Returning from Las Vegas where the biggest boxing match in eight years took place was a relief to put it mildly. Let me paint you a picture.
Any time Oscar “The Golden Boy” De La Hoya steps in the ring the city of Las Vegas lights up like New Year’s Eve. And if you add the world’s best boxer Floyd Mayweather to the mix well you get Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Eva Longoria, George Lopez and Mario Lopez to name a few.
World championship boxing was at its best.
It began around 9 a.m. Wednesday morning for this reporter as I dumped my luggage and photographer Paul Hernandez’s luggage into the trunk of my car. Off we went down the Interstate-15. Destination: Las Vegas.
Around noon after a quick three-hour drive we entered the MGM Grand parking lot structure that was surprisingly filled to capacity. Despite mid-week status when the casinos are usually less crowded we struggled to get through a throng of people milling around the Hollywood Theater inside the MGM Grand.
It was time for the last press conference for Mayweather-De La Hoya.
Inside the spacious theater that seats about 1,000 people, it was dark. We had arrived just in time for the entrance of both fighters whose arrivals were met with blaring music and flashing lights. When the regular lights came on it was apparent that reporters, photographers, camera crews, public relations specialists, trainers, boxers, and their groupies filled most of the seats.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kevin Flaherty, an HBO executive who’s worked many boxing shows.
People scrambled for the food that was placed on carts. When the lights were dimmed the food was carted away as a number of reporters tried to get the scraps of food left before it was taken out of sight.
After both fighters gave their spiel it was time for the one-on-one interviews. The fighters were stationed on each side of the theater stage with about 200 reporters struggling to speak to each boxer.
It was a riotous scene as heavy-hitting sports reporters like Tim Smith from the New York Daily News, Kevin Iole of the Las Vegas Review-Journal (now with Yahoo Sports), Steve Springer of the L.A. Times and many others used their knowledge amassed from covering hundreds of other boxing cards to grab the fighters at the strategic moment.
With media hordes from Europe, Asia, South America and other parts of North America on hand, it was knowledge of the inner workings of boxing coverage that allowed the experienced to grab those boxers and flee.
“Let’s get out of here,” was my response. “I’ve got what I need.”
Grabbing our gear we headed out to the other side of the Las Vegas strip to Barry’s Boxing Gym where Floyd Mayweather Sr. was training WBO junior lightweight titleholder Joan Guzman. We had run into Mayweather during the earlier press conference and he invited me and Hernandez to drop by.
Though I’ve been to about a dozen boxing gyms in Las Vegas, Barry’s Boxing Gym is one of the newer spots for pro boxers that spring up from time to time. We got lost so I made a few phone calls to boxers in the area who knew where the gym is located. We found the gym around 3 p.m. Inside we saw Mayweather, who was still dressed in a suit, looking at Guzman hit the bag. From time to time he gave instructions on how he preferred the super-quick Dominican fighter to fire punches.
“If he listens to me he can beat anybody,” said Mayweather, whose style of fighting seems to be a perfect fit for Guzman. “He’s fast.”
Guzman was challenging interim WBO lightweight Michael Katsidis of Australia on May 26 at the Anaheim Arena in Anaheim, California. But he hurt his hand while sparring that day against Fernando Beltran. Mayweather and Tony Rivera inspected the hand that didn’t look bad but Guzman said it felt painful around the knuckle of the left pinkie finger.
Around 4:30 p.m. we headed out to another private boxing gym where lightweight hopeful Vicente Escobedo and Abner Mares were said to be training. Though we didn’t have an address I had visited the gym twice before; the first time when Felix Sturm was preparing for his fight with De La Hoya three years ago. At the gym located in back of a large house, we were told we couldn’t go inside. De La Hoya was using it for his final preparations. We returned to the hotel where I begin writing the fight advance for Saturday’s publication. By the time I finish it’s about 2 a.m.
On Thursday afternoon we headed to the media center that’s about an acre in size where hundreds of reporters from web sites, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television outlets were seemingly roaming inside in a daze. Fighters such as Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez were being interviewed in more than 20 languages. Trainers, cut men, managers, promoters and others linked to boxing were sitting with reporters and drinking coffee that was abundant.
