Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Strange Uneasy Return of Boxing to Yankee

Ha venido par aver la turbia sangre.

[I came to see the river of blood.]

‑-Federico Garcia Lorca, Poet in New York

The last time boxing came to Yankee Stadium it was on a Tuesday night nearly a quarter century ago. On a hot September night in 1976, Muhammad Ali beat Ken Norton. The Bay City Rollers’ Saturday Night was at the top of the charts and the Bronx was one year away from burning. Last Saturday night, boxing again descended upon the Bronx as the Puerto Rican superstar Miguel Cotto faced the underdog, Israeli fighter Yuri Foreman. Legions of boxing fans materialized like baseball players in Field of Dreams. Reggaeton’s insistent dem bow riddim, syncopated with the rolling clatter of the 4 train passing, poured from every open orifice of the Escalades, shiny water buffalo looking for a sign to park.

The Bronx being the Bronx-like, Cotto’s fans were preponderant and, on the whole, more colorful and exuberant in their affiliation. The Puerto Rican flag was draped like fondant across backs and atop heads, used as a stencil and shaved into hair, wrapped up into little beads and made into necklaces. As the stands filled and daylight faded, large Puerto Rican flags unfurled in the nosebleed sections. Chants of Cotto crescendoed and evaporated. Surprisingly good Philly cheese steaks and predictably bad Bud Lights were ingested on the 100 level. Yuri Foreman fans were there too but they were rather assimilated and smaller in number. Foreman—who was born in Belarus, grew up in Israel, trains in DUMBO and attends rabbinical school in Gowanus—fights under an Israeli flag yet from a reporter’s unofficial survey, only one Israeli flag was evident outside the stadium. [It was held by a Muslim Kosovar and an Armenian Jew outside of Gate 4.] The Foreman fans had the Yankee pinstripes on their side, chromatically at least. But the red, white and blue lights of police cars—and lo, were there lots!—were firmly belonged in the Puerto Rican color scheme.

As the night progressed, Puerto Rican fighters on the undercard consistently beat their opponents, the crowd grew increasingly impatient for the main event. I sat behind an old AK named Myron “Suge” Sugermann who told me, “I’m the last of the Jewish gangsters,” which shockingly proved to be correct and next to Bert “Randolph” Sugar, the famous boxing raconteur. I was the youthful savory in an old man sugar sandwich. Sugermann—who greets everybody with a “Shalom Aleichem, baby”—told me about how the Jewish mob used to crack Nazi heads in Newark in the 30s. Bert “Randolph” Sugar wore sunglasses, gnawed Churchill-like at a fresh cigar, cussed and grumbled his way through the undercard. Finally, Cotto emerged to wild whoops, looking so focused he seemed sad. A dull roar filled the stadium like rolling thunder. Daddy Yankee reached an insurmountable pitch. Then Foreman emerged, called to the ring by a shofar and his rebbe’s chanting. The crowd booed (naturally) and I felt uneasy (also, naturally).

The smaller man and smaller draw, Foreman needed only to put on a good show to impress. He did but the end of the fight, nine rounds later, was controversial and sad. Foreman’s knee, already injured, was completely gone, his leg immobilized, the man beaten, his face red. His wife begged for the match to end. A white towel was thrown into the ring—a cliché that actually happens—but angrily thrown out again by the referee. The fight continued but Foreman limped like a club-footed pigeon around the ring, skittering like a sandcrab each time Cotto punched him. The crowd, unsettled by Foreman’s futile and valiant effort, was largely silent. It was Satyagraha in the ring. From behind me, a row of Puerto Rican boxing journalists agreed, “El tiene muy corazon.” He has heart, that kid. After a few more minutes of that beating, the fight ended in yet it still felt unresolved. The streams that flowed—currents of Cotto’s red, white and blue, eddies of Foreman’s blue and white—from Yankee Stadium into the Bronx, onto trains and into cars, were slow, brooding and uneasy. By 4am, the tide had ebbed again and Yankee Stadium was a silent sentinel, lambent in, what Garcia Lorca once called, the alma mentido de New York, the counterfeit dawn of New York.