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An Appalling End to Foreman-Cotto
Foreman & Mercante: Chris Farina/Top Rank
By Thomas Hauser*
QUESTION FOR BOXING REFEREES: A fighter collapses when his knee gives way during the seventh round of a twelve-round fight. When he rises to his feet, he’s in obvious pain and can’t move properly or put weight on the leg. The fighter collapses several more times. His chief second advises the referee that he wants the fight to be stopped. The fighter wants to continue. The referee should: (a) ignore the chief second, tell the fighter to “suck it up,” and allow the fight to continue; (b) stop the fight.
On June 5th at Yankee Stadium, Yuri Foreman defended his 154-pound WBA championship against Miguel Cotto. Foreman is a Chabad rabbinical student and the first practicing Orthodox Jew to win a world title since Jackie “Kid” Berg in 1932. He’s also the first Israeli citizen ever to win a world championship belt.
Foreman’s ethnicity was central to the promotion. In that spirit, I’d planned to report on Foreman-Cotto in the form of a column explaining the fight 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.” Somehow, I would have found a way to mention the fact that Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels is a “mensh.”
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.
Yuri Foreman is a three-time Israeli national amateur champion, who came to the United States to pursue a career in professional boxing. He turned pro in 2002 and compiled a record of 28-and-0. The highlight of his career to date was a November 14, 2009, victory over Daniel Santos that brought him the WBA crown.
Foreman has the body of a throwback fighter. He’s well-conditioned but without a chiseled look. The key to his style is to move constantly and use his legs to keep an opponent at long range. Footwork is crucial to everything he does. He’s hard to hit and throws a lot of punches that keep opponents off balance. He boxes more than he fights.
In twenty-eight fights, Yuri has scored only eight knockouts; none during the past four years. But that doesn’t make him a soft touch. After Manny Pacquiao defeated Miguel Cotto last November to retain his 147-pound title, there was talk of Manny moving up in weight to challenge Foreman in the hope of winning a belt in yet another weight division. Team Pacquiao nixed the fight, saying that Yuri was too tall and they didn’t like his style.
“It’s a real honor that the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world doesn’t want to fight me,” Foreman said in response. “Aside from winning the world title, this is the greatest compliment I’ve received in boxing.”
Yuri is charming with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Several days after dethroning Santos, he was asked how his life had changed since becoming a world champion.
“When I talk, people listen a lot more now than they did before,” he answered. “But my wife [Hungarian-born model and former amateur boxer Leyla Leidecker] still makes me take out the garbage.”
In recent years, Foreman has been trained by Joe Grier (a former police officer, who fought professionally in the 1970s). Grier has a reputation as a good trainer and, like his fighter, is a man of dignity and grace.
Also, there’s another bit of information about Yuri that should be mentioned. He wears a brace on his right knee when he fights. “It’s for an old injury,” he says. “When I was fifteen, I fell off a bike.”
Foreman is 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 against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium.
Cotto is a star with victories over Shane Mosley, Joshua Clottey, and Zab Judah to his credit. For most of his career, he has won fights by beating opponents down. But lately, Miguel has been the beatee. He suffered brutal punishment in knockout losses to Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao. Even though he’s only twenty-nine (the same age as Foreman), many in the boxing community think that his best days as a fighter are behind him.
Most of the people who picked Foreman to win the fight (and there were quite a few) did so based on the belief that Cotto is damaged goods. Also, this was Miguel’s first fight at 154 pounds, whereas Yuri had fought at that weight throughout his pro career.
But the case for a Cotto victory was strong. Miguel’s weakness is his chin. Yuri, with eight knockouts in twenty-eight fights, seemed ill-equipped to exploit that vulnerability. Yuri was the naturally bigger man, but Cotto was the bigger puncher. There were times when Miguel outboxed Shane Mosley, so the assumption was that he could outbox Foreman. In other words; Foreman-Cotto was a match-up was between a fighter who could box and a fighter who could both box and punch.
More significantly, Cotto had fought and beaten Mosley, Clottey, and Judah. He’d knocked out Ricardo Torres, Carlos Quintana, Muhammad Abdullaev, and Randall Bailey. Those opponents were in a different league from the competition that Yuri had fought.
In sum; the consensus was that Foreman-Cotto boiled down to two questions: “What does Foreman have?” and “What does Cotto have left?” Within that framework, the bout had the potential to be a career-defining fight for Yuri and a career-ending fight for Miguel. A win for Foreman would establish him as a star in the boxing firmament. A loss for Cotto would mean that he no longer held that distinction.
Yuri understood the risks involved. “To be a real champion,” he said, “you don’t fight easy fights. You fight other champions. It’s not something that falls from the sky when I get this opportunity. I worked very hard to get what I have, and I will work very hard to keep it.”
