By Thomas Hauser: "New York," Jerry Izenberg once wrote, "was the greatest fight town that ever was and ever will be."
But Las Vegas power brokers take a contrary view. When there's a super-fight in New York, they note, only fight fans are aware of it and the action takes place on fight night at Madison Square Garden. When there's a big fight in Las Vegas, the action is all week and excitement crackles through the entire city.
Las Vegas was founded in 1905 as a railroad town. Thirty years later, the state legislature legalized gambling and changed its domestic relations law to allow for "quickie" divorces. Thereafter, the casino industry took hold as the primary business in Las Vegas and organized crime rose to a position of power. Then, in 1967, the laws changed to permit publicly-traded companies to obtain gambling licenses and a new breed of corporate owner moved in. In 1950, Clark County (where Las Vegas is located) had 48,589 residents. In 2000, that number was 1,428,690.
The first big-name boxer to fight in Las Vegas was Archie Moore, who won a fifteen-round decision over Nino Valdes on May 2, 1955. The city's first world championship bout saw Benny "Kid" Paret take the welterweight crown from Don Jordan in 1960. Its first heavyweight championship contest was the 1963 rematch between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. That was followed by Muhammad Ali versus Patterson in 1965. It wasn't until December 6, 1969, when Sonny Liston was knocked out by Leotis Martin at the International Hotel, that a fight was held in a Las Vegas hotel-casino.
Ali fought in Las Vegas again against Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner, Ron Lyle, and Leon Spinks. Then, in 1978, Caesars inserted itself into the heavyweight title picture with Larry Holmes versus Ken Norton. Holmes became a fixture at Caesars, defending his crown there against Alfredo Evangelista, Earnie Shavers, Lorenzo Zanon, Leroy Jones, Trevor Berbick, Gerry Cooney, and Marvis Frazier. He also fought at other Vegas sites against Ossie Ocasio, Tim Witherspoon, Bonecrusher Smith, and David Bey, before losing twice in Sin City to Michael Spinks.
Once the casinos realized that major fights attracted high rollers, boxing began to receive billing on the neon signs that had once been reserved for entertainers like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. But the fight that changed everything was Holmes versus Ali on October 2, 1980. Caesars constructed a huge temporary outdoor arena evocative of historic nights at Yankee Stadium and Comisky Park. The fight sold out and the casino "drop" was unprecedented. That night, Las Vegas was crowned the new "Mecca of Boxing."
Boxing's negative image scares off most corporate sponsors but not hotel-casinos. To the contrary, Las Vegas has a collective corporate commitment to boxing that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Entertainment to a casino is only as good as the excitement it brings to the gaming floor; and nothing creates excitement like a big fight. Other events, be it a NASCAR race or corporate convention, lure millions of people to Las Vegas each year. But those visitors are less likely than high-rolling boxing fans to drop tens of thousands of dollars at the tables in a single night.
The risk and exitement generated by boxing parallels the risk and excitement of gaming. A big fight doesn't just bring in high rollers. It creates an environment that encourages gambling. The situation becomes combustible. There's an explosion of money. And the benefits of a big fight go far beyond that one event. A big fight reinforces the view that the host site is a place where exciting things happen. A million pay-per-view buys with four or five people sitting around each television set is excellent branding.
Las Vegas will never host the World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA Championships. But it regularly snares the biggest and best in boxing. It lost Holyfield-Lewis I to Madison Square Garden and De La Hoya-Mosley I to the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But generally, the city gets what it wants.
Logistically, no site can duplicate Las Vegas. The infrastructure at the big hotel-casinos is incredible. They offer lodging, meals, meeting rooms; the entire fight center under one roof. The MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay have their own large arenas. Taxes are low. Site fees are high because the money will be made back on ticket sales, at the gaming tables, and from other revenue streams such as rooms, restaurants, and shows. Direct flights to and from McCarran Airport are plentiful. And once Las Vegas says 'yes' to a fight, the entire city supports the promotion because a big fight at one casino benefits all of them.
Marketing a mega-fight is a well-coordinated effort in which the major players are the venue, the television network, and the promoter. Everything is ratcheted up. There's a nicer-looking ticket (although new ticketing systems are sometimes incompatible with works of art); commemorative chips in the casino; better food in the media center; and lavish fight-night parties. Gifts to high-rollers are more elaborate than the norm, from boxes of fine cigars with bands bearing the fight logo to gloves autographed by both main-event fighters.
