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            Back to Open Skies

Fight City

1 January 2018

Las Vegas might well be known as the home of world boxing, but how did it pinch the crown from New York, and does it now face a scrap of its own to hang on to the big-money title?

On the tennis court of the Caesars Palace hotel and casino, George Foreman is going through his paces, determined to revive a boxing career still recovering from its first hiccup.

It’s January 1976, and 15 months since Foreman’s undefeated record was floored in the eighth round of his legendary Rumble in the Jungle encounter with Muhammad Ali. After a lengthy spell licking his wounds, the former world champion has chosen inauspicious surroundings to make his comeback.

You won’t see any rackets, nets or markings on this tennis court, though. Caesars Palace owner and visionary Cliff Perlman has invested US$1 million to construct a makeshift arena here, in a bid to attract fresh customers during the January slow season. It’s a genuine attempt to shift the centre of boxing to the Vegas Strip.

Fast forward 41 years and the fruits of that pivotal 1976 encounter were seen in lucrative fashion, as Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor fought in the biggest grossing boxing match of all time – less than a mile along from where Foreman and Ron Lyle locked horns. There’s nothing makeshift about Vegas’ boxing scene anymore. On both sporting and business levels, boxing has become inherently entwined with the desert city’s fabric. But this wasn’t always the case.

“New York was traditionally boxing’s home because of the concentration of radio and TV broadcasting stations and hubs in the city,” explains author and boxing historian Patrick Connor. “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was an NBC programme broadcast out of Madison Square Garden almost every single Friday, starting in the 1940s, and by the early 1950s, three major networks had regular boxing programming. However, it was a deal that quickly turned sour, and by the ’60s, NBC had taken it off of their line-up and the sport’s reputation had taken a hit due to high-profile court cases, and alleged widespread corruption.”

The corruption, in particular, was a stink that would just not go away when it came to big time boxing. “Mafia involvement in the sport wasn’t just talk, but well-documented fact,” explains Connor. “From lower level street toughs to more well-known characters like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, the mob became very involved in boxing once it realised there was money to be made. Much of the involvement was paying off writers to say complimentary things about fighters they controlled, but sometimes it was paying judges, officials, or even strong-arming and intimidation.”

Not that this stopped some major bouts still taking place in the city, of course. Even by 1971, the Garden was the only place that could have hosted Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s first bout – the legendary Fight of the Century. While this wasn’t the first time a promoter used that lofty billing, it was the pinnacle of all that had come before it.

“Frazier vs Ali I definitely wasn’t the first Fight of the Century, nor the first fight celebrities attended and wanted to be seen attending,” continues Connor. “But it definitely upped the ante in terms of the viewership and the kind of people there. This is fight promoting, so much of it is pure hyperbole, but certain things about Frazier vs. Ali I made it unique. Two unbeaten men, each catering to a particular side of politics or social perspective – whether they wanted to or not – aided by broadcasting technology that made it possible for almost 10 per cent of the world’s population to tune in live. In terms of the near panic to acquire tickets, it goes well beyond that. Certainly the celebrities in attendance offer some great stories, from Burt Lancaster as guest co-commentator to Frank Sintra squeezing in on a ticket to shoot pictures for Life magazine.”

But the odd high-profile bout aside, NYC was losing its grip on the game. At the same time, one man was emerging in the sport that would, for good and ill, alter its very complexion beyond all recognition. A 43-year-old promoter named Don King from Cleveland, Ohio, saw the value in taking big fights out of the US entirely. “This was basically all about site fees and sponsorship,” explains Connor. “Don King wanted to guarantee fighters certain purses, but he didn’t have that money himself. So for the Rumble in the Jungle, for instance, he sought out foreign locations that wanted the publicity that a fight of that magnitude would bring. They would essentially sponsor the fight and pay the fighters. In the case of George Foreman vs Joe Frazier I in 1972 – known as the Sunshine Showdown – Frazier allowed a man who promoted a European music tour of his to negotiate for him. This promoter and his friend then convinced the government of Jamaica to outbid Madison Square Garden for the fight.

“George Foreman vs Ken Norton in 1974 (the Caracas Caper) had to do with money as well, as Don King alleged that the Venezuelan government had told him they would allow him to put on the fight tax-free. That wound up not being the case and Foreman almost got thrown in jail over there, eventually having to pay a tonne in taxes – which is why it became known as a caper.

“Ultimately, the trend wound up being short-lived because operating like this was more trouble than it was worth. Much of it hinged on the celebrity and clout of Muhammad Ali, and after Trevor Berbick defeated him in Nassau (Drama in the Bahamas – Ali’s final bout, in 1981), it was difficult to get foreign governments interested in the fights.”

But while Don King Productions was busy chasing every angle possible to guarantee bigger cash purses to the fighters, Vegas was gaining traction back in the US.

