LAS VEGAS-Another journey into the deep desert took place last weekend to cover both mixed martial arts and boxing.

On Friday we took a drive into the Top Rank gym to see who was working out, but it was pretty empty. The only fighter we saw was super quick lightweight Sharif Bogere, a native of Uganda who now fights out of Las Vegas.

Next, we took a drive to Floyd Mayweather’s gym.

We knew Mayweather was overseas but a lot of pretty good boxers train out of his gym located in the heart of town. As soon as we walked in the gym doors I spotted trainer Luis Tapia, so I immediately knew that Layla McCarter was in the house.

McCarter, for those who don’t know female pro boxing, is one of the most skilled prizefighters in the world. She has great defense and very good offense. She was busy chasing a fleet-footed male boxer around the ring named David Springer who fights as a bantamweight.

Tapia trains both McCarter and Springer. The Las Vegas trainer says a fight card featuring McCarter and Springer is being organized for early July.

The veteran boxer McCarter is seeking a match with Ann Saccarato for the WBA lightweight title. It’s a perfect match up between two fighters who like to sit in the pocket and let the rockets fly.

“I want it to be a 12 round fight at three minute rounds,” said McCarter, who has fought twice before under those conditions. Normally women fight two-minute rounds and a maximum of 10 rounds for a world title fight. “The WBA already approved it if my opponent is willing to accept it.”

McCarter likes to test the boundaries of social and political correctiveness.

A few other boxers were in the gym including another female fighter who was hitting the speed bag when we arrived.

McCarter introduced us to Melissa St. Vil, a featherweight originally from Brooklyn now transplanted to Las Vegas. Her roots are from Haiti. She has this high-pitched voice and big personality.

St. Vil told us she was going to spar with Melinda Cooper on Saturday. Ironically, we were planning to see Cooper too. A few phone calls later and everything was set to see St. Vil and Cooper spar.

Later, on Friday, we headed to the MGM Grand where the press was going to a reception sponsored by Cazadores Tequila, a high-end tequila that was making its debut into MMA sponsorship.

The reception was held at the Tabu. Immediately upon entering the large theater we were met with hostesses holding tall margaritas on a tray and some appetizers. I grabbed the margarita.

If any of you have read my previous journals you know that me and photographer Paul Hernandez are on an never-ending search for the perfect margarita. In our travels we’ve hit San Francisco, Miami, San Diego and Las Vegas of course, scouring the nightspots and drinkeries for the margarita to beat all margaritas.

So far, the best by far is El Cholo’s margaritas near downtown Los Angeles. It has both the taste and potency required by all margarita perfectionists.

After grabbing our drink we found a spot on the stage that seemed kind of empty. By the time we got there a horde of guys with video cameras and microphones bunched into the area too. They were interviewing various UFC fighters like Forrest Griffin and announcer Bruce Buffer.

It was cool. As long as I had my margarita everything was very cool.

About two margaritas later, I decided to relocate to a more passive area. While sitting down I spilled part of my very cold margarita on my pants and shirt. I knew I had passed my breaking point. No more margaritas.

I decided to walk off the margarita effects by going to the sports book. I also grabbed a corn beef sandwich that was tasty but expensive at $8.

The Dodgers were playing the Angels on the screens so we watched a little but got bored with the extra-inning tie game. Back to the hotel.

Cooper and St. Vil

On Saturday morning I grabbed a cup of Starbucks coffee and a scone before heading to a homemade gym owned by James Pena.

Pena trains Melinda Cooper, one of the most electrifying boxers anywhere. Now fighting at bantamweight, the Las Vegas female fighter has been avoided like the Swine Flu and is probably more dangerous.

Very few fighters her size pack the impact of her punches when she unloads. Combine her power with speed and you have a very explosive fighter. When she connects you know she’s connected.

Outside of the gym, Cooper is rather shy but extremely intelligent. But once you know her its difficult to imagine she’s one of the most dangerous fighters in the bantamweight division.

Pena’s gym is located in a gated community. It’s not very big but he has all the equipment needed to train Cooper, who he has raised from an amateur star to a professional world champion.

The last time I saw Cooper box was in 2005 when she captured the WIBA and IBA flyweight titles by technical knockout against Anissa Zamarron in Palm Springs. She was only 19 at the time.

Four years can change a lot in a boxer. I wanted to see Cooper again. She’s set to fight Miriam Avila on June 13 in Mexico City. Avila’s record is inaccurate as is common with a lot of Mexican fighters. They only have her fighting twice but she has more than a dozen fights. She’s supposed to be tough.

Stepping up to spar with Cooper was St. Vil, who has fought as high as 135, though she is only an inch taller than Cooper. The Haitian boxer plans to move down to 126.

I had never seen St. Vil in the ring but once the sparring began it was clear to see that she was no easy touch. Both fighters unloaded on each other with professional precision and technical prowess.

It’s too bad there wasn’t a paying crowd to see the action. Cooper and St. Vil exchanged bombs and slipped in a space that could be described as the size of two king-size beds put together. Every time they pounded each other it was evident they were not holding back much.

I was so close to them that if they missed and hit me I’m sure I would have ended on my back. Both fighters have power, big time power.

St. Vil lost her last fight by split decision to Emily Klinefelter. It must have been close because St. Vil can fight.

After a long six rounds the sparring session ended and both fighters talked and joked like nothing had happened.

We took some photos of the fighters then loaded up and headed for the MGM to cover the UFC 98 fight card.

UFC 98

The MGM casino was buzzing with people. It wasn’t as crowded as the Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton fight, but still very populated with people.

Inside the media room we ran into the regular MMA press crews and after some grub I headed out to the fights.

At first the arena was not filled but by the main event it seemed every seat was filled.

I spotted Mike Tyson, who tragically lost his four-year-old daughter to an accident soon after this event, sitting next to Rampage and BJ Penn.

Here’s a prayer to Tyson and his family.

The fights were mostly good. Of course the most awaited contest was UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans defending against Lyoto Machida of Brazil who was the big 3-1 favorite.

Machida crushed Evans and now is the champion.


Immediately after the fights I headed toward Primm, Nevada, the Stateline bordering California.

On Sunday Dimitriy Salita, the number one junior welterweight according to the WBA, was fighting Raul Munoz in a 10-round fight.

I stayed overnight at Buffalo Bills Resort and Casino.

The fight card was staged by Roy Jones Jr. and his company Square Ring. It featured both MMA and boxing in the arena that sits about 6,000 people. Sarah Fina helped put the card together and the event itself. She has a bright mind and eagerness to succeed that you can’t ignore.

While waiting for the event to occur I spotted Bill Caplan, one of the top PR guys in boxing, if not the top.

We sat at McDonald’s drinking beverages and talked about boxing and baseball, my favorite subjects and I think his favorite subjects too.

Caplan, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, came to Primm with his wife to see Salita fight. It’s not often that the New Yorker ventures to the West Coast.

The fights were quick and Salita won his fight. I hadn’t seen him fight since 2001 at Soboba Casino near my residence. He has improved in every way. One more thing, he seems to have a pretty good chin.

We’ll see who he fights for the title: Amir Khan or the current WBA champion Andriy Kotelnik.

Immediately after the fights, I headed back home to California.

No margaritas on that night.