How Las Vegas Became the Boxing Capital of the World

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterSeptember 11, 2014

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When Floyd Mayweather and a pop singer to be named later walk to the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night, while Marcos Maidana waits patiently to unleash his trademark whirlwind, it will mark the boxing superstar's 12th consecutive fight in Las Vegas and his 10th in a row at the MGM. For Mayweather, and for boxing, it's a relationship that just makes sense.

And dollars. Plenty of them.

"When Floyd fights here, it's different," MGM's President of Sports and Events Richard Sturm told the BBC's Mike Costello. "There's an electricity you can't describe. Staging an event like this is important not only to our hotel but to the entire city. We have a lot of great events, and I mean great events, and they're all very important to us. But a Mayweather fight here is one of a kind. It's the best we have."

Mayweather makes his home in Las Vegas, personally and professionally. You can see him year-round in a 20-story mural on the side of the MGM—his presence a constant even as lesser lights flit in and out of the spotlight. Every time he fights, it's worth at least $100 million to the Las Vegas economy and $11 million in non-gambling revenue like restaurant tabs and hotel rooms.

"Las Vegas. The city of lights. Everything is beautiful," Mayweather told the All Access cameras last week. "This is where I started my career. This is where my career will end. It's one of the best places in the world."

And, while Showtime sports honcho Stephen Espinoza paints a pretty picture, one with Mayweather as an exceptional figure who will never be replaced, in truth a string of stars have been painting the town green for decades. From Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard to Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya and beyond, a new star has always filled the void, continuing Sin City's reign as the home of big league combat sports.

Associated Press

Almost every other sport has homes—places of import around the country and even the globe. Not so boxing. A product of economics and tradition, in boxing there's Las Vegas, and then there's every place else.

"The marquee lights of the Las Vegas strip became synonymous with big-time boxing," Mark Taffet, HBO's senior VP of sports operations and PPV, told Bleacher Report. "It created a mystique that could not be replicated anywhere. It's added to the larger-than-life image of big boxing events."

Las Vegas, of course, hasn't always been the fight capital of the world. For decades that was New York, where radio, and later television, created mass interest in the sweet science. Boxing, in fact, was the first sport ever broadcast on television when Willie Pep defended his featherweight title against Chalky Wright in 1944.

The two were a perfect fit, according to Sports Illustrated's William Johnson in 1969:

The first TV days of the sweet science were spent in a happy orgy. In some areas boxing was on nearly every night of the week, and so popular that there were riots around store windows that had the fights on display sets. There were bouts from the Garden and Eastern Parkway Arena and St. Nick's and Sunnyside Gardens. Gillette and Pabst Blue Ribbon bought scads of time, and there were fighters battling before network audiences two, even three nights a week. Pool-hall pugs, teenage Palookas, guys whose uncles were TV cameramen, anyone could fight on television.

The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, broadcast out of Madison Square Garden, debuted nationally on NBC in 1946 and became an immediate sensation on Friday nights, complete with an iconic theme song.

With audience shares reaching more than 30 percent of available television sets, a second weekly show was soon added, this one televised from the St. Nicholas Arena in Manhattan. Within five years, all three broadcast networks had weekly boxing shows, reaching 8.5 million fans.

But while Madison Square Garden and even Yankee Stadium may have been packed to the gills for big bouts, the overall effect of this immediate and continued success was disastrous. Televised boxing killed the sport on the local level, with support of the club shows drying up in the face of competition from broadcast networks.

Dempsey later in life.
Dempsey later in life.Associated Press/Associated Press

More than that, the fights left much to be desired. Brawlers were favored over technicians, and many of the fighters promoted heavily on television proved unable to compete at the highest levels. Between the bad fights, Mafia scandals and declining ratings, boxing lacked the television staying power of other sports like football and baseball.

When NBC pulled the plug on the show in 1960, reaction was split. While some decried the loss of what had become a national routine, others thought it was the jolt the sport needed to survive long-term.

Legendary champion Jack Dempsey told Sports Illustrated's William Leggett in 1960:

I'm glad the Friday night fights are gone. Most of 'em weren't any good anyway, and they were helping to kill the fight game. ... Now we should see the return of something like normal in boxing. Now fighters will have to be brought along slowly, on their merits, in small clubs. And people will begin going back to the boxing arenas in person. In the long run, this will help boxing very much.

