israel. Naturally, they broke out blue-and-white signs adorned with the Star of David and waved their own Israeli flags.
The atmosphere gave Yankee Stadium a throwback feel, to the 1920s and '30s, when boxing was often divided along ethnic lines. Fittingly, the first title bout in the new ballpark involved a Jewish fighter, because the first fight at the old Yankee Stadium also did: Benny Leonard defeated Lew Tendler on July 24, 1923, just a couple months after it opened.
Baseball's cathedral hosted Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey and the great Joe Louis during its storied history, along with Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson. After a lengthy absence, boxing returned for the Ali-Norton fight — the last one at the old ballpark, which has been reduced to rubble just across 161st Street from the current monolith in the Bronx.