In the media center I got a chance to speak to old friends like Doug Fischer of Maxboxing.com. He’s a class act who loves boxing and knows the sport inside and out. He’s one of the few boxing writers who actually goes to local gyms to see new talent or fighters preparing for combat. There are not many boxing writers like Fischer who visit different gyms on a weekly basis. Most just hang out in one gym or not at all.
On the other side of the vast media room is Rich Marotta who does television and radio. He has a weekly boxing show that is greatly received in Southern California. He an his producer James are hustling around the room grabbing boxers walking around to provide their listeners inside scoop. Marotta is another guy who loves boxing. If you get a chance to listen to his show you always come away with satisfaction that you didn’t waste your time. He’s one of the last of his breed.
While sitting at the table with a few of the other reporters, Ray Ontiveros, who works in featherweight contender Rocky Juarez’s corner, spots me and comes to talk. Though he’s not the primary trainer for Juarez any more (Ronnie Shields is the new trainer) he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings. We spent most of the afternoon talking about Houston and its boxing scene. Ontiveros also talked about the journey he and his protégé had taken during the last 12 years. About an hour later we realized there wasn’t going to be any lunch for the starving media horde so we walked to Nathan’s Hot Dogs to grab something to eat. Ontiveros is an interesting guy who has been all over the world. Some of his tales have us laughing including those he told us regarding Brazil. He’s a straight-shooter.
Later that night, the boxing writers were herded into Studio 54 to watch the last installment of HBO’s 24/7. We sat next to several reporters from England who exchanged information with us about boxing in both countries. It’s plain to see that boxing is not dying in England nor Mexico. Fans from those countries are rabid about the sport and continue to send exciting fighters to the professional ranks.
After the screening, Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Chuck Johnson of USA Today and I were led to another boxing function to meet HBO executives. Tommy Hearns was there along with a few dozen more beat writers from across the country. Sitting next to HBO executive Tony Walker we spoke mostly about one subject: jazz music. Turns out Walker likes jazz as much as I do. We also talked about UCLA sports. I’m a UCLA Bruin circa 1983 and everyone at the table follows UCLA basketball and football. Morales and I go way back to 1993 when we first met at a De La Hoya boxing match at the Olympic Auditorium. He was born in East L.A. but raised in West Covina. I was born and raised in East L.A. like photographer Paul Hernandez. We all have East L.A. in common and that’s saying a lot.
After the dinner we headed back to the media center where hundreds of boxing fans were milling about in hopes of spotting De La Hoya, Mayweather or any celebrity. No luck today.
A final fight advance story by me about the upcoming super fight between Mayweather and De La Hoya is sent around 1 a.m. It took me a little too long to finish, maybe because I had that last margarita. That’s my weakness: margaritas on the rocks with no salt.
No straws please. Real men don’t use straws.
Friday morning we woke up as early as possible to head out to the east side gym where Escobedo and Mares were supposedly training. We arrived at the same time as the fighters this time. We find out Mares is not in town. But Escobedo is there.
Inside the large hangar-like facility Mexico’s famous Nacho Beristain, who manages and trains world champions Rafael and Juan Manuel Marquez, was giving instruction to Escobedo. Much like UCLA’s John “Wizard of Westwood” Wooden, the Mexican trainer feels every iota of preparation is vital: from tying your shoelaces to proper shoulder rotation while punching. It was like watching Rembrandt paint a picture.
Beristain put Escobedo through a simple dodge and counter drill for more than 40 minutes. Over and over he made his new charge practice the drill until his stance, reactions, and precision were up to his standard.
“He has good quickness and the tools to be very good,” said Beristain about Escobedo who he accepted as a pupil to return a favor to Golden Boy Promotions. “I can tell he is very dedicated and motivated.”
Escobedo listened intently as his new mentor explained the importance of firing a left hook without dipping the shoulder. He also showed the exact geometric angle he wants the left hook delivered.
Beristain professes precision and demands textbook excellence.
“I can see the difference in Vicente already,” said David Gutierrez who helps train Escobedo and has known him for years.
While looking at Beristain train Escobedo, I meet young Michele Gutierrez. She’s a boxer planning to move to San Diego for training. She looks intently at the master trainer tutor his pupil. Beristain is boxing’s Aristotle.