But before the fight could proceed, there was, in Arum’s words, “an oops.”
Jonathan Ballan (the lead bond lawyer for the financing of Yankee Stadium) had reserved portions of the stadium for his son’s Bar Mitzvah party on the night of June 5th. Ballan’s contract also called for photos of the Bar Mitzvah boy to be flashed on the large stadium screen in center field for thirty minutes. That blending of conspicuous spending with a traditional religious rite was incompatible with the fight.
In due course, the Yankees and Ballan amended their contract to allow Foreman-Cotto to move forward. Terms of the agreement were not announced, although the Yankees thanked the Ballan family for its “graciousness, understanding, and good will.” It was later reported that Ballan gave up the right to use the scoreboard in exchange for an unspecified number of autographed baseballs, personal meetings for his son with Foreman and Arum, and ringside seats for up to 240 guests.
Then there was another twist.
Team Foreman thought that it had a deal for Emanuel Steward to serve as a training consultant in the weeks leading up to the fight. But in late March, Foreman’s co-manager, Murray Wilson, learned that Steward was negotiating with the Cotto camp for a more lucrative position as Miguel’s trainer.
That led Wilson to declare, "Manny Steward is uninvited. He was the one who originally called to do this. He’s the one who wanted to help Yuri out. Maybe it was more of trying to help Manny out. I liked him and I still like, but it’s not too nice to have no balls. All he had to do was pick up the phone and tell me he wanted to train Cotto. I haven’t spoke to him [since I learned he was interested in training Cotto], but I have no desire to speak to him because whatever he has to say means nothing.”
Later, Murray was more direct. “This is the first time in five years that I haven’t rooted for Miguel Cotto,” he said. “Miguel one of my favorite fighters. Miguel, I like. Manny Steward can go fuck himself.”
Outdoor fights in mammoth stadiums are part of American boxing lore. The original Yankee Stadium is at the heart of that tradition. Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, and Sugar Ray Robinson are among the storied warriors who did battle within its walls.
Joe Louis fought in Yankee Stadium as a black hope against Primo Carnera and Max Baer. By the time he entered the stadium ring to face Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938, in what was arguably the most important prizefight of all time, Louis was America’s hope. That night was the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as “the American.”
Times change. An African-American is now president of the United States. In 1938, the state of Israel didn’t exist. Now an Israeli citizen would be defending a world title in the main event.
Arum had promoted the last fight at the original Yankee Stadium (Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton in 1976). Promoting the first fight in the new stadium, he said, was “a crowning achievement in my career.”
The stadium venue was a key element in pre-fight promotion for Foreman-Cotto. The other hook, of course, was Foreman’s Israeli citizenship and status as a rabbinical student.
Yuri is a “feel good” story. Early in his career, he was unable to support himself through boxing. Then Bruce Silverglade (the owner of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn) introduced him to Wilson and Alan Cohen. Murray and Alan bought Foreman’s contract from Gary Gittelsohn for US$80,000 and became his co-managers in 2003.
“We’ve paid Yuri six hundred dollars a week since then,” Wilson says. “Yuri’s biggest payday before now was $60,000. He got that when he won the title from Santos. Even though Alan and I are entitled to thirty percent of his purses, we’ve never cut his purse. The Cotto fight will be the first time we’ve taken our percentage. It’s not about the money. We really are doing it for Yuri.”
What drew Wilson and Cohen to Foreman?
“Jewish,” Murray says. “That’s it. I wanted to see a Jewish success story in boxing.”
“Are you excited?” Wilson was asked three days before the fight.
“Anxious,” he answered. “I’m confident, but I want it to happen already. How many weeks can I have a bad stomach?”
Eric Raskin recently wrote, “You can count on one finger the number of championship-level boxers who are working toward a rabbinical career.”
That distinction made Foreman a magnet for publicity in the weeks leading up to the fight. He was the grand marshall in New York’s annual “Salute to Israel Parade” and a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live. 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.”
“The Puerto Rican community has a lot of boxers; so for them, this is old hat,” Arum proclaimed. “For the Jewish community, particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, this hasn’t happened in a long long time.”
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 said. “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 is 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 9:08 PM 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.
“Yuri” is the Russian translation of “George.” Former heavyweight champion George Foreman is also a man of faith.
“I think this a great thing he did in reading his Bible in the dressing room,” George says. “I would read the Bible in my [hotel] room before a fight; but I cannot remember reading in the dressing room before a match.”
