Thomas Hauser revisits Cotto vs Foreman, one of the worst examples of a fighter being needlessly endangered
ON JUNE 5, 2010, at Yankee Stadium, Yuri Foreman defended his 154-pound WBA championship against Miguel Cotto. Foreman was a Chabad rabbinical student and the first practising Orthodox Jew to win a world title since Jackie “Kid” Berg in 1932. He was also the first Israeli citizen ever to win a championship belt.
Foreman’s ethnicity was central to the promotion of Foreman-Cotto. In that spirit, I’d planned to report on the fight in the form of a column explaining the action to my 84-year-old Jewish mother.
“Foreman and trainer Joe Grier shmoozed in the corner between rounds. ‘You want I should throw the jab?’ Yuri asked.”
If there was a controversial decision, I could write that the loser was “kvetching about the judges.” If Yuri won, co-managers Murray Wilson and Alan Cohen would be “kvelling” with pride. The sanctioning body officials would be labeled “no-goodniks.”
Then reality intervened in the form of what I believe was a gross error in officiating by referee Arthur Mercante that requires serious commentary.
Let’s put the matter in context.
Foreman was born in Belarus. His family moved to Israel when he was 11. “At first it was difficult,” Yuri recalled. “I was missing my friends. And sometimes in Israel, there was discrimination between the Russians and the Jews. The Russians were also Jewish, but the Israelis would call us Russians and say we didn’t deserve to be there, so there would be fights in school between the immigrants and the Israelis.”
Foreman learned the rudiments of boxing in an outdoor lot. There was no ring, not even a heavy bag. “They wouldn’t give us a gym because we were just Russians,” he said. “We went to City Hall and begged for a place to hang a bag and put up a ring. All they told us was, ‘Go box with the Arabs.’ So finally I went to the Arab gym. The first time I walked in, I saw the stares. In their eyes, there was a lot of hatred. But I needed to box. And boy, did they all want to box me. But after a while, the wall that was between us melted. We all wanted the same thing. I traveled with them as teammates. It helped that I won almost all the time. And finally, we became friends.”
In Israel, Foreman was a three-time national amateur champion. In 2001, he came to New York to pursue a career in professional boxing. He turned pro in 2002, compiled a 28-0 record and, on November 14, 2009, defeated Daniel Santos to claim the WBA super-welterweight title.
The key to Yuri’s style was to move constantly and use his legs to keep an opponent at long range. Footwork was crucial to everything he did. He was hard to hit and threw a lot of punches that kept opponents off balance. He boxed more than he fought. In 28 bouts, he had scored only eight knockouts. His trainer was Joe Grier (a former police officer who fought professionally in the 1970s).
And there’s another piece of information that’s relevant. Yuri wore a brace on his right knee when he fought. “It’s for an old injury,” he said. “When I was 15, I fell off a bike.”
Foreman was promoted by Top Rank, whose CEO (Bob Arum) has visions and implements them. As long as a fighter performs in the ring, Top Rank can get him to the dance. In this instance, the dance was Foreman versus Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium. A win for Yuri would establish him as a star in the boxing firmament.
Outdoor fights in mammoth stadiums are part of American boxing lore, and stadium venue was a key element in promoting the fight. The other hook was Foreman’s Israeli citizenship and status as a rabbinical student. That distinction made him a magnet for publicity in the weeks leading up to the bout. Yuri was the grand marshall in New York’s annual “Salute to Israel Parade”. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran feature articles about him. The New York Daily News referred to Yuri and his wife, Leyla, as “the Brangelina of boxing.”
Foreman’s ring walk, the media was told, would be preceded by the sounding of the shofar (a horn, traditionally that of a ram, used in Jewish religious rites). “There will be two highlights for me on fight night other than the fight,” Arum proclaimed. “One will be when they play Hatikva (the Israeli national anthem) for the first time ever in the old or new Yankee Stadium. The other will be when Yuri begins his ring walk to the sound of the shofar. That’s something that has never been seen or heard in the whole long history of boxing. We are very fortunate to have Israel’s number one entertainer, Yoni Dror of Tel Aviv, attending the fight to sound the shofar. Yoni is beyond compare when it comes to sounding the shofar.”
