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NEW YORK – Bob Arum watched, helplessly, on Sept. 28, 1976, as his dream of a magnificent payday, of a monstrous night for boxing, dissolved before his very eyes.
Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton were fighting for the heavyweight title at Yankee Stadium that night. The match had already sold 30,000 tickets by fight day, hitting the break-even point.
"Anything we sold after that, the whole walk-up, was profit," Arum recalled Wednesday prior to a news conference at Yankee Stadium to promote Saturday's World Boxing Association super welterweight title fight between Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto.
"I'm thinking, 'OK, good. We've paid the expenses and now this is going to be a good night for us,' " Arum said.
How could he not feel that way? He had Ali, the greatest showman in sports history, on his side. Anytime ticket sales seemed to cool off in the weeks before the fight, Ali would make a public appearance and soon enough, the box office was buzzing again.
Arum has lived in Las Vegas for nearly 30 years, but the 78-year-old Hall of Famer remains a New Yorker to the core. But around 1976, Arum said, New York wasn't a particularly nice place to live.
"There were a lot of problems here at that time," he said. "The last two [mayoral] administrations here have done a great job of cleaning things up and, right now, New York is back. It's probably the safest big city in the country. But then, there was a lot of crime and muggings and it was a pretty nasty place."
There was probably no nastier place to be than in the borough of the Bronx on that night. New York police officers had gone on strike and decided to picket at the stadium.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of petty criminals and their like descended upon it to prey upon the large crowd that was expected. Robberies and muggings were occurring in the open.
"I think every thug and hoodlum within a 20-mile radius was there that night, and they were ringing the stadium," said legendary Newark Star-Ledger sports columnist Jerry Izenberg, who covered the Ali-Norton fight that night. "It was awful. When the thugs saw that the police weren't going to do anything, they called their cousins and their brothers and their uncles and their friends, and they had a field day. It was horrible."
It was worst for Arum, who watched as the trains, loaded with potential customers, would stop at the stadium. People would clamber out of the train, look down at the scene below them and immediately turn around and get back on the train to head home to safety.
Arum's dream of a killer box office died that night as the hoodlums mugged many of his patrons.
He sold exactly eight tickets on the night of the fight.
"You want to talk about being sick?" Arum said.
He has no such fears on Saturday, the second in his series of major bouts in football or baseball stadiums around the country. He staged the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey fight at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on March 13 and attracted more than 51,000 fans.
Saturday's card at Yankee Stadium will draw a crowd of around 30,000, Arum said, helped in no small part by the non-boxing fans who are attending out of curiosity.
But Arum said putting fights in a large stadium helps invigorate the sport. Far too often, fights held in casinos are priced out of range of the rank-and-file boxing fan. Tickets to fights in casinos most often go to wealthy gamblers who are there as much for the spectacle as they are for the fight.
At Cowboys Stadium, though, it was a vastly different crowd. Whereas the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas was virtually deserted on May 1 until about a half-hour before the Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley fight was to begin, Cowboys Stadium was filled early with fans who were there to see the undercard fights.
"At the Mayweather-Mosley fight, they had a good crowd and did a terrific gate, but did it help the sport of boxing in terms of making new fans?" Arum asked. "They weren't really boxing fans who were there. In the second round, when Mosley hurt Mayweather, the crowd went crazy because they thought there might be a knockout, and a lot of people had bet on the underdog.
"But the place was dead silent other than that. That's because, by and large, they weren't boxing fans. The people who came to Dallas to see Manny were boxing fans. The people who are going to come to Yankee Stadium will be boxing fans. That's the difference."
To make it more of a one-off event, though, it will need to have a ripple effect, and it's not clear that's going to occur.
The Yankee Stadium fight seems more like a clever gamble by Arum to help Foreman build a fan base in New York. Fights sell most where the audience has a passion for at least one of the fighters, which is one of the primary reasons why Antonio Margarito attracted a Staples Center-record crowd of more than 21,000 to his 2009 fight with Mosley in Los Angeles.
A Margarito-Mosley fight in Las Vegas, say, probably wouldn't have drawn half of that total. Margarito brought many of the Mexican fans who live in and around Los Angeles out to see him face Mosley in what was expected to be the crowning moment of his career.
Cotto has been a monster ticket-seller in New York, selling 95,000 tickets in the past five years in the city. But he's coming off bad beatings by Margarito and Pacquiao and doesn't have a long shelf life.
Foreman was born in the former Soviet Union, moved to Israel with his family as a child and then emigrated to the U.S., where he wound up in Brooklyn.
Yet, despite holding the world title, Foreman remains largely unknown in his hometown. By promoting the Yankee Stadium fight – a novelty in and of itself that will draw people – Arum may wind up creating interest in Foreman in New York.
He built a small business on Cotto fights in New York, regularly having him fight on the weekend of the city's annual Puerto Rican Day parade. He's clearly trying to rally New York's large Jewish community around Foreman, who is studying to be a rabbi.
Putting fights in stadiums isn't a new concept, nor is it going to save boxing. A major fight, like the one between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., may wind up in a venue like Cowboys Stadium, where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones predicted he could sell 120,000 tickets.
But it gets boxing attention from media outlets that don't normally cover the sport, and that can't be bad. And if it helps boxing build another star, that's a good thing. One thing boxing needs more of is ticket-selling stars.
Foreman will get his chance to see how can fulfill that role Saturday. And as long as the New York police remain working, Foreman should easily surpass the ticket total Ali sold on fight night against Norton.
And if he sells more than eight tickets Saturday, be prepared for Arum to shout to the heavens that Yuri Foreman proved to be a hotter draw in New York than Muhammad Ali.
- Bob Arum
- Yuri Foreman
- New York
- Yankee Stadium
- Cowboys Stadium