“It was becoming a popular destination for celebrities and musical acts,” says Connor. “A few fight promoters had dipped their toes into the water there. Jack “Doc” Kearns, former manager to Jack Dempsey, took Archie Moore there to fight Niño Valdés in 1955 and by the early 1960s the Las Vegas Convention Center had become boxing’s home in Nevada.”

But it was George Foreman on that tennis court that really brought life to the desert. “Just after the foreign craze got started, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas began hosting semi-regular fights, starting with an insane brawl in George Foreman vs Ron Lyle that would eventually be named The Ring magazine Fight of the Year,” explains Connor. “By the time we got to the 1980s, it was clear that big fights could draw crowds to Vegas, and crowds generally meant casinos picked up more gamblers.” The Foreman vs Lyle fight was the catalyst for the big title fights to be held in Vegas and it began an incredibly fruitful relationship between the city and sport.

By the 1990s, the fights were moving from makeshift facilities on the tennis courts and car parks of Caesars into made-to-measure arenas inside the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. Fight City had well and truly relocated from New York to Nevada.

Dennis McBride, director of the Nevada State Museum, explains: “When they saw the amount of money that these fight aficionados brought into town – they stayed at the hotels, ate at the restaurants and gambled in the casinos – that’s when it really clicked.”

Last year’s Mayweather vs McGregor bout was the pinnacle of that relationship. Setting aside the US$480 million recouped in pay-per-view buys in the US alone, the ‘Money Fight’ was huge for the Vegas economy itself.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimates that the clash brought in US$56 million of revenue to the city’s hotels, restaurants and shops. Another US$65 million was bet on the bout in Vegas alone, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission.

After Mayweather brought the curtain down on his career with victory over McGregor, it’s clear why the man known as Money has become such a favourite son of the Nevada city. “It’s all about giving back; and I’m giving back to my home of Las Vegas. This city has welcomed me with open arms from day one,” said the American, who won the final 15 bouts of his career in Vegas.

From a numbers point of view, the population of Vegas doesn’t change dramatically during a big fight weekend. There were actually 100,000 fewer tourists in the city during August 2016 than when the McGregor vs Mayweather fight took place in 2017. Yet the major differences are revenue, spectacle and atmosphere.

Celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris Hemsworth all navigated the red carpeted route to the floor of the T-Mobile Arena to watch the action after their private jets had hit the tarmac at McCarran Airport just a few hours earlier.

No less noteworthy were the thousands of green-clad hordes from Ireland who travelled to Vegas to cheer on McGregor, even if they watched the fight on one of the closed circuit TV productions in the nearby casinos, rather than in the high-priced seats on the arena floor.

It’s just as special for the boxers as it is for the fans. Nothing compared to Caesars,” said Sugar Ray Leonard in one post-retirement interview. “The smell of the cigars, the beautiful women sitting ringside right next to celebrities and criminals. It was exciting. Once I fought there, I never wanted to go anywhere else.”

For those fighters who are yet to compete in Sin City, boxing in the desert remains a major target on the bucket list.

“All the great fights happen in Vegas,” says former WBA super-bantamweight champion Scott Quigg, who has just moved to Los Angeles from his Greater Manchester home. “As a kid, you would tune in and watch the fight in the early hours of the morning. You see the celebrities ringside... it’s always something I’ve wanted to tick off my list.”

However, Quigg – who fought on the undercard of Anthony Joshua’s April world heavyweight title win over Wladimir Klitschko in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley – wonders whether there will come a time when these big fights are, once again, shared around the globe. Particularly with the emergence of high-profile rivals to Vegas such as Dubai and Macau – the former recently showing interest in staging a Manny Pacquiao fight while the latter has already hosted a number smaller boxing events.

Patrick Connor can’t really see another city stealing Vegas’ crown any time soon. “The demand in the US for a truly big fight would probably take priority over a huge site fee in a case like that,” he explains. “Pacquiao fought in Macau twice, but neither fight was considered particularly interesting or competitive going in, and it was ostensibly done for tax purposes. Unless there was a clear financial incentive or a potential venue deal already in place, it’s unlikely we’ll see big fights heading overseas very often.”

It’s certainly unlikely that The Nevada State Athletic Commission would go quietly into the night on this one, and it prides itself on beating off competition from other destinations for world title clashes. Meanwhile, the powerful American pay-per-view broadcaster Showtime has a long-standing relationship with both Vegas and leading boxing promoters.

After watching the rise of the city’s boxing scene, Dennis McBride certainly doesn’t see any real threat to its title. “Las Vegas is an entirely artificial construct. We have no industry, no ocean ports, no rivers to give the city any reason to be here. So a manufactured city has to have manufactured industry: marriage, dining, entertainment and fighting.”

Words: Chris Young