Yoni was also Arum’s nephew.
On the day of the fight, Foreman observed the Sabbath (from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday) in a Manhattan hotel room. He left the hotel at 9.08pm and drove with a police escort to Yankee Stadium. In his dressing room, he taped an eight-foot-long Israeli flag over the lockers at one end of the room. Then he took a Bible from his gym bag and bowed his head while reading from the Book of Psalms. Five minutes later, he kissed the book and put it back in his gym bag.
Top Rank’s international television feed could be seen and heard on a TV set in the dressing room. Yuri stood silently as Hatikva was sung, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
The referee for Foreman-Cotto was Arthur Mercante Jnr (son of Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante). Arthur Snr was known throughout the boxing community as a man of integrity and competence. Over the years, his son had developed his own body of work.
The first part of Foreman-Cotto boiled down to boxing basics. Miguel was the aggressor. Yuri sought to stem the tide with lateral movement and enough punches of his own to keep Cotto from rolling over him. Foreman’s punches stung. Miguel’s were the harder blows. Cotto appeared to be more concerned with finding Yuri than he was with getting hit.
The third round saw the first of what would be several strange acts by Mercante. With 1-42 left in the stanza, Foreman’s mouthpiece fell out of his mouth. Arthur saw it and immediately picked it up. There was a lengthy lull in the action, but he didn’t call time. Instead, he waited more than a minute before leading Foreman to Cotto’s corner. Emanuel Steward protested that he was the wrong guy to rinse the mouthpiece and put it back in, that Yuri wasn’t his fighter.
“No! No! You clean it,” Mercante ordered.
That was a clear departure from boxing protocol.
Round four was Foreman’s best round of the fight. He landed several hard lead right hands after feinting with his jab and won the stanza on each judge’s scorecard.
Round five belonged to Cotto. Round six was close.
Halfway through the scheduled 12 rounds, Miguel was ahead 59-55, 59-55, and 58-56 on the scorecards. Yuri had a bloody nose and a cut on his left eyelid. But he was still in the fight.
Then things got crazy.
Forty-five seconds into round seven, as Foreman was moving laterally to his right along the ring perimeter, his right knee gave way and he fell hard to the canvas. He rose in obvious pain, hobbling when he tried to walk. “Walk it off, champ,” Mercante told him. “Suck it up, kid. I’ll give you five minutes.” Then he asked, “Is it your ankle?”
Given the fact that Yuri was wearing a knee brace, an ankle injury wasn’t the most likely possibility.
Foreman said no.
“Is it your knee?”
“Suck it up, kid,” Mercante repeated.
Less than a minute after Foreman went down, the action resumed. At that point, Yuri was a seriously compromised fighter. Forty-five seconds later, again with no punch being thrown, his knee buckled and he fell once more to the canvas.
“Oh, shit,” Mercante muttered. His words sounded as though they were spoken more in anger than out of concern for the fighter. “Suck it up,” he said. “Do you want more time? You’re a game guy. Do you want to go?”
Foreman appeared to be in no condition to fight, but he was a champion with a champion’s heart.
Mercante instructed that the action resume.
With one minute left in round seven, a Cotto left hook knocked out Yuri’s mouthpiece. Mercante let the entire round finish without giving the mouthpiece to the corner to put back in.
Mercante’s handling of round seven was bad. His conduct in round eight was worse.
Joe Grier readied Foreman for the eighth round in the hope that Yuri could regain his mobility. But it was quickly clear that, not only couldn’t he move to avoid punches, he couldn’t get power on his own blows. At the 1-30 mark, while trying to move laterally, he staggered and almost fell again. “I knew then that it was a serious injury and that it wasn’t something he could recover from,” Grier said afterward. “Yuri had no mobility and he couldn’t get leverage on his punches. He was just a target.”
