An historic prizefight weekend began on a Thursday afternoon as we roared through the high deserts of Victorville-Barstow, then the low desert that passes through Baker at an estimated speed that could be a smidge faster than a thrown ball. Temperatures ranged from 70 to 75.
Three days of boxing cards were being staged in various parts of Las Vegas beginning with the Mirage Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip. We had just enough time to make the opening of the arena doors around 4 p.m.
Whenever there’s a big fight weekend you can bet that the boxing journalists are going to descend on the glitzy strip from all over the world. Even on Thursday evening several dozen reporters from Asia, South America and Europe were already checked into their hotels. Sitting in the arena were the Las Vegas regulars and a number of celebrities.
Over the years I’ve made a number of friends in Las Vegas such as journalist Chuck Giampa and his wife Lisa who is currently a boxing judge in Nevada. Other recognizable faces are Richie Sandoval the former bantamweight world champion who now works for Top Rank. And, also Bob Arum, the head man at Top Rank. And then there are the numerous match makers such as Brad Goodman, Bruce Trampler and Sean Gibbons who were waiting to observe the various boxing matches. Those are just a few of those in attendance. Matchmakers catch as many fights as possible. Their job depends on it.
A crowd began to form midway through the second fight as both Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns walked into the arena. After all these years they still carry an air of royalty from the boxing crowd that saw them fight in person or on television. Even those born after their last mega fight know that they’re the elite of the elite. People can thank ESPN, HBO and Fox for airing many of their old fights.
Also in the second row was Oxnard’s Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios who has suddenly streaked like a meteor especially after his big knockout win over Colorado’s Mike Alvarado a few months back in California. The hard-hitting Rios is scouting possible opponents. One is Manny Pacquiao. In two nights that dream fight will burst like a water bubble.
It’s a very long night as several of the match ups go the entire route. One of the most exciting is the lightweight clash pitting Raymundo Beltran against Ji-Hoon Kim of South Korea. In the first round they blast each other down via the left hook. But the two warriors fought the entire 12 rounds with Beltran, who is trained by Freddie Roach, going the distance and winning the unanimous decision. Both fighters belted each other.
The other interesting fight was Las Vegas boxer Jessie Magdaleno fighting Ontario’s Jonathan Arellano in a junior lightweight bout. Magdaleno erupted looking for the early knockout but Arellano’s speed and defense allowed him to escape the big blows. He would get knocked down a few times but finished the fight on his feet. Magdaleno is looking tougher and tougher.
After the final match my photographer Al Applerose and I headed toward the casino area to look for a place to eat. The National Rodeo tournament is being held at the Thomas & Mack Center and cowboys from all over the country are roaming inside the Mirage and every spot on the Strip. It reminds me of the late 60s and early 70s when cowboys were a common sight in Las Vegas. Now it’s merely nostalgia. I remember when anything west of the Strip was vast desert sands. No buildings and no homes. Only sand.
Where the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino currently is perched used to be the old Hacienda Hotel and Casino. They had sawdust on their floors among the slot machines. Visitors used to come in trucks, campers and trailers and all wore cowboy hats. A few blocks north were the Aladdin Hotel where guys with New York and Chicago accents were plentiful. In those days there we no sports books inside the casinos. One of the few sports books was next door to the Aladdin and Tropicana Hotel. Inside the room was filled thick with cigar smoke and deli sandwiches were the meal of choice. Chalk boards had numbers written on them representing racetracks and sporting events throughout the country. It was loud and crazy with mostly men inside hooting and hollering. Boxing was also a favorite pastime to put a wager on. I remember wanting to put a bet on the Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman fight. But I had already bet at my work with a dozen people. Everyone at my plant wanted to take Foreman who they felt surely would massacre Ali. They all were certain I was a fool for taking Ali. I didn’t have any more money to bet in Las Vegas in 1974. But later I’d clean up and return to Las Vegas with my Ali winnings. It was a good year.
After munching on some $12 hamburgers in the Mirage we headed back to the hotel. I was groggy from the long fight card and wanted to get an early start on Friday.
I have this habit of getting up at 7 a.m. no matter what time I go to sleep at night. Downstairs I grab a coffee and open up my laptop to see if I missed any important messages. Nothing going on. The coffee at the Orleans is not very good. Plus, I won’t drink that toilet coffee they leave in the rooms. Who knows what they do to those coffee makers.