New York simply wasn't a good fit for boxing anymore. It had broken the sport and sucked all the meat from its bones. Boxing needed a fresh start, and it found one 2,500 miles away in the deserts of Nevada.

"Doc" Kearns had been around the block a few times by 1955. Dempsey's former manager, he had been a successful matchmaker for decades—but still people doubted his ability to successfully pull off a show in Las Vegas. A far cry from the glittering metropolis of lights it would become in scant decades, the Strip was in its infancy, with the pull of boxing unproven.

Light heavyweight kingpin Archie Moore was to fight veteran heavyweight Nino Valdes for a chance at Rocky Marciano's title. It was a solid and competitive fight but not a glamorous one. No one was quite sure if it would work. It was, it seemed, worth a try. From golf shootouts to auto races, the quest to find the next big thing was never-ending.

"They tried a number of devices. Large-stage shows. Then the movie stars like the Rat Pack and all of that," University of Nevada Reno professor Richard Davies, author of The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip, told Bleacher Report. "Boxing was just part of the overall entertainment spectacle that Las Vegas tried to create."

Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun was on board, calling the bout "the greatest event for the town since the government started using the area for atom bomb tests." The burgeoning casino establishment was just as excited—perhaps more so. The casinos gave $100,000 to Kearns to make sure the fight went off without a hitch.

The attendance was disappointing, packing an estimated 6,000 into the bleachers and wooden chairs at Cashman Field (less than half of what Kearns projected). Kearns never returned to the city. But the idea of boxing resonated. It was another weapon for the casinos to separate visitors from their money.

Five years later, the sport was back to stay—but Cashman Field would not be part of the boxing renaissance. The 1955 fight was contested at sunset, and the glare of the sun was said to have played a major role in Moore cracking Valdez with several hard lefts. The savvy veteran expertly kept his back to the sun, forcing Valdez to stare into the blinding light. That wasn't going to cut it.

Instead, the fights were moved indoors to the brand-new Las Vegas Convention Center starting in 1960. It was a perfect home for television broadcasts and an easy walk from a number of casinos, which continued to fund the bouts. Boxing in Las Vegas thrived, creating national stars like middleweight Gene Fullmer and presenting a number of championship fights, including Sonny Liston's rematch with a terrified Floyd Patterson.

Eventually, of course, the hand-holding between rival casino enterprises would come to an end. The goal of the casinos, after all, was to attract gamblers. Keeping them in the hotel and away from other attractions was the name of the game. Sure, a fight at the Convention Center helped increase revenues.

But a fight in the hotel itself? That was where the real money was.

Billionaire hotel mogul Kirk Kerkorian was the first, hosting Liston's last-ditch attempt to get back in the heavyweight picture, a devastating loss to journeyman Leotis Martin in 1969. But the true innovator, the man who essentially created big-time boxing in Las Vegas, was Caesars Palace impresario Cliff Perlman.

Perlman caught the boxing bug in 1976, when the casino put on a bout between George Foreman and Ron Lyle. Held in what boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney called "a long metal and asbestos shed" that also served as an indoor tennis arena, the fight was an absolute slugfest. Both men were knocked down in the fourth round before Foreman put him away in the fifth.

The bout was named best fight of the year by Ring Magazine and wowed the nearly 5,000 in attendance. It was also nearly a disaster, as Tim Dahlberg relays in Fight Town:

A main beam holding the ring up on the side of Foreman's corner had cracked, and the engineer wasn't sure if it would hold up for another fight. It was too late to find another ring. But canceling the fight wasn't any option either. ABC was televising the fight, and the nation was waiting to watch.

At ringside, they came up with a plan. The final preliminary fight was cut short by a few rounds while three workers crawled under the ring with floor jacks. They stayed under there for the main event, bracing the ring while praying it didn't collapse on top of them.

The ring survived the fight, and bouts continued in the makeshift structure for several years. The plan was relatively simple: Boxers would bring in whalesgamblers who were willing and able to lose up to $50,000 or more during the course of a weekend. That alone made the contests worth Caesars' while. The additional income generated by the gate and television was whipped cream on an already tasty sundae.

"There are several reasons why we're in the boxing business," Bob Halloran, president of Caesars World Sports, told the Los Angeles Times' Earl Gustkey. "We're in the business of filling hotel rooms, selling food, entertaining people, selling merchandise and gambling. Boxing gives Caesars Palace worldwide exposure, and you can't measure what that means for us. It's like we're in the banking business—boxing is our promotion to get people in here."