For Holyfield-Lewis II, Don King created media credentials that were shaped like his crown logo and cost ten dollars each to manufacture. More memorably, on the night of Holmes-Norton, DK hosted a "Sportsman's Ball." Legend has it that the guest list was comprised largely of drug dealers, numbers operators, pimps, and others who were personally acquainted with King from his younger days. The "sportsmen" didn't have credit lines with Caesars, but arrived with bundles of cash and gambled liberally on the casino floor.
The idea is to create a mindset that the host site is the place to be and be seen and have a good time. On fight night, there's a parallel between the anything goes atmosphere of Las Vegas and the anything goes ethic of boxing. Every major casino is jammed. Room rates double. Restaurants are full. There's traffic everywhere. Hot women are running around and more hookers than usual are seated at the bars. Patrons at strip clubs have to wait their turn just to get a lap dance. Every limousine is contracted out. The issue of which high rollers get which ringside seats has been more carefully charted and fought over than who sits where at a presidential inauguration. Closed-circuit fight parties have been booked at hotels for guests who don't rank high enough on the pecking order to merit a ticket to the fight. And when the fight is over, the site hotel is mobbed; not just with regular customers, celebrities, and high-rollers, but also with pick-pockets and hustlers. Extra security is needed to keep guests safe and, equally important, make them feel safe. Otherwise, they'll go to their rooms instead of gamble.
It was in this milieu that Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins became business partners.
For twelve years, De La Hoya has been boxing's "Golden Boy." Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated ranked him #6 on its list of the world's highest-paid athletes with earnings of $32 million in 2003.
Oscar has endorsement contracts with Visa and Nestle and a licensing deal for his own line of clothing. More significantly, he's the principal shareholder in Golden Boy Sports and Entertainment Group, which has five subsidiaries: (1) Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes fights; (2) Golden Boy Management, which represents fighters; (3) Golden Boy Television and Film, which produces various programs; (4) Golden Boy Videos, which owns visual rights to many fights, including Oscar's; and (5) Golden Boy Music, which owns the rights to De La Hoya's CDs and music videos. Then there's Golden Boy Real Estate Group, which is the majority owner of an office tower in downtown Los Angeles and has a minority interest in a second office tower in New York. Another entity, Golden Boy Corporate Holdings, has an interest in CPK Media, which gives it a stake in La Opinion (the largest Spanish-language daily in the United States) and El Diario - La Prensa (the nation's oldest Spanish-language newspaper).
Over the years, De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield have been the primary pay-per-view attractions in boxing. Hopkins was Oscar's sixteenth pay-per-view fight. The first fifteen engendered 8,515,000 buys with gross revenues of $388,300,000. There were 1,400,000 buys for De La Hoya against Felix Trinidad; more than any non-heavyweight fight ever. De La Hoya-Mosley II and De La Hoya-Vargas rank second and third on that list. By contrast, there were only 440,000 buys for Hopkins-Trinidad, which was Bernard's lone previous mega-fight.
Hopkins understood those realities and agreed to fight De La Hoya for a ten-million-dollar purse despite the fact that Oscar would be getting three times that amount. "We all got egos," Bernard said. "Tarver, Roy, me; we all got egos. But sometimes you need to put that to the side. There's ego and there's business. To make money, you've got to be bigger than just a champion today. Oscar De La Hoya is the pot of gold at the end of my rainbow."
How did Hopkins feel about getting only ten million dollars to Oscar's thirty million?
"Since when is ten million dollars 'only'?" Bernard countered.
An Oscar De La Hoya fight is always more than the fight itself, and this one was no exception. The MGM Grand (which paid a $12,000,000 site fee to host the bout) did its best to create an atmosphere that said this was a unique event. Images of De La Hoya and Hopkins were on everything from the felt tops on blackjack tables to computerized room-key cards. Back-lit fight posters and video walls featuring the combatants were on display throughout the hotel.
The timing was good. Boxing was desperate for a big event; there was nothing to compete with this one; and with the heavyweight division in a slump, De La Hoya-Hopkins was this year's Super Bowl for Las Vegas.
Still, the buzz seemed to be manufactured rather than spontaneous. When Oscar fought Felix Trinidad and Fernando Vargas, his opponents brought their own constituencies with them. Hopkins didn't. De La Hoya-Hopkins never caught fire as east versus west or black versus white. There was no rivalry between Mexican-American castes or Hispanic-Americans and Puerto Ricans to play off of. It was simply Oscar and Bernard.
