Arum has a lock on Garden formula

 

America at Large:If Bob Arum was grinning like the Cheshire Cat it was with good reason. The 20,658 paying customers who turned out to watch Miguel Cotto defeat Zab Judah in Saturday night's WBA welterweight title bout represented Madison Square Garden's largest crowd in 24 years.

In its long and storied history, boxing attendance at the "Mecca of Boxing" has topped 20,000 on only four occasions - and Arum has promoted three of those: the 1974 second instalment of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy, the 1983 meeting between Roberto Duran and Davey Moore that rekindled Duran's career, and last weekend's Cotto-Judah bout, which represented the culmination of a three-year campaign on the part of the 76-year-old impresario.

Although he is a native New Yorker, Arum relocated his firm, Top Rank, Inc to Las Vegas nearly two decades ago. But he has returned to his hometown to stage Cotto fights on the first Saturday of June for each of the past three years.

Each has been scheduled to precede New York's annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. In unabashedly pandering to an ethnic constituency, you might say Arum has relied on the same formula Irish Ropes has employed in staging its yearly St Patrick's Day cards built around John Duddy. But there are a lot more native-born Puerto Ricans in New York than there are native-born Irish.

Two Junes ago Arum matched Cotto against Muhamad Abdullaev, the Uzbekistani who had defeated him in his last amateur bout, at the 2000 Sydney Games. Last year the opponent's role was assumed by Italian-born New Yorker Paulie Malignaggi, last weekend by Judah, a former undisputed welterweight champion and native New Yorker who continues to command a loyal following of diehard fans despite not having won since May 2005.

Arum could probably thank Judah for the extra 6,000 or so customers this year.

"It's been happening gradually, so it doesn't surprise me," said Arum of Saturday's smash hit. "This is what we've been working toward for Cotto's whole career, and now it's come to fruition."

Arum was not involved in the promotion of the 1971 "Fight of the Century" between Ali and Frazier, although he was at the time Ali's personal attorney. Three years later he staged the rematch between the rivals, and although the bout lacked the cachet of either its predecessor (when they met for the first time, both were undefeated) or the third meeting (the 1976 "Thrilla in Manila", a near-death experience for both combatants), it drew the largest crowd in Garden boxing history.

Even though Frazier had been demolished by George Foreman a year earlier and Ali had been upset by Ken Norton, the second Ali-Frazier fight drew 20,748, more than the 20,455 who had watched their earlier meeting. Ali avenged his first career defeat by solidly outpointing Frazier to win a unanimous decision.

Arum's other Garden sellout happened almost by accident. Duran's fight against Moore, the WBA light-middleweight champion, was supposed to take place at the Sun City Casino in the South African homeland of Bophuthatswana, in combination with a Ray Mancini-Kenny Bogner lightweight title match. Both bouts were to be prelims to the piece de resistance of the evening, a concert by Frank Sinatra.

"Sinatra had agreed to perform because he was a big fan of Boom-Boom Mancini," recalled Arum. "Then, a couple of weeks before we were to fly to South Africa, Mancini broke his collarbone. When that fight was cancelled, Sinatra cancelled too.

"We had to find a new site for the Moore-Duran fight and New York seemed a natural. Moore was a native New Yorker who'd won multiple Golden Gloves titles at the Garden. Duran always had a big following among the Hispanics of New York, so we rented Madison Square Garden and put the fight there."

That night 20,066 turned out to watch Duran prevail in a brutal, one-sided bout to win his third world title. The Panamanian, whose career appeared to have ended with his infamous "No Mas" surrender to Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans three years earlier, would go on to multi-million dollar pay days in fights against Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, as well as in a third bout against Leonard.

"In retrospect," added Arum, "moving that fight to Madison Square Garden may have been the best thing that ever happened to Duran. If he fights Moore in South Africa I'm not even sure he wins."

Last weekend's Cotto-Judah fight might not have been a ritual slaughter on the order of Moore-Duran, but beyond the first round the outcome was never much in doubt. All three judges had Cotto ahead 97-91 by the time it was stopped in the 11th round, and it was that close only because referee Arthur Mercante Jr (whose father had been the referee for Ali-Frazier I) took a point from the Puerto Rican in the third following his second low blow of the evening.

Judah had gone down of his own volition in the ninth, taking a knee and a count from Mercante in an effort to revive from Cotto's onslaught, and he tasted the canvas yet again in the 11th when Cotto floored him with a left-right combination. Although he got up, from that one, he appeared defenceless against Cotto's subsequent attack and Mercante rescued him seconds later.

It had indeed been a special, almost magical, night. Despite the electricity in the air and the passion of both Cotto's and Judah's supporters, there wasn't a whiff of trouble. We didn't see a single fist-fight in the audience all evening.

Now, you might be wondering, having made history yet again, what does Arum do for an encore? One distinct possibility was suggested moments after the defeated Judah was led back to his corner. In the midst of the wild celebration by Cotto's supporters, one of them made his way down to ringside brandishing a Puerto Rican flag which bore the recently-lettered slogan "COTTO VS FLOYD".

Floyd Mayweather Jr, who solidified his claim as the world's top pound-for-pound boxer with his win over Oscar De La Hoya last month, is a former Arum client whose parting from the promoter a few years ago was accompanied by some acrimony on both sides, but enough money has been known to resolve the bitterest of disputes.

When the subject was broached late on Saturday night, Arum was dismissive of the Mayweather talk, pointing out Cotto's likely next bout would be a title unification fight against WBO champion Antonio Margarito.

On the other hand, the 2008 Puerto Rican Day Parade is scheduled for Sunday, June 8th. We'd be shocked if Bob Arum doesn't already have Madison Square Garden booked for the night before.

Cotto is 30-0 after beating Judah, Mayweather 38-0. If both can stay unbeaten for another year, the Garden attendance record won't be safe.