Anonymous/Associated Press

It was an operation that ran like clockwork. But when promoter Don King brought Perlman a fight between Muhammad Ali and his former sparring partner Larry Holmes in 1980, they all knew the small setup they'd grown comfortable with wouldn't cut it. The demand would be too strongthe potential crowd too big.

Big was OK with Perlman and with Caesars. This was the home of Frank Sinatra. Of fountains containing 350,000 gallons of water. Of a 17-story flag waving as the National Anthem played. When the time came, Perlman didn't blink, building a 24,000-seat outdoor arena in the parking lot in just 30 days at a cost of nearly $1 million. When it was all over, they tore it all down, building anew for each megafight.

The fight between Holmes and Ali was a travesty, a one-sided beating that made everyone, including Holmes, sad. Except executives at Caesars and Don King. They saw one thing—money.

"The casinos would create all sorts of come-ons to get people to come and watch the fights. The so-called 'high rollers' would be given comped rooms and other amenities. And it became sort of a tradition," Davies said. "They attracted 25,000 people. And all those folks are gamblers. That's the idea. Get them there to gamble. The fight's the attraction. They would bet on the fights. But, also, they'd go to the green felt tables."

According to Sports Illustrated's William Mack, the fight might have been a dud, but the night wasn't:

A kind of bedlam had descended over the casino. Around the craps tables, even at the $100-minimum tables, prospective players stood six-deep, filling the carpeted aisles waiting for openings. They gathered about the roulette and the blackjack tables, even at the wheel of fortune. All eight of the baccarat tables were full, 20 big spenders betting the $8,000 limit on every hand. And in the background, people stood cheek by jowl at the rattling, coin-spitting slot machines: chickchickchickchickchick. Ali and Holmes had done their job. The action on the casino floor was heavy.

The outdoor arena became a staple and a fabled locale, right up there with Madison Square Garden, adding to the legend of Las Vegas. While Ali was done as a fighter, a who's who of boxing was all too willing to slide into his place.

"The minute you heard a fight was taking place outdoors at Caesars, it immediately stamped the fight as a megafight," Taffet said. "For days you would see a grandstand being erected, literally nuts and bolts and metal turning into seats right before your eyes. You saw the ring built and a canopy overhead. Not for rain, because it was Las Vegas. It was to protect from the incredible heat. Many of these fights took place in temperatures well over 100 degrees because they would begin at 6 p.m. Pacific time, well before the sun went down."

APRIL 1987: A general view of the ring outside during the fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Like Ali, the next breakout star was an Olympic gold medalist. "Sugar" Ray Leonard had already made Caesars his home, fighting there four consecutive times in 1979 as he created a buzz locally and on national television. In 1981 he graduated to the big leagues, drawing more than 23,000 to the famed Outdoor Arena for his fight with Tommy Hearns.

"Nothing compared to Caesars," Leonard told me. "The smell of booze and cigars, the beautiful women sitting ringside right next to celebrities and criminals. It was exciting. Once I fought there, I never wanted to go anywhere else."

In that fight, Leonard was finally elevated to the status of attraction. In Las Vegas you're judged by the gate, the gamblers and the level of celebrity coming out for the bout. If that's the case, according to boxing author Tim Dahlberg, Leonard had become a very big star indeed: "Muhammad Ali was at ringside, along with Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier and Jake LaMotta. So was comedian George Carlin, Jack Nicholson, Bill Cosby and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. This was an event, and Hollywood and the boxing fraternity were there to see and be seen."

What they saw was a fight for the ages. To the surprise of many, Hearns took a commanding lead on the scorecards as Leonard faded toward the end of the fight. Before the bout, it was Hearns who had looked gaunt and weak at the weigh-ins, foolishly engaging in a spirited game of half-court basketball on the night before the fight. He was the one expected to fall off in the later rounds, not Leonard.

Instead, the gangly Hitman had controlled the ninth through 12th rounds. A win seemed imminent, as Leonard's left eye was nearly swollen shut. It was only when Leonard's legendary cornerman Angelo Dundee lit a fire under him that the champion responded with a fury.

"You're blowing it, son, you're blowing it," Dundee told his charge before the 13th round. A suddenly energized Leonard came out guns blazing, dropping Hearns twice in that round before finishing him in the penultimate three minutes.