Presiding over it all was Bob Arum; a power in boxing for forty years. In recent decades, most of the non-heavyweight mega-fights have belonged to Arum, including Marvin Hagler versus Ray Leonard and Hagler against Thomas Hearns.
Arum did his best to promote De La Hoya-Hopkins as the reincarnation of Hagler-Leonard. In each instance, an Olympic gold-medalist and darling of the boxing establishment was stepping up in weight to challenge a foreboding blue-collar champion. Hagler had been unbeaten for eleven years before he fought Leonard. Hopkins hadn't lost since he was defeated by Roy Jones eleven years ago.
At the final pre-fight press conference on Wednesday, September 15th, the big-fight rituals were all in place. Arum was throwing around terms like "fever pitch" and proclaiming, "Our goal is to make this the biggest fight in the history of pay-per-view boxing."
When it was his turn to speak, Hopkins began with the declaration, "I'm not playing De La Hoya cheap. Oscar had a different road to get here, but I don't underestimate his trials and tribulations." He then sounded a humorous note, responding to De La Hoya's claim that his poor performance against Felix Sturm this past June was the result of not being properly motivated for the fight. "How can you not get motivated," Bernard asked rhetorically, "when a guy is coming to punch you in the face?"
De La Hoya made a point of saying that, this time, he was in superb condition and had trained eleven weeks for the fight. But Hopkins had trained for it his entire adult life. "Five o'clock in the morning, every morning," Bernard told the media, "a 39-year-old man is up, going out to do roadwork. This night has been on my mind for twenty years."
"I have a better right hand and left hook than Oscar," Hopkins continued. "Out of everybody Oscar De La Hoya has fought, I'm the best fighter, talent-wise, strength-wise, and more versatile. Everything Oscar De La Hoya has done in the ring, Bernard Hopkins can do better. Oscar has to be perfect to have a chance in this fight. I only have to be Bernard Hopkins to win." Then Hopkins pointed directly at De La Hoya. "Dead man walking," he said.
At that moment, De La Hoya-Hopkins looked like Little Red Riding Hood versus the Big Bad Wolf. But there was one compelling argument to be made in favor of Oscar emerging victorious. He didn't have to take the fight; no one had expected him to take the fight; no one would have held it against him if he hadn't; and he didn't need the money. Ergo, he must think he can win.
On Thursday, the fighters' respective trainers visited the media center. Floyd Mayweather Sr began his remarks with the declaration, "Most of the media just repeats what it hears; it doesn't understand boxing." He then stated the case for a De La Hoya victory, saying, "Hopkins is bigger and stronger than Oscar, but Oscar has more talent than Hopkins. Oscar just has to keep Hopkins from imposing his will on him. He has to frustrate Hopkins; jab and get out. And there will be times when Oscar has to stand his ground and exchange punches."
But there was a caveat. "Oscar is in the best condition he's ever been in," Mayweather posited. "If Oscar gets tired, it's just in his head. And if that's what's in his head, there's nothing that anyone can do about it. No matter what anyone tells you, no one can go into another person's mind."
Bouie Fisher (Bernard's trainer) had no such reservations. The foundation stone of hope for most De La Hoya supporters was the belief that, against Oscar, the 39-year-old Hopkins might somehow grow old overnight.
"I know a thing or two about growing old," the 76-year-old Fisher said. "And I can tell you that no one grows old overnight. As long as a fighter is properly conditioned, his age won't show all at once."
Then Fisher was asked who would have won a fight between Hopkins and Sugar Ray Robinson. "Oh my God; it would have been no contest," he answered. "Ray Robinson was so great. He was a beautiful fighter."
By Friday, the media center had become a giant social gathering place and also a bizarre bazaar. Boxing is a great laboratory for the study of human behavior, and the petrie dish was overflowing.
The National Hockey League season seemed to be going down the drain because of a lockout. Thus, promoters and managers were scrambling to see if TSN (Canada's version of ESPN) wanted to fill a portion of its schedule with boxing. Hurricane Ivan was decimating the Florida panhandle, which led to thoughts of Roy Jones and the question of how one evacuates forty pit bulls and seven hundred fighting cocks from a farm. Visions of The Birds combined with Cujo came to mind.
Legendary ring great Roberto Duran was holding court in a corner of the media center. Bob Arum had wanted to bring Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler to Las Vegas to promote the fight. But Leonard was busy taping The Contender for NBC, and Hagler had demanded $25,000. The 53-year-old Duran fit within the promotion's budget.