Shortly before Foreman left for the ring, Israeli singer Shalva Berti stepped between the ropes and sang Hatikva. Top Rank’s international television feed could be seen and heard on a TV set in Yuri’s dressing room. Yuri stood silently as Hatikva was sung, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Arum had hoped for a crowd of 30,000 to 35,000. Despite the pre-fight publicity, Yankee Stadium didn’t catch on as a venue the way Cowboys Stadium had for Pacquiao-Clottey earlier this year. Foreman-Cotto engendered a high television rating (3.9), but the on-site attendance was only 20,272. Yankees president Randy Levine and chief operating officer Lonn Trost selling a fight isn’t the same as having Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on call every step of the way. And Yankee Stadium didn’t have Pacquiao on the card.
The referee for Foreman-Cotto was Arthur Mercante Jr (son of Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante, who died earlier this year). Arthur Sr was known throughout the boxing community as a man of integrity and competence. Over the years, his son has 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 sting. 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 twelve 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.
Foreman wanted to continue fighting. Less than a minute after he 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 of round eight was worse.
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 corners 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.
Meanwhile, ring announcer Michael Buffer, having been misinformed that the towel had come from an “outside source,” announced that incorrect information to the crowd.
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 it.
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 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.
Two days later, it was announced that Foreman had torn the meniscus in his right knee and suffered stretched ligaments. As of this writing, he’s scheduled to undergo surgery at NYU Medical Center to rebuild his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). On June 9th, Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News reported that Dr. Gerard Varlotta (who examined Foreman’s right knee and will oversee his treatment) declined to speculate on whether Mercante’s refusal to stop the fight exacerbated the injury. “I have no opinion on that,” Varlotta said. Asked if he believed that it was wise for Foreman to continue fighting on the damaged knee, the doctor responded, “I can’t answer that.”
During the past week, a number of people have praised Mercante for his handling of the fight. New York State Athletic Commission chairperson Melvina Lathan told Michael Woods of Sweetscience.com, “I think Arthur did a remarkable job. 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.”
Murray Wilson also says that he believes Mercante’s handling of the situation was proper.
I have a different opinion. I think that Mercante’s handling of the fight was appalling.
People on both sides of the debate are digging in their heels on the issue. I ask that both sides consider the following thoughts carefully.
First, 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, Arthur failed at that juncture to consult with Dr. Rick Weinstein (an orthopedic surgeon, who was the ringside physician in Yuri’s corner) as provided for by Rule 33. Instead, he urged Yuri 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 eleven punches per round. In round seven, with a disabled fighter in front of him, he landed twenty-nine, including twenty-seven “power” punches.
Joe Grier understood Foreman’s fighting heart and wanted to give him every reasonable opportunity to win. But as the next round 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 it to be 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.
In handling the fight the way he did, Mercante showed disrespect for Grier (a capable trainer who knows his fighter). One can speculate that, had it been a “name” trainer in the corner such as Freddie Roach or Teddy Atlas rather than Grier, Arthur would have stopped the bout.
After the fight, when Mercante was interviewed by Max Kellerman on HBO, he was a bit 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.
That left Grier in a quandary. “I wanted to stop it,” he said afterward. “But Arthur made it very clear to me that only he could stop it. Mercante didn’t want to hear anything from anyone. I didn’t know if it was ego, him saying that only he could stop the fight, or if he was affected by the fight being in the stadium. But it was very confusing. Who knows the fighter better than the corner? Yuri was fighting on one leg. I was trying to protect him from getting seriously injured.”
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.”
After the fight, George Kimball speculated as to why Mercante conducted himself the way he did. Kimball wrote, “Mercante Jr may have viewed his assignment as his opportunity to reinvent himself as his own man, with a distinct style incorporating the cult of personality into his strange concept of a referee’s duties. He seemed to envision himself less as an honest broker there to enforce the rules than as a co-equal participant, whose high-profile function was at least as important to the proceedings as that of the boxers themselves.”
Whether or not that’s correct, Mercante projected the image on fight night of a man who was more concerned with exercising his authority than he was with protecting a fighter.
It’s not enough for a person in authority to exercise power. Power should be exercised wisely. “Taking charge” is fine as long as a referee does the right thing when he takes charge. And there’s more than one way to “take charge.” A take-charge referee could have told Foreman in round seven, “You’re a courageous fighter and I know you want to keep fighting, but it’s over.”
The issue here isn’t whether or not Mercante had power under the law to allow the fight to continue over the objections of Foreman’s corner. It’s about common-sense judgment. Just because Arthur wasn’t required by law to stop the fight doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have stopped it.
Arthur also exercised his authority within the law 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.
Prior to Scottland-Jones, Mercante had been criticized for his performance in three high-profile bouts. On each of those occasions (Razor Ruddock vs. Michael Dokes, Pernell Whitaker vs. Diobelys Hurtado, and Michael Bennett vs. Andrew Hutchinson), he’d allowed a fight to continue after one of the participants appeared to be unable to defend himself. Each time, an ugly knockout resulted.