It was the greatest fight in the history of Las Vegas. After the bout, Caesars Palace executive Bob Halloran expected to find Leonard celebrating in his suite. Instead, the great champion was staring in the mirror at his broken and busted eye, unsure how much longer he intended to fight.

Halloran's instincts were correct. Leonard was done as a full-time fighter. Others, however, soon filled the void as Leonard had for Ali. And, in time, they were filling that void at more than just Caesars. The Las Vegas Hilton was another showcase for fights big and small, and the Mirage and others joined the party.

But by the 1990s, the outdoor parking lot arenas were too archaic for an increasingly modern Las Vegas. It was the end of an era. In 1960 Las Vegas' population was barely 60,000. Today the metro area is home to more than two million souls.

Caesars and its ilk gave way to this progress, part of the ever-changing landscape of the Las Vegas strip. In this case, change came in the form of specialized—and permanent—arenas at the MGM Grand and later the Mandalay Bay, which were built specifically for major events.

The boxing itself didn't change much at all. Glitz and glamour had always been a big part of the sport—there was no other way to do it in a town so filled with distractions. That remained true as the sport shifted venues yet again. Even as it faded in the mainstream, becoming a pay-per-view and pay television sport, boxing remained a major attraction in Las Vegas.

Don King
Don KingLennox McLendon/Associated Press

While Leonard proved definitively that the little guy could make a big splash, the heavyweights were still the biggest story in boxing well into the new millennium. New stars like Evander Holyfield burst onto the scene, right next to old favorites like George Foreman.

But there was only one Iron Mike.

Mike Tyson was just 20 when he came calling for the first time, fighting Alfonso Ratliff on the undercard of a forgotten Michael Spinks title defense in 1986 at the Las Vegas Hilton. He made $50,000. Almost a decade later, he was back on the strip, this time signing a six-fight deal with Don King and the MGM Grand.

Tyson did well, earning $25 million for his return bout. King did even better, leveraging his control of Tyson into more MGM Grand stock than anyone but Kirk Kerkorian.

"[King] could have been chief executive officer of a major corporation," Alex Yemenidjian, former president of MGM Grand, told Forbes. "He's as smart as anyone."

As Tyson flamed out, unable to find his form after a prison stint, Oscar De La Hoya emerged to take the pay-per-view throne. De La Hoya was a triple threat. His good looks attracted female fight fans, and his Mexican-American heritage both inspired and enraged fans from south of the border. He also brought hardcore boxing fans to the table by refusing to back down from the tough fights.

"Oscar fought Julio Cesar Chavez in Las Vegas in 1993 on HBO, and that was really a changing of the guard," Taffet said. "He cut Chavez in the first round; the fight was stopped early, and Oscar was victorious. That was the fight that launched Oscar to the megafight level, which resulted in him fighting more times on pay-per-view than any fighter in history and being the king of pay-per-view."

De La Hoya was from Los Angeles and fought there several times. But as a professional, once establishing himself as a superstar against Chavez, 17 of his final 25 fights were under the bright lights—on the Strip in the MGM Grand and the Mandalay Bay and on the campus of UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Your hometown doesn't matter so much in today's boxing. Tyson, De La Hoya and Mayweather, the three men who have dominated the last two decades at the box office, hail from New York, Los Angeles and Michigan, respectively. All of them had their most important and iconic fights on the Strip. If you're a drawing card, your hometown essentially becomes Las Vegas.

In 2014, Mayweather rules the roost. The only competition, Manny Pacquiao, was legendary for his ability to attract major players from Asia. Today he's doing the same thing in Macau, a Chinese gambling paradise that has the potential to dwarf Las Vegas—if casinos there make a concerted push.

"In the old Las Vegas, the casino operators realized that a big boxing match attracts the kind of customers they desire and enables them to entertain those customers and to have those customers use the casino and create gambling revenue," Pacquiao's promoter Bob Arum explained.

"Macau is the same situation. It's the only place gambling is permitted in China. It's the same theory. You do a big boxing match, and you have a star like Manny Pacquiao headlining, and the punters will come. They'll come to watch the event and stay to try their luck at the tables."

Will the next fight capital of the world be in the Far East? It's too early to say. Though Macau has left Vegas in the dust when it comes to gambling revenues, so far the city has slow-played its expansion into the fight game. For now, Las Vegas, like Mayweather, remains the undisputed king.

Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes compiled firsthand unless noted otherwise.