By Thomas Hauser
For many people involved with boxing, there's a guilty pleasure in following the sport. And those feelings can be even more pronounced when a fight is tied to the pleasures of Las Vegas. Marc Ratner, Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, is the point person for boxing in Las Vegas. Ratner was born in Arizona in 1944, and moved to Las Vegas with his family in 1957. After graduating from the University of Nevada at Reno with a degree in business management, he joined his father in the beauty and barber supply business. Then, in the late 1970s, he went to work for Sig Rogich, who had been a friend since eighth grade.
Rogich was a power broker in Nevada. He owned a major advertising agency, was influential within the state Republican Party and, in the mid-1980s, served as Chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Ratner was already interested in sports. On weekends, he officiated local high school and college football games. In 1985, at Rogich's urging, he turned to boxing as a per diem inspector for the Nevada Commission. Three years later, he was named Chief Inspector. Then, in 1992, Chuck Minker, who was the Commission's Executive Director, died at age 41. The death devastated Ratner. He and Minker were close friends who had talked on the telephone virtually every day for 20 years. Soon after, Ratner followed in Minker's footsteps to become Executive Director of the NSAC.
The NSAC has five commissioners who are appointed to three-year terms by the Governor. Ratner and three administrative assistants – Sandy Johnson, Coleen Patchin, and Barbara Barcenas -- are its only full-time employees. In addition, there are 13 inspectors, eight referees, 24 ring judges, six time-keepers, and 10 doctors who serve on a per diem basis. The Commission's annual budget is $325,000, and it takes in roughly $2,800,000 per year in gate taxes, television taxes, and license fees. As Executive Director, Ratner serves "at the pleasure" of the Commission. In other words, three of the five commissioners can terminate his employment at any time; but that's highly unlikely to happen.
Ratner has built a national reputation for integrity and competence. "My philosophy," he says, "is to have a level playing field when fights come to Nevada and to be as fair and efficient as possible." From time to time, it's suggested that Nevada's casinos exercise more influence with the Commission than they should. Ratner himself states the obvious when he says, "The reason we have as much big time boxing as we do in Nevada is because it brings customers into the casinos." But in the next breath, he notes, "I don't deal with the presence of the casinos as much as the commissioners might."
The heavyweight championship rematch between Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman was a special moment for Ratner. One year earlier, Las Vegas had hosted Lewis versus David Tua against the backdrop of a disputed presidential election. Now the backdrop was more ominous. September 11th and the anthrax scare that followed had traumatized America. The eyes of the world would be focused on Las Vegas and its flagship event. The city that urges visitors to forget all worldly cares would be a tempting target for terrorists; particularly when one considered Lewis, the Brit, and Rahman, the American, with Rahman's Islamic heritage thrown into the mix.
"This is a big fight for Vegas because the town has been quiet lately," Ratner said several days before the fight. The promotion swung into high gear with a final press conference three days before the bout. There's a different feel to a Don King event. King adds excitement; he's part of the show. Moreover, Rahman-Lewis wasn't just for the heavyweight championship. More importantly for King, the outcome of the bout would determine who controlled the heavyweight champion of the world.
King was Rahman's exclusive promoter, but had no paper on Lewis beyond the rematch. Also, Lewis was tied to HBO whereas Rahman, at King's urging, had eschewed a long-term TV contract to remain a free agent.
"A TV contract is only an insurance policy for losing," King told the assembled media. "I don't want to know what Rock gets if he loses. I want to know what Rock gets when he wins. This is what you call 'rolling the dice; winner take all.' Rock ain't no one-night stand."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Ratner was at work. On Wednesday morning, he met with Mandalay Bay security personnel and representatives of the Metropolitan Police Department to discuss safeguarding the fight site. Next, he sat down with representatives of both fighters and Don King Productions for an organizational meeting. That was followed by a rules meeting with officials from the world sanctioning bodies that had put their championship imprimatur on the bout.
