Friday, March 24, 2023  |



Big-stadium boxing: Retro-fad or trend of future?


Cowboys stadium and its giant JumboTron screen were a big hit when Manny Pacquiao fought Joshua Clottey in march. Photo / Naoki Fukuda

Note: This story appears in the current edition of The Ring magazine, which is on sale at newsstands now.

Sept. 28, 1976 was supposed to mark boxing’s triumphant return to Yankee Stadium, with Muhammad Ali defending the heavyweight championship against his old rival Ken Norton. Unfortunately, the first Yankee Stadium bout in 17 years was marred by the NYPD protest that allowed muggers and vandals to turn the Bronx into a war zone. As for the fight, a close decision for Ali, Sports Illustrated called it “one of the worst heavyweight title fights in history.” The disastrous night crystallized the feeling that boxing was no longer fit for stadiums. By 1978, when a small crowd of 4,500 saw Larry Holmes defeat Norton for the WBC title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, boxing’s stadium era had quietly segued into the casino era. For the most part, American boxing still belongs to casinos. But the man who promoted the last Yankee Stadium debacle thinks he can bring boxing back to the big venues. He’s off to a good start, for he has come armed with a smiling torpedo from the Philippines ÔǪ


The most significant thing about Manny Pacquiao’s triumph over Joshua Clottey on March 13 was that it took place at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The bout drew an astonishing 50,994 fans, making it an unabashed hit for promoter Bob Arum and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In fact, Pacquiao-Clottey drew the largest crowd for a fight on American soil since 1993, when Julio Cesar Chavez fought Pernell Whitaker at the Alamodome in front of 59,000, and it easily surpassed the 45,000 who turned out for the 1998 Oscar De La Hoya-Patrick Charpentier bout at El Paso’s Sun Bowl.

But there’s more to the story. One week after Pacquiao’s win, 51,500 turned up at Dusseldorf’s ESPRIT Arena to watch heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko knock out Eddie Chambers. Klitschko’s previous bout, a stoppage of Ruslan Chagaev, drew 61,000 to Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen. In 2007, Joe Calzaghe’s bout with Mikkel Kessler drew 50,000 to Wales’ Millennium Stadium, and in 2008, Ricky Hatton defeated Juan Lazcano in front of 55,000 at the City of Manchester Stadium.

A stadium trend seems to be upon us, and if Arum has his way, it will continue in America as well as overseas. The next big-venue fight is Saturday, when Yuri Foreman defends his junior middleweight title against Miguel Cotto at Yankee Stadium. And Arum has a handshake deal with Jones for future bouts.

Arum has plenty of experience with stadiums, going back to the 1960s when Ali was fighting at the Houston Astrodome. Don King worked the stadiums, too, most notably the Chavez-Greg Haugen bout at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. That one drew an amazing 132,247 spectators. Granted, in this era of pay-per-view events, a monster attendance number is not as vital as it was in the past, and no stadium on the planet could hold the millions of fans who bought the De la Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. bout in 2007. Still, there are many plusses to putting a fight in a stadium.

With more seating available, ticket prices become more affordable. Even ringside seats for Pacquiao-Clottey were priced at a rather reasonable $700. Also, a stadium makes boxing feel like a legit mainstream attraction, as opposed to the niche feel offered by a casino setting. A stadium provides something that has been missing from boxing during the past two decades of Las Vegas fights, and that’s grandeur.

Casinos undoubtedly have benefits, such as handling publicity, offering free rooms to a fighter and his camp, and guaranteeing a certain number of high rollers will buy the expensive tickets. The MGM Grand, which offers a modest, 16,800-seat arena, hosted the De La Hoya-Mayweather bout, which set the record for live gate receipts ($19-million). Ringside seats were sold for $2,000. Add the paydays received by Oscar and Floyd, and you can see why Las Vegas money is so integral to boxing. But while the elite fighters make more money now than they ever have, there is a downside to being so closely linked to the town that made Siegfried & Roy famous.

A small part of boxing’s downturn in this country might be attributed to its being smothered in the phony glitz of Las Vegas. Fighters no longer share the American sports landscape with Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Instead, they share a room with Jimmy Buffet and Wayne Newton. In exchange for massive paydays for a few fighters, boxing has lost some of its splendor.

Arum hasn’t exactly given up on Las Vegas — he lives there — but he’s quite outspoken about the direction he wants to take. He told a press gathering before Pacquiao-Clottey, “The casinos don't give a damn about anything other than their customers, and it becomes a circus act.” He told the Los Angeles Times, “If boxing is to be big league, and it’s not now, we have to put on these kinds of big events around the world. We can’t be big league by putting on the same old casino fights.”

At least Arum has had choices. That hasn’t always been the case for promoters. A century ago, a promoter was limited if he required something bigger than a theater or an athletic club. For some, the answer was to build the stadium on site. By 1919, when Tex Rickard was promoting the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard bout in Toledo, Ohio, he’d turned the construction of the stadium into part of the hype.