At that point, following proper procedure, Grier asked Ernie Morales (the New York State Athletic Commission inspector assigned to Foreman’s corner) to tell Mercante that he wanted to stop the fight. Morales stood on the ring apron to get Mercante’s attention. Arthur admitted after the fight that he saw and heard the inspector. And he knew that Morales was assigned to Foreman’s corner because he’d seen him in Yuri’s dressing room when he gave the fighter his pre-fight instructions. But Mercante pointedly ignored the request.
“Yuri was starting to get banged up,” Grier recounted later. “He couldn’t properly defend himself because he only had one leg. The referee wasn’t listening to the inspector. I had to get it stopped. I asked if I could throw the towel in, and the inspector said ‘go ahead.’”
With 1-15 left in round eight, Grier threw a white towel into the ring. Both trainers came through the ropes to embrace their respective fighters.
Then Mercante did a disservice to boxing. If he had doubts as to where the towel came from, he could have asked Grier if he’d thrown it in. Grier would have answered, “Yes, sir.” The responsible thing for Mercante to say in response would have been, “Okay; the fight is over.”
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, Mercante shouted, “Everybody out of the ring. I don’t want the towel. The corner is not throwing in the towel [apparently, he knew it came from the corner].” Then he turned to Foreman and asked, “You all right, champ?”
Obviously, Foreman wasn’t all right.
“You’re fighting hard. I don’t want to see a move like that. Suck it up. Walk it off.”
The action resumed. But as Grier said, Foreman was no longer able to properly defend himself. The fight was clearly unwinnable. In fact, it was no longer a professional prizefight. It was a beating.
Foreman’s knee gave way and he staggered several more times before the end of the round.
After the eighth stanza, Mercante went to Foreman’s corner. “Who threw in the towel?” he demanded.
“I did,” Grier told him.
Mercante turned and walked away. He didn’t even talk with Foreman. Grier, understanding that he’d been forbidden to stop the fight, reluctantly readied his charge for the ninth round.
Thirty seconds into round nine, Cotto landed a hook to the body. Yuri’s knee gave out again and he fell to the canvas. Finally, Mercante stopped the bout.
In the dressing room after the fight, Foreman was disappointed but accepting of what had happened. “I felt a lot of pain,” he said. “It was very sharp and my knee was weak. I didn’t want to stop the fight, but I couldn’t box like I had to. If the leg was fine, I would stay in my game plan. Without the leg, I couldn’t move and I had no leverage on my punches.”
Grier thanked Ernie Morales for doing what he could to stop the fight. “The inspector did the right thing, and so did I,” Joe said. “I’d throw the towel in again if I had it to do over. All that happened after that was, Yuri took unnecessary punishment. He was fighting with dignity, but he only had one leg. I wanted it to stop while he was still on his feet, not down on the canvas. I know you’re not supposed to throw a towel in. I told the inspector I wanted them to stop the fight. The inspector told the referee. And the referee told them to keep fighting. What else was I supposed to do?”
Arthur Mercante came in the room to congratulate Foreman on his courage.
“You should have stopped it,” Yuri’s wife, Leyla, said.
“He wasn’t going to get hurt,” Mercante countered.
“You don’t know that.”
“Each time he collapsed, he got back up, throwing punches.”
“It made no sense,” Leyla pressed. “What did you expect was going to happen? Nothing was going to change. There was not going to be a miracle that he could start to move again.”
Mercante left the dressing room; but not before pointing to several text messages he’d received on his cell phone telling him that the HBO commentators had praised his work during the fight.
Yuri lay down on a rubdown table, and a doctor put the first of seven stitches in his left eyelid. Six days later, he underwent knee surgery at NYU Medical Center to repair a torn miniscus muscle and rebuild his anterior cruciate ligament.
Subsequent to the fight, New York State Athletic Commission chairperson Melvina Lathan praised Mercante for his handling of the contest. “I think Arthur did a remarkable job,” Lathan told writer Michael Woods. “He did what he was supposed to do. He knows the rules. He responded appropriately. All in all, it was a magical evening of boxing.”
