Boxing: Leaving Las Vegas as gambling mecca is hit hard by sleaze

The world's boxing capital appears to have turned its back on the sport. Glyn Leach reports on the changes
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The Independent Online
ALARM BELLS are ringing in boxing. This weekend New York stages its first World heavyweight championship fight since February 1993, when Evander Holyfield defends his World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles against Henry Akinwande. But the fight at the self-proclaimed Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden, has focused attention on the lack of action of Las Vegas, the world's boxing capital.

An easy explanation, for next Saturday's fight site is that the legendary Garden is but a short Manhattan stroll from the US District Court building where the show's promoter, Don King, faces a re-trial on charges of insurance fraud against Lloyds of London. But close proximity might prove irrelevant to King if the $43m (pounds 27m) that the FBI has invested in trying to nail the controversial promoter second time around is money well spent; the former jailbird (two counts of manslaughter) could be behind bars again by next weekend.

However, King's alleged offences pale into insignificance compared to events that have made Las Vegas do the unthinkable and seemingly turn its back on boxing, which traditionally boosts the local economy by amounts befitting the ostentatious standards of both the city and the sport.

Last weekend was one to remember on the Las Vegas Strip. King's promotion at the Hilton hotel was low-key, with no star names involved, but its significance cannot be underestimated. Boxing breathes a sigh of relief that finally Vegas has staged its first world title fight of the year, ending the gambling Mecca's longest championship bout drought in 20 years.

In 1997, 25 world title fights were staged in Las Vegas. But Friday night's contest was the city's first since November 1997, when Holyfield gained revenge over Michael Moorer, a promotion estimated to have lost $10m; a heavy beating even by the high-roller levels of the Valley of the Dollars.

The promotion gambled that the damage done last summer, when Mike Tyson infamously savaged Holyfield's ear in their rematch and was subsequently placed under licence-suspension, would not be long lasting. But the injury to the public's perception of boxing ran deep.

Las Vegas has long struggled to rid itself of its seedy, "mob town" image. The prostitute and drug dealers have been cleared from the tourist areas, and the city's hotel-casinos now compete for the family dollar. But the city's long-standing relationship with boxing appears counter-productive to its new goals, a situation best exemplified by the experiences of the world's largest hotel, the MGM Grand.

When the MGM opened in 1993, it was the first of the Las Vegas hotels to go totally "family". It had a Wizard of Oz theme (wake-up calls by Dorothy), a theme park (now closed), and 5,000 rooms to cater for the expected human influx - the amount of visitors to the "new" Las Vegas increases by, on average, 10 per cent each year and it is currently estimated at 30m per annum. But, unwittingly, the new establishment's involvement with boxing has been central to the problems the sport faces in Vegas today.

MGM boxing started with a flourish. In 1994, while the established fight- host hotel-casinos on the Strip - Caesars Palace, the Hilton, the Mirage - kept diaries full of empty dates, the MGM staged five "mega-fights". It hosted 32 world championship bouts in its first two years of operation.

The MGM quickly became a major player, but soon overplayed its hand. Press releases proudly stated that it would take a person 13 years and eight months to stay in a new MGM room every day, but it has taken only a third of that time for the establishment to feature significantly in events that have brought Las Vegas boxing to its knees.

Desperate to capitalise on early success, in 1995 the hotel signed Tyson, recently released from jail on a rape charge, who received a financial package estimated at $200m for a six-fight deal. But Tyson proved to be an embarrassment: his fight against Frank Bruno, attracted some of the worst elements of Britain's sports fans; the gangsta rap poster boy Tupac Shakur, who attended Tyson's farcical win over Bruce Seldon, was shot dead after the fight; then came Tyson's defeat by Holyfield and his atrocious behaviour in their rematch, following which gun shots rang out in the hotel foyer. The MGM had seen enough of Tyson after five fights and, following the financial failure of Holyfield-Moorer, Vegas appears to have seen enough of big-time boxing for the time being.

New York has a reputation as the hardest town for a boxing promotion to succeed in. New York State taxes gate receipts (Nevada does not), while local television taxes are the highest in the United States. When Holyfield's latest defence was announced in March, boxing insiders, after querying the obvious ('Why Akinwande?'), could only question: 'Why New York?'. Almost inconceivably, Las Vegas appears to be asking: 'Why boxing?'