“It’s the greatest fight stadium of ancient or modern times,” reported The Times, comparing Rickard’s monstrous construction “favorably with the Roman Coliseum and the Yale football bowl at New Haven.” Rickard was canny, bragging to reporters about the number of carpenters hired, the amount of wood used, and even the number of nails and bolts. The makeshift stadium was treated as a work of profound architectural design, “the grade or rise is such that the face of each spectator will appear just above the head of the person in front, giving the effect of a sea of faces when viewed from the ring.” There was one drawback: The freshly cut pine boards oozed sap in the 100-degree heat, and most customers ended up with stained pants. After the bout, the stadium was sold for $25,000 to The American House Wrecking Co. of Chicago. The wood was auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Dempsey inspired a boxing boom, and soon ballparks all over the country were hosting fights. When Yankees owners Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert spent $2.5-million to build the original stadium in 1922, they did so with boxing in mind. Assuming the ring would be at second base, a 15-foot vault was installed directly under the ground; it was wired for members of press row to telegraph stories to their editors.
From 1923 to 1959, the jaunty monolith at River Avenue and East 161st Street hosted 48 nights of professional boxing, sometimes three events in one summer. It was where Sugar Ray Robinson collapsed in the heat against Joey Maxim. It was where Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale fought like animals. And it was where, as the whole of America held its breath, Joe Louis won his rematch with Max Schmeling, the favorite fighter of Nazi Germany.

By the late 1950s, attendance at Yankee Stadium bouts reflected the sport’s dip in popularity, as well as changes in the way people watched fights. In 1955, over 61,000 came to see Rocky Marciano fight Archie Moore. By 1959, with television and closed-circuit screenings offering alternatives to the old ballpark, only 30,000 attended Ingemar Johansson’s knockout of Floyd Patterson. There was much talk about bringing Ali to Yankee Stadium during the 1960s, but he wouldn’t fight there until a newly remodeled stadium hosted his rubber match with Norton. That bout, incidentally, was an Arum production.

“This is a crowning achievement in my career, to do the last fight in ’76 and the first fight at the new stadium in 2010,” Arum told The Associated Press. “You can't imagine how good it makes me feel, how special it makes me feel. This is a great thing for my legacy.”

Arum had approached the Yankees organization many times since 1976, but club officials didn’t want to risk damaging the stadium’s famous grass. As recently as 2009, Arum declared Yankee Stadium economically unfeasible.

“In New York there’s the state and city taxes and something called the independent contractors tax,” Arum told the New York Daily News last November. Yankee Stadium was being considered as a possible location for a Pacquiao-Mayweather clash, but Arum groused that the fighters would lose approximately 15 percent of their earnings in taxes. “I’d love more than anything to do a fight at Yankee Stadium because then you could bring back all the history of the great fights there like Louis-Schmeling. But forget about it. It’s not going to happen,” said Arum.

Predictably, the man known for saying “Yesterday I lied, today I’m telling the truth,” changed his tune. By February, word was out that Arum was bringing Cotto-Foreman to Yankee Stadium. Arum hopes Cotto’s Puerto Rican audience will combine with Foreman’s Jewish audience for some big numbers.

“Bob understands that you have to be on the big stage, and there’s only one Yankee Stadium,” Yankees’ Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost told The Ring magazine. “How can you have so much boxing history here and say the taxes are too high? This can rejuvenate boxing.”

But can we realistically expect Yankee Stadium to host boxing more than a time or two?
“We’re certainly hoping for more fights,” Trost said. “This stadium was built as a 365-day-per-year venue. We’re planning concerts, football games and fights. Protecting the grass was the issue in the past, but now we have new methods of keeping the field in good shape.”

Despite the enthusiasm of Arum, Jones and Trost, there are two basic hurdles that will be hard to overcome. Without the underwriting of casinos, fighters, and promoters might not make the kind of money to which they’ve grown accustomed. Also, there just aren’t enough stadium-friendly fighters to fill the seats.

“Cowboy Stadium is impressive,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “It’s what God would build if God had money. And Yankee Stadium is great because it gets people talking about boxing. But there’s a shortage of name fighters, which is why promoters stopped using stadiums in the first place.”

If the stadium vogue continues, though, the customers will be in for something special, as will the fighters. Even Ali, who fought in stadiums all over the world, said after his bout with Norton, “I never thought I’d be so big I could fight in Yankee Stadium.”

A massive crowd in an open-air stadium hits a primal cord going back to when the ancient Greeks competed to please the gods. With luck, the skies will be clear when Cotto meets Foreman, and another memorable Yankee Stadium bout will unfold under the stars. They’ll have a lot to live up to, for the original stadium oversaw some history-making moments, including one that didn’t even involve a punch being thrown. It occurred on the night of May 21, 1927. Before Jack Sharkey was to fight Jim Maloney, ring announcer Joe Humphreys asked the crowd to partake in a moment of prayer for Charles Lindbergh, who’d left New York the previous morning in his gray two-seater, “The Spirit of St Louis,” attempting the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As the customers bowed their heads, thinking of Lindbergh in the friendless twilight, the stadium was blanketed by a beautiful silence. One writer observed, “It was so quiet you could hear a flask drop.”

Lindbergh landed safely in Paris. Sharkey stopped Maloney in five. And Yankee Stadium felt like a place where boxing would thrive forever.

Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to THE RING.