"We have an organized format for big fights," explained Ratner. "But not everything can be anticipated. I suppose the most bizarre situation we ever had was the 'Fan-Man' incident (when a nut parachuted into the ring midway through Bowe-Holyfield II). Nothing in the boxing manual told us how to handle that one. The Tyson-Holyfield bite incident was difficult to deal with, and of course there was the ugly aftermath on the casino floor (Nevada officials refer to it as an 'alleged shooting incident'). The toughest moment for me was when Jimmy Garcia died," Ratner continued. "In my years with the Commission, there have been three fatalities. Robert Wangila and Johnny Montantes were the other two. But with Garcia, I spent a lot of time with him in the hospital. We thought he was going to make it, and he didn't."
Rahman and Lewis weighed in on Thursday. Hasim tipped the scales at 236 pounds; Lennox, 10 pounds heavier. That same day, Dr. Margaret Goodman, the neurologist who serves as medical director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, administered the final pre-fight physicals. The fighters' bloodwork and other tests had been conducted earlier. This was a general check of lungs, temperature, blood pressure, pulse, eyes, ears, possible hernia symptoms, and the like. Goodman knew both fighters, having worked with them before. She examined Lewis first, engaging him in conversation as she probed.
"How are you feeling?"
"Good," Lennox answered.
"Any recent colds or the flu?
"What will you have for breakfast on Saturday?"
"Eggs and sweet plantains, fried."
"When will your last meal be?"
"Around four o'clock."
"What will you have?"
The examination was over in less than 10 minutes. The most significant finding was that Lewis's nose appeared to have been broken since the last time he'd fought in Las Vegas. The cartilage on the right side had collapsed, and he couldn't draw air through his right nostril as well as before. Also, Lennox's blood pressure was higher than before previous fights; 150 over 88. And his pulse was eighty, which was faster than his past pre-fight norm. He seemed nervous.
Rahman was next, and Dr. Goodman repeated the process. Hasim appeared to be more relaxed than Lennox; as though he were enjoying the ride. His blood pressure was 120 over 80 and his pulse was in the mid-sixties; both of which were normal for a relaxed well-conditioned professional athlete.
"What will you eat for your last meal before the fight?" Dr. Goodman queried.
"I don't know. Probably pizza."
The physicals seemed to confirm the pre-fight buzz; namely, that Rahman had "gotten inside Lewis's head."
Confidence is important for any athlete; and that's particularly true of fighters. The Hasim Rahman who settled into Las Vegas appeared confident and focussed, but there were doubts about Lewis.
Many of those doubts sprang from the first meeting between the two men, when Rahman knocked Lewis out in the fifth round. "Lennox was winning every round and just got hit," trainer Emanuel Steward said. "It's part of boxing."
"The punch was a great punch," Lewis added. "But I never put my left hand in position to block it. My defense wasn’t like it should have been. I wouldn’t say I was cocky or arrogant. I think those are the wrong words. But I may have taken him a bit lightly and didn’t realize he was able to throw a punch like that. I’m going to make sure my defense is up in a better position this time. There’s no way I want to get caught by that punch again."
Still, a man can't go swimming without getting wet. And a fighter can't get in a boxing ring without getting hit. Wisdom decreed that some of Rahman's punches would get through to Lewis again. And more to the point, Lennox seemed to be in denial regarding some basic facts relevant to their first fight.
"I wasn't able to get off the canvas because the referee counted too fast," Lennox said of that night. "The ref was trying to count me out as fast as possible. When I was getting up, he stopped the fight."
Steward adhered to the party line, also claiming the stoppage had been quick. "When Lennox went down," Steward said, "the referee started counting like he was in a race. I know that for a fact because I was there. I've seen guys in heavyweight championship fights hurt much worse than Lennox was and come back to win. Larry Holmes did it against Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes. Evander Holyfield was hurt worse than that in the second Ruiz fight, and they let it go on. The round was almost over. If the referee had given Lennox a normal count, he would have been able to go on. This was the heavyweight champion of the world defending his title. You give the man a chance."