Applerose meets me downstairs and we grab something to eat for breakfast. While eating an omelet we plan out the day. After a few hours we head to the MGM Grand to the press room set up next to the MGM Garden Arena. It’s already crowded with journalists, fighters and promoters.
I found an open spot to plug in the computer and while doing it someone tells me that there is no food. Journalists love free food, especially photographers. If you ever look at a boxing photographer notice that they’re mostly all beefy guys. They all know each other and if you ever want to know when the food is going to arrive, just ask a photographer.
A commotion stirs toward the back with dozens of people following a bald guy who I can’t distinguish at first. So I walked toward the back of the large convention room and see that it’s Iron Mike Tyson about to give a radio interview. Nobody is more popular than Tyson, well, perhaps Muhammad Ali, but that’s it. Whenever Tyson appears at an event of any kind the focus goes to him. Recently he has agreed to do a nationwide tour of a one-man show where he talks to the audience and answers any questions. He seems very happy about the tour and patiently answers the questions of the radio jock. When he leaves an entourage of 30 people leave with him. Suddenly it’s quiet again.
As Tyson leaves another boxer enters the press room: middleweight world champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez. He’s wearing a t-shirt and looks fit and ready to go. He had just endured a knee surgery but says everything is ok. One journalist after another questions the Argentine who is extremely honest.
Finally the weigh-in begins and crowds can be heard shuffling toward the arena. I stay in the press room and watch the proceedings on a large television screen. I’m surprised that Manny Pacquiao weighs 147 and Juan Manuel Marquez only 143. Usually Pacquiao comes in much lighter. The crowd is mostly pro-Marquez which is another surprise. Pacman’s fans are usually rabid and come in droves. I guess they’re expecting another ho-hum victory. After all, it is the fourth fight. Not many people want to see the fourth encounter.
A friend based in Las Vegas, who is quite a boxing historian, says that any fight between Marquez and Pacquiao is worth seeing. “These are two of the elite fighting each other,” he says. “They’re possibly the greatest fighters of their generation. Who would not want to see them fight each other?”
It’s a very good point.
After the weigh-ins we head through the crazy Vegas after work traffic. I zigzag through various streets to get to the Texas Station Casino north of downtown Las Vegas. We make it but the fights have already started. Luckily, the fight I want to see is up next. It’s the heavyweights.
Usually I don’t like heavyweight fights. They’re too ponderous and don’t throw as many punches as the smaller guys. But on this night undefeated Andy Ruiz, a Mexican heavyweight, is going to face Elijah McCall, the son of former heavyweight champion Oliver McCall.
Ruiz does what I expected especially with those fast hands and surprising footwork for a heavy guy. He opens up with some strong counters that force McCall to unload with bigger bombs. It only leaves him open for Ruiz’s fast counters. The Mexican heavyweight plows through McCall with some big shots and knocks down the other prospect. Eventually, the referee stops the fight when it gets too one-sided. Ruiz is a heavyweight to keep an eye on. I saw his first two fights in Mexico and also saw him spar Riverside’s Chris Arreola and Lateef Kayode. Ruiz can fight.
I receive a telephone call and have to leave the arena. I head toward one of the ritzy hotels where I meet a few business partners to discuss some issues. Later, I head back to the MGM where we run into a few boxing trainers, cut men and journalists near the hotel reservation area. We spend two hours talking about the big fight and one of the trainers asks who we’re all picking. I tell him for the first time I’m picking Marquez. I tell him that Pacman didn’t look good against Timothy Bradley and could not fight the entire three minutes of a round. He opted to fight in the last 30 seconds and do what is called “stealing a round.” Against Marquez, that’s a bad idea.
As we’re talking, Marquez’s conditioning coach stops by and shares some insight on the recent debates. One of the other journalists, Lem Satterfield, recently interviewed him and he just wants to thank him for the fair journalism. While we talk about boxing several cowboys see the Marquez coach and ask to take a photo with him. He obliges and spends the next hour doing it. Poor guy.
