Boxing: Tyson a sideshow in desert Disneyland

Boxing: Prizefighting is no longer the big draw that once proved so alluring in a gambler's paradise
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The Independent Online
TO LAS VEGAS, boxing may represent just about the town's last overt connection with dirty business. In a desert neonopolis of gargantuan pastel-shaded theme-park hotels, where visitors arrive at a rate of 100,000 a day to experience the replication in steel and fibreglass of ancient Rome, Arthurian England, modern New York, belle epoque Monte Carlo or verdant Tuscany, and to drop their dollars at Prada and Versace as well as at the slots and gaming tables, a prizefight is no longer the main event but a curious sideshow.

Dan Goossen, the promoter of tomorrow night's Tyson-Botha heavyweight fight, claimed that 10,000 tickets had been sold by midweek, at prices ranging from pounds 125 to pounds 750 for ringside seats, and was hoping for a sell- out. But Don Welsh of the MGM Grand Hotel, where the fight is being held, will be satisfied with somewhere under 12,000, which would leave 2,000 empty seats - and would still represent 2,300 fewer people than came in through the doors of the Grand Arena for each of the two Tyson-Holyfield fights. Modern facilities can be configured to suit the anticipated attendance, and the MGM has a realistic view of the public's expectation of decent entertainment when Mike Tyson makes his latest comeback against a willing but limited Afrikaner who is virtually unknown outside the fight world.

In the short, hectic life of Las Vegas, boxing has played a colourful but peripheral role. The point of the place was always extracting profit from human weakness, by whatever means. But when Las Vegas came to life, US prizefighting had its natural homes in the big, tough cities of the East Coast and the Midwest.

In 1938, when Captain Guy McAfee of the Los Angeles Police Department realised that the election of a reforming mayor would mean the end of his sideline as the boss of an illegal gambling operation, he resigned, drove north into Nevada, where gambling had been legitimised earlier in the decade.

Just outside the city limits of Las Vegas, on Highway 91, McAfee bought a club called the Pair-O-Dice. It was he, thinking of his old home, who began referring to a four-mile stretch of the highway as "The Strip", which is now the location of all the 5,000-room palaces that symbolise the modern city. McAfee's club, renamed the 91, was joined three years later by El Rancho Vegas, the first casino motel, built on land costing $50 an acre and boasting one craps game, one roulette wheel, two blackjack tables, and 40 cottages for guests.

In 1946 the Mob joined the game when Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel took over the half-built Flamingo Hotel with funds from Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, although a $5m (pounds 3.2m) overrun on building costs, coupled with his inability to resist the temptation to send his girlfriend off to Switzerland with some of his masters' cash, cost him his life before the joint turned its first profitable dollar. But by then the town was taking shape, and the 1950s saw the opening of the Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Sands, the Dunes, the Riviera and the Tropicana, by which time land on either side of the desert highway was costing $20,000 an acre, and the whole town had become an enterprise zone for crime families from across the country.

Gambling and prostitution were the lures, but entertainment played a major part in keeping the customers happy. The lounges and showrooms presented top-line acts, with Sinatra and Presley serenading mobsters and their molls at the Sands and the Sahara respectively. Throughout the Fifties, another regular attraction was the sight and sound of atmospheric nuclear tests, conducted 60 miles north of the town at the Nevada Test Site. Favoured customers were invited on to the roof of the Desert Inn to enjoy the spectacle of the mushroom cloud.

There were more than 100 such tests throughout the 1950s, and they enhanced the image of Las Vegas as a place in tune with the modern world. But when the US government began to come to its senses, reducing the frequency of tests in preparation for the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the town needed something equally explosive to take their place. Thermo-nuclear fisticuffs were the answer.

Las Vegas has little in the way of a boxing infrastructure. It has two gyms in the scruffy old downtown area, the Golden Gloves and the picturesquely flyblown Johnny Tocco's, and it has the Nevada Athletic Commission, which has grown accustomed to arbitrating in troublesome disputes and lending a sympathetic area to boxers who want their licences back. But boxing in Las Vegas has always been about the big stuff, the high rollers.

"It began in the early '60s," Marc Ratner, the commission's executive director, told me this week. "There was a promoter called Mel Grebb, and the first big fights were held in the Convention Center. The hotels liked it from the start, because the fights brought in their best customers."