I have a different opinion. I think that Mercante’s handling of the fight was appalling.
Let’s start with some facts. Early in round seven, as previously noted, Foreman’s knee gave way and he fell to the canvas. He rose, debilitated and in obvious pain. New York State is a member of the Association of Boxing Commissions. Section 33 of the Referee Rules and Guidelines adopted by the ABC in 2008 states, “The referee must consult with the ringside physician in all accidental injury cases. The referee, in conjunction with the ringside physician, will determine the length of time needed to evaluate the affected boxer and his or her suitability to continue. If the injured boxer is not adversely affected and their chance of winning has not been seriously jeopardized because of the injury, the bout may be allowed to continue.”
Foreman’s injury “seriously jeopardized” his chance of winning the fight. Mercante is an intelligent man, so presumably he understood that. Also, Mercante failed at that juncture to consult with Dr. Rick Weinstein (an orthopedic surgeon, who was the ringside physician in Yuri’s corner) as required by Rule 33. Instead, he urged Foreman to “walk it off” and “suck it up,” and let the fight continue.
When Foreman’s knee buckled and he collapsed again less than a minute later, Mercante followed the same procedure. The key to Foreman’s success as a fighter is his mobility. In rounds one through six of the fight, Cotto had landed an average of 11 punches per round. In round seven, with a disabled fighter in front of him, he landed 29, including 27 “power” punches.
Joe Grier understood Foreman’s fighting heart and wanted to give him every reasonable opportunity to win. But as round eight progressed, it was clear to Grier that Yuri’s injury was not something that the fighter could “walk off” and that it would only get worse.
Corner inspectors are the eyes and ears of the commission. They don’t have the authority to stop a fight. But they do have the authority to tell the referee that a fighter’s corner wants the fight stopped. Midway through round eight, when Yuri staggered and almost fell again, Grier asked inspector Ernie Morales to tell the referee that he wanted to stop the fight.
Morales relayed the request. Mercante refused to honor it.
At that point, with the inspector’s permission, Grier threw a white towel into the ring.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another instance when a chief second asked that a fight be stopped (let alone, an instance when a fighter was hobbling around the ring on a severely injured leg) and the referee refused to stop it.
After the fight, when Mercante was interviewed by Max Kellerman on HBO, he was evasive, as evidenced by the following colloquy:
Kellerman: “Do you know who threw in the towel?”
Mercante: “At the moment, I didn’t know.”
Kellerman: “Do you know who it is now?”
Mercante: “I kind of know.”
After round eight, Mercante had gone to the corner and demanded, “Who threw in the towel?”
“I did,” Grier told him.
Arthur didn’t ask, “Why?”
He didn’t say, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
He turned and walked away.
If that’s standard protocol in New York, then New York needs to overhaul its standards.
After the fight, one of the things that Mercante said in support of his decision was, “There was no need to stop the fight. They were in the middle of a great fight. That’s what the fans came to see.” But referees are taught from day one, “You don’t worry about the crowd. You’re there to ensure a fair fight and protect the fighters. You do what you have to do to fulfill these obligations whether or not it makes the crowd happy.”
Shame on anyone who thought that seeing a one-legged fighter get beaten up was “entertainment.”
Here, one might also note that Mercante was the referee on the night of June 26, 2001, when Beethavean Scottland fought George “Khalid” Jones in a bout that was nationally televised from the flight deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid. Scottland took a beating. On three occasions in three different rounds, there were cries from the crowd that the bout should be stopped. In round 10, he was knocked unconscious. He died six days later.
Larry Hazzard is uniquely situated to comment on Foreman-Cotto, having been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of a Fame for his body of work as both a referee and chairman of the New Jersey Board of Athletic Control. “Normally, I don’t comment on situations involving a referee and a commission,” Hazzard said after Foreman-Cotto. “And I don’t like to criticise. But I’d be doing a disservice to the boxing community if I didn’t speak out. The most important mission of the referee is to protect the health and safety of the fighter. Fighters are in danger every time they step into the ring. It’s the referee’s job to protect them when the danger becomes too great. The referee’s mission is not to tell the fighter, ‘Suck it up. Walk it off.’