Ruddock-Dokes, Whitaker-Hurtado, and Bennett-Hutchinson involved split-second judgments. Scottland-Jones was a different matter. 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 ten, he was knocked unconscious. He died six days later.
Over time, Mercante put those incidents behind him. They arose again in the hours after Foreman-Cotto, when Tim Smith of the New York Daily News asked about Beethavean Scottland and Arthur told him, “It’s my understanding that he was injured more from being banged around in the elevator as they were trying to get him down to the ambulance.”
That’s nonsense. I was physically present nine years ago when paramedics wheeled the gurney with Scottland on it into the elevator on the U.S.S. Intrepid. The elevator was too small to easily accommodate the gurney. But Scottland was not “banged around.” And before the gurney was put on the elevator, the medical team had already determined that his vital signs were ominous.
Greg Sirb is a former president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and long-time executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. “I think Arthur was horribly wrong in what he did with Yuri Foreman,” Sirb says. “When a towel comes in, the referee should call time and ascertain then and there who threw it. If the corner threw it in, that’s it. The fight is over. I would never ever overrule a fighter’s chief second if he wants to stop a fight. If the chief second says he wants the fight to be over, there’s no decision for the referee to make. Whether the rule is written or not, the fight should be over. The fighter’s physical wellbeing, and sometimes his life, are at stake.”
Don Turner has been honored as “trainer of the year” by the Boxing Writers Association of America. He has known Joe Grier for thirty years.
“I didn’t see the fight,” Turner says, “But I heard about it. First, let me tell you about Joe Grier. Joe Grier was a gutsy fighter; 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?’ It’s a dictatorship between the trainer and the fighter. You don’t keep a fight going because the fighter wants to fight. When the trainer says ‘that’s all,’ the fight is over.”
“Eddie Futch understood that,” Turner continues. “When Eddie Futch stopped Joe Frazier from going out for the last round against Ali in Manila, Joe was very unhappy about it. But Eddie knew his fighter and he knew that Joe couldn’t defend himself anymore. It took a lot of courage for Eddie to stop that fight. A lot of people, including Joe, were mad at him because he did what he did. But Joe is talking a lot better than Ali is talking these days, and he owes that to Eddie Futch.”
Freddie Roach is one of boxing’s most respected trainers. “Arthur was wrong,” Roach says. “The corner knows the fighter better than the referee knows the fighter. If the corner wants to stop a fight, the referee should stop it. I was in Puerto Rico not long ago and wanted to stop a fight and the inspector told me, ‘You can’t stop it.’ I told him, ‘Watch.’ I’d walk into the ring and get my fighter disqualified before I let a fight continue under those circumstances.”
Finally, there’s Emanuel Steward, who is 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 says. “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. But if you look at a tape, there were times when he was totally out of position. A lot of those times, he was in the corner blocking my view.”
“Then there was the mouthpiece thing. That was crazy. He took too long to stop the action so they could put Foreman’s mouthpiece back in. And when he brought the mouthpiece over to me; that wasn’t my fighter. And he made me put it in. I knew then that something was strange. I was asking myself, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’”
“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. If Joe Grier didn’t try to stop the fight, people would be saying today that he was an inexperienced cornerman who froze in the spotlight and didn’t properly protect his fighter. 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, 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 a whole long string of mistakes. 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.”
“People have to speak out on this. The trainers, the fighters. I have a voice, and I’m going to use it. What this referee did was scary wrong. I wouldn’t want my fighter in the ring with this guy. No! No way! Never! If it means having to pull my fighter out of a fight someday, I might do it.”
It’s possible that the events of June 5th will make Foreman a bigger gate attraction than he was before. Or maybe, despite the optimistic prognosis of doctors, he’ll be a lesser fighter in the future because of unnecessary damage to his knee that he suffered during the final rounds of the fight.
And maybe someday, a fighter will be killed in the ring because a referee will remember what Arthur Mercante did on the night of June 5th and refuse a request by a fighter’s corner to stop a fight. That’s the worst thing about Foreman-Cotto. Mercante’s conduct of the fight set a horribly dangerous precedent. Arthur is a role model. In all likelihood, there will come a time when another referee overrules a fighter’s corner and forces a fight to continue because the fighter wants to keep fighting. And the fighter will die. It would be tragic if that becomes part of Arthur’s legacy as a referee.
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.
A wise man once said, “The last thing you do is ask a fighter who might be hurt if he wants to continue. Because if he’s any kind of fighter at all, he’ll say yes.”
That man was Arthur Mercante Sr.
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 feel, and I feel very strongly about it.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) will be published in late-June by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”