To many observers, Lewis's cavalier attitude toward Rahman in South Africa, his failure to train at altitude before the fight, and a suspect chin had more to do with the outcome of Lewis-Rahman I than the referee's count or a lucky punch. Indeed, Lennox had seemed to be tiring badly in round five and had been hit with a damaging right hand moments before the knockout blow. Thus, if one were looking for wisdom in Steward's remarks, it might have been in the message that Lennox had to fight a careful fight the second time around. That is, even if attitude and altitude weren't problems, there was still the matter of a suspect chin. Lewis's chin, it was posited, had kept him from the ranks of boxing greats. He might not have a glass jaw; but there's always Lenox china.
Meanwhile, Rahman had his own take on things. He saw Lewis as a limited pugilist (". . . Jab . . . counterpunch . . . jab . . . counterpunch"), lacking in versatility and without heart. As for claims of a quick count in South Africa, the champion noted, "You saw the fight. The referee counted to 10. He could have counted to twenty, and Lennox wouldn't have been able to go on. They refuse to deal with the truth," Rahman concluded. "They just can't accept that I have his number."
Rahman claimed to have Lewis's number outside the ring, too. There was growing personal enmity between the two men, accentuated by the champion's frequent allusions to rumors that Lewis is gay. An ugly TV-studio brawl in August brought the matter to the fore and, throughout fight week, Rahman continued his taunts.
"Is Lennox gay?" a reporter asked on Wednesday.
"How many children does Lennox have?" Rahman countered. And then he added, "Emanuel is trying to make his baby nice and comfortable."
Lewis sat stoically through it all. "I have to store my emotions up and save them for the fight," he said. "I'll do my damage in the ring."
Still, there were doubts. Even Emanuel Steward conceded, "Lennox has an extremely complicated make-up mentally. You can talk to Lennox and still not know what's going on in his mind. Lennox thinks too much. Sometimes, I look at Lennox and it looks like he's playing chess in the ring. But it's not a chess game; it's a fist fight."
Meanwhile, Rahman seemed pleased with where the fighters were psychologically. "I've heard them say that I'm a journeyman; I'm a bum; I'm nothing," he noted. "But now Lennox is fighting the biggest fight of his life, and it's against me. I know I humiliated him. I knocked him out. I took his title. The facts speak for themselves. I'm in his head, big; you know what I'm saying? I can punch hard, and Lennox knows that now. But the thing is, even though he's aware of it this time, there's nothing he can do to stop it. I humiliated this man. I knocked him out, and the same thing is coming this time only faster."
The day before the fight, Rahman seemed totally relaxed. He was walking the hotel, mingling with fight fans. He even went to the Orleans Hotel and Casino to watch one of his stablemates, Davarryl Williamson, knock out Andre Kopolov on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights. Then he ate dinner at Raffles Cafe.
On the surface, all of the psychological signs appeared to favor the champion. His body language radiated confidence, whereas Lewis's seemed to radiate doubt. When the rematch was first announced, the odds had been four to one in Lennox's favor. By fight night, those numbers had been cut in half.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Marc Ratner was doing his job. The Nevada State Athletic Commission runs a tight ship, and November 17th was no exception. The first bout was scheduled to begin at 3:00pm. Lewis Rahman was slated for nine o'clock. Ratner arrived at the arena at 1:30. He measured the ring canvas to make sure it conformed to specifications; then climbed into the ring and walked every square foot checking for dead spots. Next, he examined the ring ropes. "We're down to a science on the big fights," he said. No detail was too small for scrutiny.
At 2:15, the Commission officials who would be working the card gathered at ringside, and Ratner reviewed each person's responsibilities. The level playing field he sought could be tilted by accident or design. Either way, as far as Ratner was concerned, a tilt would be unacceptable. His final words to the group were, "This is a big night for us; a huge heavyweight championship card. Have fun and concentrate on your jobs."
The undercard fights began. As they progressed, Ratner walked the floor, making certain that everything was in order; saying hello to casino executives and sanctioning body officials, ushers and security guards; greeting everyone with the warmth of a friend. Someone asked if he was nervous. "Not really," he answered. "I get nervous if I'm compiling the scoring of the judges between rounds and the scores don't look right to me. When that happens, I say to myself, 'I hope we have a knockout tonight.' But other than that, I'm usually okay."
