Miguel Cotto returned to the win column and put himself back in the present tense after scoring a strange 9th round TKO over an injured Yuri Foreman in Yankee Stadium last night. Arthur Mercante Jr., perhaps caught in a time warp that sent him back to the 1900s when fighters took more abuse than pack mules in a frontier mining town, refused to acknowledge the white towel of surrender thrown into the ring by the Foreman camp in the 8th round and allowed the fight to continue. He finally called a halt to the bout after Foreman was dropped by a bodyshot in the ninth. Even during the unregulated bareknuckle days, pre-Marquis of Queensberry Rules, the sponge or the towel tossed into the ring was respected, but, for one night at least, progress was suspended in the name of God knows what.
Until Foreman, defending some junior middleweight title or other, suffered a knee injury, the bout was a solid if unspectacular boxing match, with Cotto getting the best of Foreman in every round but the fourth.
An unproven fighter has his flaws magnified when he faces quality competition for the first time, and Foreman, whose best win remains a twelve-round decision over an unfit Daniel Santos, was no different last night when up against the best opponent of his career.
His worst flaw, and one exploited neatly by Cotto, is the boxing equivalent of the poker tell: whenever Foreman stops, he punches, and that split-second transition is enough time for a pro like Cotto to react. Cotto often got off first because Foreman tipped his punches and allowed Cotto time to pre-empt him. Foreman is also completely squared-up when he throws combinations, leaving openings for counter shots during exchanges.
Cotto took charge immediately, landing an accurate jab and wobbling Foreman in the second round with a hard overhand right. After getting hammered around the ring for the first three rounds, Foreman, Brooklyn, New York, via Belarus, decided to stand his ground in the fourth and try to earn some respect. He landed a hard right hand off of a feint with the jab that seemed to surprise Cotto, and landed another right that shook Cotto moments later. Two more rights by Foreman gave him his first round of the fight. Cotto, Caguas, Puerto Rico, bounced back in the 5th and 6th rounds, outlanding Foreman and pressuring from bell to bell, but Foreman tried hard to be competitive throughout.
Then came the fateful seventh.
About a minute into the round, Foreman, on the move, dropped heavily to the canvas. HBO replays showed that his knee, already fitted with a brace, buckled and gave way beneath him. Foreman rose in obvious distress but insisted on fighting. He tried, bravely, to hold off an onrushing Cotto, but by then he was as mobile as Paul Sheldon was in Misery after Annie Wilkes got through with him. His knee gave out again moments later, and Mercante, instead of stopping the fight, was visibly upset that Foreman had collapsed a second time. “Ah, shit!” he yelled. Mercante called twice for the ringside doctor, who, mysteriously, never materialized in the ring.
Roy Jones Jr., commentating for HBO at ringside, immediately said, “I think this is it.” His partner, Jim Lampley, said there was no way Foreman could go on. Foreman, however, wanted to continue, and Mercante, whose actions seemed peculiar at best, allowed a one-legged fighter to take a beating.
Foreman, now 28-1 (8) with one no-contest, fought back as best he could but soon had his mouthpiece knocked out by a ripping uppercut. Near the end of the round, Foreman leaned over from the pain in his knee, and when the bell rang he limped back to his corner. Foreman, it must be said, did not look particularly steady on his feet even before his knee gave out. He stumbled three times during the first two rounds and slipped to the canvas in the fourth.
Halfway through the 8th round, Foreman almost collapsed again from the weak knee, and the corner threw in the towel, not, as Mercante claimed, during an exciting exchange, but with Foreman merely on a gimpy retreat after being worked over by Cotto against the ropes. Even as the vast multitudes that spill into the squared circle these days after a fight began milling, Mercante went to Melvina Latham at ringside and told her, “They threw in the towel; I don’t want the towel,” and, amazingly, he cleared the ring and restarted the fight.
Mercante should have been looking for excuses to stop the fight. Instead, he ignored the fact that Foreman was injured and that his corner wanted an end to the carnage. (On the other hand, why did the corner let Foreman out for the ninth?) Incredibly, Jim Lampley, who had earlier said there was no way Foreman could go on, lauded Mercante for “taking charge.” About half a minute later, Foreman, who was taking unnecessary shots, nearly saw his knee give way again.
In between rounds, the ringside physician did not even enter the ring to assess the severity of the injury, and Foreman answered the bell for the ninth practically teetering. Luckily for Foreman, he was dropped by a left hook to the body shortly after the round began, otherwise there is no telling how much punishment Mercante would have allowed him to take.
The referee is there to protect the fighters and just because Mercante found the bout to be exciting is no reason for him to vacate his senses. In addition, his self-congratulatory remarks after the fight were disturbing. The referee, in modern boxing, at least, is not there to oblige the crowd or to get caught up in what he thinks is a good fight. He is there, above all, to make sure no one gets seriously hurt. You would think Mercante, who was not on the ball the night Bee Scottland suffered a fatal beating at the hands of George Jones in 2001, would be a little more sensitive about these issues. After all, it was Scottland’s death that led to the overhaul of the New York State Athletic Commission, notorious at the time for its corruption, incompetence and flunkeyism. Obviously it was not overhauled enough.
As for Cotto, he looked sharp from the moment he stepped out of his corner, pushing Foreman back with hard jabs and cutting off the ring intelligently. He did not seem any slower at junior middleweight and put his punches together well, at one point throwing a decoy right to freeze Foreman and following it up with a hard left hook to the body.
With Emanuel Steward in his corner for the first time, Cotto, 35-2 (28), stuck to his gameplan, placed his shots well, and shut Foreman down at every turn. He never let Foreman get the chance to put his nightmare style into effect. It was a nice win for Cotto, who did not show any adverse effects from the punishment he has taken over the last few years. It is a testament to his resilience, skill, and, above all, his professionalism that he is able to put yesterday behind him once he steps into the ring and concentrate on tomorrow.