Along with free air tickets, free board, free food and beverages, the select high rollers could expect complimentary ringside seats. The luckiest of them saw Sonny Liston dispose of Floyd Patterson with a second consecutive first-round knockout on July 22, 1963, in front of 7,000 fans. Two years later Patterson suffered another humiliation at the Convention Center when the referee stopped his fight against Muhammad Ali in the 12th round, saving the older man from further punishment from the hands and tongue of the new champion.

In between times, the Sahara Hotel rented the hall to present two concerts by the Beatles during their 1964 US tour, but the boxing promotions continued to gather pace. Ali beat Quarry, Bugner and Lyle there, before losing in the final stages of his career in punishing fights against Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes. He lasted the full 15 rounds against Spinks but retired after 10 rounds against Holmes in a fight for which most observers felt that, at the age of 38, he should never have been granted a licence.

The penalties for overextending or otherwise mismanaging a heavyweight boxing career had by then become painfully obvious in the sight around Las Vegas of Joe Louis and Sonny Liston, two former world champions reduced to the level of servitude. They were employed by Ash Resznik, the sporting director of Caesars Palace, built in 1966 with $19m (pounds 12m) illegally advanced by the pensions fund of the Teamsters Union.

Louis, a beloved figure, acted as a greeter of celebrity guests - and was in addition required to accompany Resznik on less public missions to collect the casino's debts. Liston, who trained for the last fights of his career at Johnny Tocco's gym, was also used to put the frighteners on reluctant debtors. Both fighters shared not just a background in the dirt-poor South but a disastrous fondness for heroin and cocaine. Louis's life dwindled away, but there are still rumours that Liston's death from an apparent overdose in 1970, aged 38, was caused by an agency other than his own carelessness.

As Las Vegas continued its exponential growth, big fights continued to be among the featured attractions: Holmes fought Berbick, Cooney, Witherspoon, Smith and McCall, Hagler and Hearns produced three rounds of unforgettable mayhem at Caesars Palace's new outdoor arena in 1985, Leonard beat Duran, Hearns and Hagler, McGuigan lost his World Boxing Association featherweight title to Steve Cruz in 110 degrees of desert heat at Caesars, and Tyson won all three of the titles that made him undisputed champion in town - the World Boxing Council belt from Berbick in 1986, and the WBA from Smith and the International Boxing Federation from Tucker in the following year. Most recently, Oscar De La Hoya took the ring at Caesars to wrest the WBC light-welterweight crown from Julio Cesar Chavez.

"It's a proven fact that boxing brings the best customers to town," Ratner said, "and that gambling revenues go up as a result." But events surrounding recent Tyson fights have cast a shadow over the city's willingness to host big fights in an era when its primary marketing emphasis has switched from the traditional high rollers, with their parallel interests in booze, broads, betting and boxing, to vacationing family groups attracted by a Disneyland in the desert.

The night that the rap star Tupac Shakur was shot to death at an intersection while heading south on Flamingo in September 1996, he had attended the Tyson-Seldon fight at the MGM Grand, after which he and his crew had beaten up a group of LA Crips in the hotel lobby. And the disgrace of Tyson's second fight against Holyfield in June 1997, with its ear-biting incidents, was compounded by an incident in the same lobby, when sounds resembling gunfire caused the casino to be closed for two hours, at a huge financial cost to the owners.

So whatever the vested interests may say, the relationship between Las Vegas and professional boxing is currently tenuous. For a variety of somewhat opaque reasons to do with the law and Don King, the next world heavyweight title fight - Holyfield v Lennox Lewis - is taking place in Madison Square Garden, one of the sport's ancestral homes but neglected by recent generations in favour of the greater inducements offered by the casino hotels. Tomorrow night's fight is being promoted in a much lower key than Tyson's previous comeback affairs, as if MGM were wary of scaring off customers.

In Las Vegas, history is history and there will be no tears shed if boxing goes the way of the beautiful old Sands and Dunes hotels, demolished to clear land for establishments that will recreate the landmarks of Paris and Venice. Potential customers for these attractions, willing to leave their money behind in Las Vegas at the rate of some $70m a day, may not want to see their artificial skyline, soon to be enhanced by the addition of replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the campanile of St Mark's Square, overshadowed by the silhouette of a looming Mike Tyson.