As is his custom, Ratner visited the dressing room of every undercard fighter before each bout ("Welcome to Las Vegas . . . I'm glad you're here . . . Good luck . . ."). And he repeated the process afterward ("Good fight . . . Congratulations . . . Are you all right? . . .")
The Mandalay Bay Events Center began to fill up. The fight had caught on within the boxing community. The arena was sold out.
At 7:50pm, Ratner and referee Joe Cortez entered Lewis's dressing room. The room was silent.
Cortez gave Lewis the standard rules review and pre-fight instructions. "Are there any questions?" he asked the fighter.
"Is there a standing eight count?" Lewis queried.
Cortez said there wasn't. Then he and Ratner journeyed to Rahman's dressing room. Loud voices and pulsating music filled the air. Cortez repeated his pre-fight instructions, closing again with, "Are there any questions?"
There were none.
Ratner left. At 8:15, he returned to the fighters' dressing rooms one last time with the gloves that would be worn during the fight. Lewis had an intense almost haunted look on his face. Rahman seemed like a man preparing to go to a party, as though he intended to pick up in this fight where he'd left off in South Africa.
Forty-five minutes later, with the crowd roaring, Lewis left the sanctuary of his dressing room and made his way to the ring.
Three minutes later, Rahman followed. But now, there was a change in the champion's visage. The cockiness was gone. There was no longer any joy in his face. The absence of joy was to be expected. But more telling, the aura of confidence present all week had been replaced by a look of worry and concern.
Lewis had been storing up the meanness, anger, cruelty, even hate, that would be necessary for him to do what he had to do. Lewis was coming into the ring with an attitude.
By contrast, Rahman had been too relaxed in the days leading up to the fight. In the process of talking the talk, he seemed to have never prepared mentally to walk the walk. He'd been so busy trying to get inside Lennox's head that he had never fully readied his own.
Yes, Rahman had gotten under Lewis's skin. Now, he was about to pay the price. The party was over.
In boxing, "big" is a state of mind. In the ring, Lewis looked far more than 10 pounds bigger than Rahman.
The bell rang. In round one, Lewis sliced open the skin above the champion's left eye with a jab. Then, still jabbing, he kept him at bay, boxing and punching from the first round on. Rahman's best hope seemed to lie in surviving until the middle rounds, when the rhythms of their first fight might repeat. But it wasn't to be. Midway through round four, Lewis threw a left hook that grazed the champion's chin and moved his head back into the line of fire. A monster right hand that landed flush on the jaw followed. Rahman plummeted to the canvas, rose through an act of Herculean will, and pitched back to the canvas again. It was over at 1:29 of round four.
Amidst the tumult, Margaret Goodman crossed the ring to tend to Rahman. Bleary-eyed, lying on his back, the deposed champion's first words were, "What happened?"
"You got knocked out," Dr. Goodman told him.
"I didn't see the punch."
A minute passed. Rahman gathered his senses. Then, looking up, he saw a replay of the knockout blow on the giant screen above him.
"Wow!" he said to no one in particular. "He's the real champion."
Never before had two such dramatic knockouts with such dramatically different results been juxtaposed in championship bouts between two men.
After leaving the ring, Rahman went to his dressing room, retreated to the adjacent bathroom alone with his wife, dressed quickly, and left.
In another room down the corridor, Lennox Lewis sat on a wooden bench with a quiet smile on his face. "I knew what I wanted to do," he said. "And I went out and did it. I was keeping everything I felt inside me, saying, 'Okay; you'll pay come fight time.'"
Meanwhile, back on the floor of the arena, Marc Ratner was addressing the Nevada State Athletic Commission personnel who had worked the fight. Everything of importance that had just transpired was critiqued. Then paychecks were distributed to the per diem employees with thanks for a job well done.
To contact the author, email: thauserthauserrcn.com