“Walk it off? What does that mean?” Hazzard continued. “The referee should have called in the doctor when the fighter’s knee gave out. Instead, the referee, on his own, made a medical decision that the fighter should continue. That’s why we have a doctor in each corner. You call time and consult with the doctor. How can anyone argue with that? And how can you overrule the trainer when he wants to stop the fight? Nobody knows a fighter better than his trainer. When the inspector came up on the ring apron and told the referee that the trainer wanted the fight to be over, that should have been it. When Mercante threw the inspector out of the ring, he was throwing all the rules and a hundred years of boxing out of the ring. Right then, someone should have taken the fight out of his hands; because clearly, at that point, he wasn’t acting properly. I hate to be this critical. But the way this fight was handled was horrible. In the whole history of boxing, to my knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened before. And it should never happen again.”
Don Turner has been honored as “trainer of the year” by the Boxing Writers’ Association of America. “I didn’t see the fight,” Turner acknowledged. “But I heard about it. First, let me tell you about Joe Grier. He’s a good trainer; he cares about his fighters; and he’s a great guy. Second thing; the only problem I have with Joe Grier in this situation is that he was too nice a guy. If it had been me in there with my fighter and the referee told me I couldn’t stop the fight, there would have been a bigger fight between me and the referee. All trainers want to win. The trainer does everything he can to keep his fighter in the fight. But the trainer knows better than anyone else when his fighter is in trouble and when a fight should be stopped. When the trainer reaches that conclusion, it’s not about asking the fighter, ‘How do you feel about me stopping the fight?’ When the trainer says ‘that’s all,’ the fight is over.”
Finally, there was Emanuel Steward, respected throughout the boxing community as a trainer and HBO commentator. Steward had a unique view of Foreman-Cotto. He was in Miguel’s corner as the drama unfolded. “I usually defend referees,” Steward said. “It’s a hard job. And to be honest; I don’t like to say things that upset officials because they might hold it against me down the road. But I’ll talk about this because it was horrible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a referee do a job that bad. First, the referee was out of position all through the fight. No one is talking about that. Then there was the mouthpiece thing. That was crazy. And when the towel came in; that was awful. There are things we have in boxing to protect fighters from their own courage. There’s the referee, the ring doctor, and the fighter’s corner. The fighter’s corner has always been able to stop a fight. The trainer knows his fighter better than the referee does. We’re not stupid. If the trainer wants to stop the fight, you stop the fight. Yuri could have been killed. One punch can do it. And it was obvious to everyone except the referee that Yuri couldn’t defend himself. Even if Joe Grier didn’t want to stop the fight, the referee should have stopped it.”
“If it was my fighter and I wanted to stop it,” Steward concluded, “we would have had a real confrontation, in the ring right then and there. The referee could say anything he wanted. I’d have told him, ‘I don’t care what you say. The fight is over.’ I have no idea what the man was thinking. The fighter’s life was at risk. A bad call in another sport can cost you a point or maybe lose the game. Boxing is a whole different sport. If a referee doesn’t understand that, he has a serious problem. The whole thing was weird and scary. This wasn’t one bad spur-of-the-moment decision. Everything was wrong. There was bad refereeing and irrational behavior all night long. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I hope I never see anything like it again.”
There are those who say that it was appropriate to allow Foreman-Cotto to continue because Yuri had earned the right to “go out on his shield.” That translates into, “Yuri had no chance to win. But the referee should have allowed him get to beaten up, rip open the cut on his left eyelid, shred whatever remained that was holding his right knee in place, and maybe get knocked unconscious. Then, since there were no shields at ringside, he could have been carried out on a stretcher.”
Foreman didn’t need that to establish his courage. It’s not a hard concept to grasp. If a fighter is hurt and his chief second wants to stop the fight, the referee should stop the fight. People can agree or disagree with me. But that’s how I felt then. And more than a decade later, I still feel very strongly about it.