Duran has come a long way from his days as a boy who slept on the streets of Panama. "I don't miss fighting," he said. "When I got older, it was a chore. When I got old, everybody wanted to beat Roberto Duran. Now my life is good. I play dominoes. I play ball with children in the street. If someone tries to pick a fight with me in a bar, I call security. I love cooking; I'm a pretty good cook. And I go to the movies a lot. When I was a boy, I used to shine shoes to get enough money to go to the movies."
What kind of movies?
"John Wayne was always my favorite. When they showed John Wayne movies in Panama, every time it was a full house. The first movies I bought when I got a Betamax were a John Wayne movie and King Kong."
Duran voiced the opinion that Carlos Monzon would have beaten Hopkins, and Hagler would have beaten both of them. Then "Manos de Piedras" was asked about politics and turned surprisingly thoughtful. "I'm worried about the world," he said. "It's very sad. Soon, people are going to burn the whole world down. I never like war; innocent lives are lost. And now it's war all the time. Four years ago, I was invited to the Middle East to see the Pyramids and the Wailing Wall. I wanted to see them, but I was afraid to go."
Meanwhile, in another part of the hotel, the HBO production team was conducting its pre-fight meetings with the main-event fighters. The interview with De La Hoya went as planned, but the session with Hopkins turned ugly. Bernard launched into a diatribe that included a whack at Larry Merchant, whom he has been at odds with since his March 2003 title defense against Morrade Hakkar. Emanuel Steward, wanted to talk about Hopkins versus De La Hoya and grew weary of it all.
"Look," said Steward. "Larry calls things the way he sees them. And besides, Larry has always given you credit for being a great fighter."
That earned a withering look from Hopkins, who told Emanuel, "This is 2004. You don't have to defend him anymore."
Merchant then joined the act, demanding, "Why are you starting that black-white stuff?"
At 3:30 on Friday afternoon, Hopkins and De La Hoya weighed in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena before an estimated 5,000 fans. Both men came in light; Bernard at 156 pounds, Oscar at 155. Hopkins looked like one of the raptors from Jurassic Park. But as Bouie Fisher noted, "If you're in a mean vicious business, it helps to be mean and vicious."
Then came a twist; a bad one. At 5:30 pm, well after the pre-fight physicals and weigh-in, Tony Daly (De La Hoya's personal physician) told Marc Ratner (executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) that Oscar's left hand had been cut on Wednesday and that he'd received eleven stitches. According to Daly, the cut was sustained when assistant trainer Joe Chavez pierced De La Hoya's hand with a scissors while cutting off his training wraps. Biff McCann was the plastic surgeon who sutured the wound.
Why was the information being made available to the commission two days after the fact?
Because, according to Daly, Oscar had received an injection of lidocaine.
Lidocaine is illegal under the rules and regulations of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Tylenol is the only pain medicine that a fighter is allowed to take before a fight. Daly was telling Ratner in case Oscar's urine sample came up "dirty."
That raised a host of questions giving rise to a range of conspiracy theories. De La Hoya-Hopkins was happening because Oscar had won a questionable decision over Felix Sturm in Las Vegas three months earlier. All three judges scored that bout 115-113 in De La Hoya's favor. Two of those judges (Dave Moretti and Paul Smith) were now being rewarded for their wisdom with the plum De La Hoya-Hopkins assignment. Also, for the first time in recent memory, the medical director and chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission had been passed over for a ringside assignment at a Las Vegas mega-fight. Many observers took that as a sign of Bob Arum's influence with the commission. Arum and Dr. Margaret Goodman have been feuding in recent years over such issues as Goodman's advocacy of mandatory MRI testing for fighters and her decision to place at least one fighter promoted by Arum on medical suspension. And last, Joe Cortez (Nevada's top referee) had been passed over in favor of Kenny Bayless.
In sum, the biggest fight of the year was about to take place. And the NSAC had chosen not to assign it's number-one referee, its two top judges (Jerry Roth and Duane Ford), or its premier doctor.
Goodman's absence meant that De La Hoya's pre-fight physical had been conducted by Dr. Albert Capanna, a presumably capable neurosurgeon and self-described "friend of Bob Arum."
How does a doctor conducting a pre-fight physical not notice eleven stitches in a fighter's hand; particularly when the fighter is known to have undergone hand surgery in the past? Isn't it odd for a cornerman to be so careless that he slices open a fighter's hand while cutting off tape after a pre-fight workout; particularly when the fighter is Oscar De La Hoya on the verge of a thirty-million-dollar payday? And lidocaine disappears from a person's system within seven or eight hours. Was it possible that the De La Hoya camp was simply looking for a way to inject lidocaine into Oscar's troubled hand on fight night? Just by announcing that a fighter has been given an illegal drug doesn't make it right.
