In the world of casino operators the big fish are called the whales and when Manny Pacquiao fights in Las Vegas the fattest and wealthiest sink into the best ringside seats to watch their investment.
On Sunday morning in Macau, the tiny island 30 miles off the coast of Hong Kong that is known as a Special Autonomous Region, the same men with blubber will fill the ringside rows when Pacquiao enters the ring at the Cotai Arena, part of the Venetian Resort Casino, in a fight that puts both his career and the future of big nights in Las Vegas under scrutiny.
Pacquiao has not fought since December last year in Las Vegas when he was knocked out and left sleeping on the canvas in round six by Juan Manuel Marquez, his great Mexican rival. It was their fourth fight, their fourth Las Vegas waltz, and every encounter had delivered at the box office, in the ring and on the casino floor. At the time of the sickening loss Pacquiao was 33, a multimillionaire veteran of 18 world title fights and a devoted congressman back in the Philippines; it looked like his boxing days were over.
“I sat down with Manny and we talked about his future,” said Bob Arum, the promoter who is now 83 and still dominating as a boxing pioneer. “We looked at fights, we looked at retirement, we looked at venues and we came up with Macau.
It makes sense.” In the other corner, by the way, is Brandon Rios, another of Arum’s fighters, who has held a world title and lost just once in 33 fights. Rios, make no mistake, could very well end the return before the millions have started to flow.
Arum is right about Macau making sense and we will find out tomorrow – the fight starts at 10 in the morning and will be live in America tonight – if Pacquiao has enough left to regain his position as one of boxing’s best fighters and, more importantly, biggest gambling attractions. Pacquiao’s Filipino countrymen and women are some of the gambling world’s finest whales and today they have a much shorter journey to enjoy their joint pleasures: Manny in the ring and a casino.
Macau, with its 40 casino operations and six licensed casino operators, took over from Las Vegas as the world’s best gambling market at some point in 2006 and 2007; the takeover coincided with a dramatic end to development in the Nevada desert that left many properties to decay in the shadow of giant cranes. It has been a city in crisis ever since in many ways. It has to be remembered that Floyd Mayweather’s incarceration last year was made to fit with his ongoing commitment to fight because he generates record amounts of revenue for the entire city when he gets in the ring. Three years ago a planned fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao was scheduled in a purpose-built arena holding 40,000 in Las Vegas and both boxers were guaranteed $35m each – it was being talked about as the fight that would save the city. It could still happen if the price is right.
Last month the drop, as the take in a casino is called, in the Macau properties was a record $4.57bn, an increase of 32 per cent, and close to the $6bn that the whole of Las Vegas recorded in 2012. This is not a quiet revolution, it’s a financial massacre by a destination openly referred to now as Las Vegas on steroids. It has reached the point where people are saying that Las Vegas is America’s Macau.
On Macau’s Cotai Strip, built on reclaimed swampland, the giant casino projects just keep growing higher and bigger as the race to compete with all other aspects of the Las Vegas experience continues. The money battle is, to be honest, all over, with gamblers in Macau having an average spend of $1,354 and punters back in Las Vegas dropping just $156 on average. However, Las Vegas remains a resort with variety, a spicy history and legal brothels on the edge of town; Macau is still a gambling outpost at the end of a 60-minute ferry journey from Hong Kong where there is nothing to do but gamble and look at the thousands of second-hand Rolex watches for sale in the casino shops. There are no pawn shops inside the MGM in Las Vegas, trust me.
Steve Wynn, the Vegas casino entrepreneur and billionaire, has a major resort in Macau and is considering moving his entire operation to the former Portuguese colony. In 2016 a bridge linking the island with mainland China will be completed and the 30-mile sea obstacle will be obliterated by cars and even faster trains, which will ease the pressure on hotel rooms, the one area in which Las Vegas still dominates. However, direct cars and trains only add to the transport mix and it is thought that more than three billion people live within a three-hour flight of Macau or Hong Kong – in Las Vegas a similar flight time could deliver a maximum of 315 million people.
Earlier this year Arum first promoted a show in Macau featuring China’s double Olympic gold medal winner Zou Shiming in a fight that was an appetiser for Saturday’s action. Shiming, who will fight on tomorrow’s undercard, won and reports suggest that over a billion watched his performance on television; the figures, it has to be said, are open to interpretation but even with a significant reduction it seems certain that more people watched Shiming’s debut than have ever watched a fight before. Macau, the exotic location, was a big part of the production and China’s growing, increasingly mobile and affluent middle classes seem, so the experts believe, to have responded with their wallets. Now, according to casino insiders, the mass-market trade is a real rival to the whales, which is a staggering development. The loss of a major attraction like Pacquiao, whose Vegas fights regularly set gambling records, is massive when set against the backdrop rivalry of the world’s two biggest gambling empires.
So Pacquiao will clear something in the region of $8m after all the upsides and downsides are factored in, and when the fight is over he will fly direct to the epicentre of the destruction left behind by Typhoon Haiyan.
“It has been hard not visiting the area but this fight is crucial,” admitted Pacquiao. Freddie Roach, his trainer, has often struggled to keep the boxer focused during training camps and away from distractions but he is happy for once. “It’s been the best camp for years and at the same time it has been the hardest camp because of the typhoon,” said Roach. “He wanted to go, he still wants to go and that is because he loves the people and they love him. There is nobody like him in the Philippines.”
On Sunday the boxing world finds out just how much is left of Pacquiao’s fighting ability; within a few hours the men counting the drop will reveal just how explosive the Pacquiao factor really is where it matters most. There is no easy way for the news to be lost in translation before it gets back to the men in Las Vegas who have backed boxing for five decades in the once greatest gambling city in the world.