Around 5 p.m. on the same Friday, we headed toward the Palm Casino to watch a boxing card featuring several heavyweight hopefuls. One of them is Riverside’s Chris Arreola who is facing his biggest and most risky opponent yet.
The final bell rings about 9:45 p.m. and a story is sent around 10:15 p.m. We meet with various boxing promoters later that night and discuss Saturday’s mega fight over a late dinner with a public relations specialist. Her fascinating stories have us captivated and wanting more late into the night. We’ll leave her nameless to protect the innocent.
Saturday is finally here.
Like a Christmas morning in May you feel the day is going to be different the moment you awake. Boy, am I hungry.
We arrived at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theater to attend a press conference for the upcoming bout between light heavyweight world champion Bernard Hopkins and former undisputed junior middleweight world champion Winky Wright. Everything was nice and cordial until Hopkins reminds every one “we’re promoting a fight” and promised to annihilate Wright on July 21 in Las Vegas.
“I’m looking to execute Winky,” Hopkins said. “I respect Winky but I don’t like him.”
We’re a little upset because all of the free grub was carted away before we arrived. It’s already noon and a reporter gets hungry tramping around the huge casinos. Hopefully we can get some comida at the next press conference planned within a half hour.
Immediately after the Hopkins-Wright press conference ends we grabbed our heavy gear and walked outside toward a steakhouse located on the strip. We arrive early to grab a seat for the promotional kick-off for WBC heavyweight titleholder Wladimir Klitschko’s title defense against Lamon Brewster. Inside many of the boxing press come from Germany where the heavyweight title fight is going to be held on July 7, 2007 in Koln, Germany.
No grub in sight.
Klitschko promises a different ending. In their first meeting Brewster knocked out the big Ukrainian.
Still no grub.
“That was my very first fight (working) with Wladimir Klitschko,” said Emanuel Steward who trains the champion Klitschko. “You all know what happened.”
The conference ends and still I haven’t even seen a piece of bread. But finally we see one waiter bringing in monstrous hamburgers so a few of us wait including several fighters. Inside the upstairs room Javier Castillejo (who fought De La Hoya in 2001), middleweight Andy Lee and an undefeated light heavyweight grab a bite before leaving.
Finally satisfied we head back to the MGM Grand for the first bout that begins at 3:05 p.m. About 200 people are already inside the arena. Outside, thousands of people are milling about the entrance in hopes of grabbing an extra ticket or an autograph. Security officers have built an artificial wall to separate the onlookers from those with tickets or passes. About 100 people ask me for an extra ticket. One guy kindly asks how he can get one. I tell him the sad news.
Whenever I cover a fight card I try to watch every single bout. I feel it’s my duty as a boxing writer to see even the four-round fighters. You never know which guy is going to be “the one.” I especially want to see the young Filipino sluggers AJ “Bazooka” Banal and Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista. They have some good opposition and this is their big tests. They pass.
During the fights I get about a dozen phone calls from people wanting to know what’s going on. One of my friends (who is always late for every event) calls for help to get inside the event. I run outside to the hordes and finally spot him after about five minutes. People are everywhere. I show him where to get his credential then run back to the fights.
About 8 p.m. most of the 16, 500 seats inside the arena are filled and the crowd has settled in for the big fight. I’m seated alongside veteran sportswriters Dan Rafael of ESPN.com, Franklin O’Neil of Newark Ledger, Bill Dwyer of LA Times and Paul Gutierrez of the Sacramento Bee. We’re all trading opinions about who is going to win the fight.
At 8:33 p.m., Mayweather enters with rapper 50 Cent at his side into the arena as boos from the crowd filter the structure. De La Hoya follows and the fans erupt into cheers. It’s intense with the crowd cheering every time De La Hoya unleashes a combination and ooohs every time Mayweather fires a sneaky counter.
During the fight the reporters at press row exchange viewpoints. We ask each other how we’re scoring the fight. Most have it a close battle.
After 12 rounds are fought, the post fight interviews are taken, and 45 minutes later I send in the story. About 30 minutes later, we head back to the car and drive toward Riverside, California. We arrive about 4 a.m. on Sunday morning. Just in time to read the morning paper.