NEW YORK -- Miguel Cotto watched the white towel fly into the ring, the universal sign of surrender, and thought he'd won the first main event at Yankee Stadium in more than three decades.
Dozens of people flooded through the ropes while Yuri Foreman limped around and implored referee Arthur Mercante Jr. to allow the match to continue. His badly twisted right knee kept him from doing much, but his indomitable heart would not allow the fight to end with him on his feet.
Cotto made sure it didn't, finally stopping Foreman in the ninth round Saturday night to win the junior middleweight title and delight thousands of his flag-waving fans at the Bronx ballpark.
"I proved this night, everybody who said Miguel Cotto was finished, everybody failed," he said.
Cotto (35-2, 28 KOs) set the tone early with his left jab and was easily ahead on all three scorecards when Foreman slipped in the seventh round and hurt his right knee, which was already wrapped in a black brace because of a previous injury. Foreman slipped again later in the round, getting tagged at will by Cotto, before limping back to the corner at the bell.
"I was making side-to-side movement and it gave out," Foreman said. "It was a lot of pain, a lot of sharp pain. Couldn't do a lot of moves."
Between rounds, Foreman's wife leaned over the railing and implored his trainer to stop the fight. Someone in Foreman's corner obliged and threw in the towel early in the eighth round, but Mercante angrily tossed it right back out. He asked Foreman if he wanted to continue, and the aspiring rabbi with the compelling back story elected to fight on.
The ring had already filled with people and needed to be cleared before the fight resumed.
"There was no need to stop the fight," Mercante said. "They were in the middle of a great exchange, a great fight. ... I felt like I did the right thing."
Foreman (28-1) was able to move better later in the eighth round and survived to the ninth, when Cotto caught him near the ropes and dropped him to the canvas again. This time, Mercante stepped in and called it off at 42 seconds of the round, as Foreman stumbled to his feet.
"You see white towel and you think it was over," Foreman said. "I didn't want it to be over."
The victory was vindication for Cotto, who had endured a pair of savage beatings at the hands of Antonio Margarito and pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, who watched the fight ringside. Those losses and a few difficult wins had many critics wondering whether Cotto still had it.
He proved that he certainly does, winning a title in his third weight division.
"My jab is back, my movement is back, my left hook to the body is back," said Cotto, who had Hall of Fame trainer Manny Steward in his corner for the first time.
Cotto will receive a guaranteed $2 million for the fight -- though he'll have to give up his shoes, which are headed to the baseball Hall of Fame. Foreman was guaranteed $750,000.
The fact that Mercante was in charge of the fight was yet another string that tied the night to the glory days of the old ballpark. His father, the late Arthur Mercante, refereed the final bout at the old Yankee Stadium in September 1976, when Muhammad Ali defeated Ken Norton.
An early arriving crowd filled the field-level seats and into the upper reaches, just below the iconic facade that returned with the new stadium. As expected, it was heavily in favor of Cotto, who has sold more tickets to fights in New York City than any other boxer over the past decade.
His fans brought the same verve they usually bring to Madison Square Garden, cheering whenever he was shown on the video screen in center field and the smaller screens that were hoisted to the canopy covering the ring in right-center field.
Sprinkled among the thousands of people waving Puerto Rican flags were fans of Foreman, who was born in the former Soviet Union but raised in Israel. Naturally, they broke out blue-and-white signs adorned with the Star of David and waved their own Israeli flags.
The atmosphere gave Yankee Stadium a throwback feel, to the 1920s and '30s, when boxing was often divided along ethnic lines. Fittingly, the first title bout in the new ballpark involved a Jewish fighter, because the first fight at the old Yankee Stadium also did: Benny Leonard defeated Lew Tendler on July 24, 1923, just a couple months after it opened.
Baseball's cathedral hosted Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey and the great Joe Louis during its storied history. After a lengthy absence, boxing returned for the Ali-Norton fight -- the last one at the old ballpark, which has been reduced to rubble just across 161st Street.
"This facility is so spectacular," said Bob Arum, who promoted the Ali-Norton fight and along with the return Saturday night. "Yankee Stadium, just those two words mean so much."