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April 24, 2014

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Remembering Yankee Stadium’s place in boxing history

The first news conference for the Miguel Cotto-Manny Pacquiao world welterweight championship fight will be held on Thursday, Sept. 10, at Yankee Stadium in New York City. The new ballpark was built last year next to the original facility, nicknamed the “House that Ruth Built” after legendary home run slugger Babe Ruth, who was credited with saving the franchise and baseball itself following the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Yankee Stadium sits just across the Harlem River in the Bronx, and hosted some of the most memorable boxing matches in history. Fistic luminaries such as Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, Willie Pep, Floyd Patterson and Rocky Graziano did battle at the outdoor venue, the site of championship prizefights for six decades.

The June 22, 1938 rematch between Louis and Max Schmeling was probably the most anticipated sport event ever in America. More than 70,000 spectators paid in excess of 1 million prewar dollars to attend the bout, and millions more listened on radio across the United States and around the world.

The symbolism of this event was huge. Adolf Hitler’s doctrine of racial superiority and a so-called master race were represented by the German boxer Schmeling, who had knocked out Louis in 12 rounds two years earlier to capture the world title. Louis, known as the Brown Bomber, was the man under the gun. The former champ was under tremendous pressure to disprove and put to rest Der Furher’s odious philosophy.

However, there was great trepidation among Louis’ countrymen. A second loss to Schmeling might tend to symbolically vindicate Hitler’s rantings. But the Detroit native dropped Schmeling three times before referee Arthur Donovan halted the massacre after only 124 seconds of the first round. The savage beat-down was a stinging defeat for Nazi Germany, and Louis’ knockout victory was celebrated as a great triumph internationally.

With all this history surrounding Yankee Stadium fights, it was an honor for Top Rank to stage the last fight card at the ballpark Sept. 28, 1976. World champion Muhammad Ali, with recent exciting wins over Joe Frazier, Ron Lyle and George Foreman, defended his crown against Ken Norton in their third epic contest.

Norton won their first encounter in San Diego, breaking Ali’s jaw in the process, and Ali avenged that defeat at the Inglewood Forum via a narrow decision. We all know that styles make fights, and any Ali-Norton fight figured to be a close, controversial affair.

And this, the final fight in their trilogy, certainly was. The matchup created a tremendous buzz in New York and around the country. Consistent with the glory days of Yankee Stadium boxing, more than 30,000 tickets were sold in advance. The day was overcast, with an occasional light drizzle, but I wasn’t concerned. Based on the encouraging pre-sales, we anticipated a sizable walk-up sale that would send attendance past 40,000. We hired extra ticket sellers to man the 108 booths installed around the Stadium to handle our anticipated sales.

I was wrong, but it wasn’t the light rain that put a damper on our expectations. The New York Policemen’s Union was in the midst of a feud with the City government and demanded a substantial pay increase for New York’s Finest. With our fight getting so much attention, the union wanted to demonstrate their position in a manner that would generate the most publicity, so the cops decided to go on strike.

On the night of the Ali-Norton bout. Our fight. Top Rank’s show.

Predictably, with no NYPD presence, chaos resigned around Yankee Stadium. Gangs of neighborhood toughs from the Bronx and elsewhere descended upon the ballyard. Robberies and muggings took place with no police to intervene. Arriving fans were intimidated into leaving, thankful that they still had their wallets. Customers coming off the elevated trains saw anarchy below and got back on the next train toward safety. The stadium’s small squad of security personnel and ushers was completely ineffective against roving bands of thugs.

Unbelievable as it sounds, given our advance sales, our 108 ticket booths sold a total of eight tickets that night to spectators who were either brave or foolhardy.

Alas, the fight was not one of Ali’s better performances, either. Norton’s awkward, cross-armed, lunging style once again confounded Muhammad, but after 15 rounds, Ali was awarded another tight decision.

Since 1976, my hometown of New York City has become a far nicer, safer place. The Big Apple’s police union has apparently given up the practice of suddenly calling strikes without notice. What happened at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1976, will probably never happen again.

Indeed, the current management of the Yankees has campaigned to bring fights back to their venue. Perhaps a major fight involving Miguel Cotto or Manny Pacquiao looms in the near future. As a lifelong Yankees fan, I’d love to be part of the ballpark experience again.

For now, the public has been invited to Yankee Stadium this Thursday to attend the Cotto-Pacquiao news conference. Throngs of fans are expected to attend the noon event, which will take place along the first baseline.

Miguel Cotto, a native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, is extremely popular in the metropolitan area with the many thousands of rabid fans from his country who now live in New York. Cotto has headlined six cards at midtown’s Madison Square Garden, defeating among others Shane Mosley, Zab Judah, Josh Clottey and Paulie Malignaggi.

Pacquiao typically attracts hordes of Filipino fans who fanatically support their hero. So we expect a heavy turnout of supporters for both fighters at the news conference, including several Yankees players.

Following the news conference in New York, Cotto and Pacquiao will attend another media gathering in Puerto Rico on Saturday before flying to a Sunday session in San Francisco after the Giants-Dodgers game. Some 50,000 fans are expected at AT&T Park. Another news conference will take place on Monday, Sept. 14, at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. The San Diego Padres have designated Tuesday, Sept. 15, as Manny Pacquiao Night at Petco Park. Pacquiao will throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Padres-Diamondbacks game.

Pacquiao and Cotto will then begin their respective training camps as they enter heavy training for their Nov. 14 showdown at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.

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