The affair brought some pointed comments on HBO the following night. Jim Lampley spoke of "unusual issues." Larry Merchant was more direct, referencing "the appearance of a cave-in to business interests." In reality, the problems appear to have been the work of a minority of commission members, who failed to consult with their peers on important matters. The Nevada State Athletic Commission is now balanced on a precarious fulcrum. One hopes that Governor Kenny Guinn will push it toward good government rather than something less in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, the Hopkins camp was philosophical. James Fisher (Bouie's son) expressed its collective view regarding De La Hoya's hand when he said, "If you're on death row, slip in the shower, and get cut, it doesn't make much difference."
In the end, the fight fell short of selling out. Capacity for the arena was 16,270, and 158 tickets went unsold. But all of those were single seats, and 9,384 more fans watched the fight at closed-circuit parties in the MGM Grand.
There were 850 requests for media credentials; 550 were granted. Two hundred reporters sat at ringside and 60 in auxiliary positions. 290 more watched the fight on television in the media center. There were 16 photographers on the ring apron and 41 in the upper reaches of the arena.
The odds had opened at 11-to-10 in favor of Hopkins and moved quickly to 5-to-2. By fight time, they were down to 2-to-1. The big money (i.e. wagers by professional gamblers) came in on Bernard. The small bets were mostly on Oscar. Six days after the fight, HBO announced that the telecast had engendered one million pay-per-view buys, but more than one insider questioned whether the real number was that high.
Spectators at ringside included Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield (who got the loudest cheers), Vitali Klitschko, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Arturo Gatti, Shane Mosley, Winky Wright, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Antonio Tarver, and Marco Antonio Barrera. The NBA was represented by Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Phil Jackson, Kevin Garnett, Lebron James, Scotty Pippin, Rasheed Wallace, and Chauncy Billups. John McCain, Larry King, Sylvester Stallone, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Tucker, Jamie Foxx, and Nicole Kidman were also there.
Moments before the main event, Thus Spake Zarathustra (more commonly known as the theme from Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey) sounded. Then De La Hoya entered the ring in the wake of a seven-man mariachi band. Hopkins followed to the strains of Frank Sinatra's My Way which segued into The Champ Is Here.
As for the competition; the action was sparse as each man fought a cautious tactical fight. The crowd was heavily pro-Oscar. But as Bouie Fisher observed, "The crowd can't throw a punch and they can't duck a punch. They can't block a punch and they can't land one."
Hopkins always comes prepared, and this night was no exception. He's a fighter who bides his time, breaks his opponent down, and does what he has to do to prevail. De La Hoya knows how to win rounds but isn't always willing to pay the price.
For the first six stanzas, Bernard chose to counterpunch, like a cat who has baited a mousetrap with cheese. Then, in round seven, he stepped up the pressure behind a more aggressive jab. The feeling then was that De La Hoya would be slowly beaten down. Instead, one brutal body punch (a left hook to the liver in round nine) spared him that fate. Two of the three judges had Hopkins comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage. This observer had him leading 77-75 (five rounds to three) when the end came.
"I have no excuses," Oscar said afterward. "He caught me with a good shot. When you get hit to the body, it's not just how hard you're hit; it's where you're hit. It was a perfectly placed shot."
As for the future, both men have myriad options. De La Hoya maintained that he'd been so focussed on Hopkins that he hadn't thought about what comes next. If he continues to box, he could look to a B-level opponent for his next fight or seek a lucrative rematch against Felix Trinidad or Shane Mosley.
Hopkins made it clear that he wants his next fight to be the twentieth defense of his middleweight-championship reign. Then, he says, he'll seek big fights out of the middleweight division. That could mean Roy Jones or Antonio Tarver. But given Bernard's history of fighting smaller men, he's more likely to continue in the ring against Felix Sturm or the winner of Winky Wright versus Shane Mosley. A rematch against Felix Trinidad is also possible. If he fights Jermaine Taylor, he'll want to do it before too much time goes by.
Bernard Hopkins is a remarkable fighter. When he turns forty on January 15th, he'll be the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. One hopes he remembers that champions fight champions and that he will show as much courage in seeking out future opponents as Oscar De La Hoya demonstrated in challenging him.
Pictures supplied by ( pic by Tom