Me and Applerose break off and I hear someone calling my name. It’s Tony Rivera, one of the great cut men in boxing and a veritable historian as well. In his career he worked the corner of Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran and Marco Antonio Barrera. As we talk a bit another guy comes up to shake my hand and say hello. It’s 50 Cent, but I didn’t recognize him without his hat and gear at first. I wish him luck. His fighter is Cuba’s Yuri Gamboa who fights Filipino southpaw Michael Farenas.
We spend another three hours in the bar where we sit and talk with ace flack Mario Serrano who handles the “Ghost” Robert Guerrero among many others. But Guerrero is his main guy. They came up together in the boxing world. A few other journalists stop by and before you know it, its 4 a.m.
I get three hours of sleep and get up at 7 a.m. I can’t seem to fool my internal alarm clock. I head to Starbucks and make some calls to start the busy day. It’s a big fight and we have to pick up credentials, find parking and get something to eat.
After setting up my computer in the press room, I look for a place to eat inside the MGM. We were supposed to meet a boxer but she can’t make it. So we decide to get something to eat at a pizza place. While we’re eating I spot IBF lightweight titlist Miguel Vazquez waiting in line to grab a Nathan’s hot dog. He downs the hot dog then later I see him with an ice cream cone munching like a contented kid. I ask Applerose if that’s a good thing to do? We’ll find out later that night.
Inside the press room reporters are scurrying around the tables and preparing for the fight card to begin. It’s around 4 p.m. and I head toward the arena. Top Rank’s Lee Samuels is walking toward the arena at the same time. We walk in as one fight has already commenced.
Unlike mixed martial arts, boxing fans do not begin arriving until 6 p.m. or later. Most only want to see the main event. They’re nuts, especially those who spend $500 and up.
A few fights have passed when Bob Arum shouts to Satterfield and I that Republican governor Mitt Romney will be in the audience today. Some mutter a few things upon hearing the news. I begin thinking Romney is going to be smack in the middle of a boiling ethnic melting pot filled with mostly Mexicans and Filipinos. It makes me chuckle. It would have been better served if he had experienced it before the election. Romney attends with his wife.
Several fights pit Mexicans or Latinos versus Filipinos. On this night, only one Filipino Dodie Boy Penalosa emerges victorious. All three of the other Filipinos including Pacquiao will go down in defeat.
When the Marquez-Pacquiao fight begins I look at their stares. Both have done this three times before so there should be no changes or surprises technically. At this stage of their career they are what they are. The big surprise however, is when Marquez decks Pacman with a long overhand right from seemingly across the ring. Pacquiao hits the deck hard with his black hair flopping wildly. The fight resumes but the Filipino southpaw doesn’t seem hurt, just upset.
Marquez looks confident until Pacquiao catches him walking into a short left cross. Down goes the Mexican boxer extraordinaire. When he gets up Pacman attacks as if his life depends on it. In some ways it does.
In the sixth round Pacquiao tries to knock Marquez out but the Mexican knows all of the tricks. After about one minute I noticed that Pacquiao’s legs are quivering as if he’s tiring rapidly. He shakily begins to move toward Marquez who stands in front and receives a volley of punches. Marquez suddenly moves backwards, but almost as if he’s setting a trap. Pacquiao moves in and feints once and Marquez reads the feint and holds back his counter, then Pacman attempts to fire the left and is met with a short right cross to the chin that catches Pacman walking into the punch. Boom. Down he goes. An entire arena jumps in surprise, including Jim Lampley who is sitting in front of me. Fans along ringside can be seen with their mouths opened wide and some with hands to their face. Even Romney has a look of shock. Pacquiao is down for the count.
But after that savage knockout, many of the fans are somewhat quiet. Pacquiao is still on the floor, not moving. Minutes pass and still no movement. Then, he slowly is raised to his feet and the pro-Marquez fans can finally cheer in earnest.
I’ve been following Pacquiao since the Lehlo Ledwaba fight and Marquez since his days at the Inglewood Forum. Now here they are at the top of the pyramid. Temporarily, Pacquiao has been toppled like all other kings have been toppled in the past. It’s another era gone. Not just for the Filipino slugger but for Marquez too. Both should end their careers on this note.
After the fights, its pandemonium in the MGM Grand. We leave the arena and meet friends including Melinda Cooper, the beautiful and talented boxer from Las Vegas. About 10 of us spend four hours at a sushi bar until 3:30 a.m. I head to the hotel and sleep at 4 a.m. and get up at 7 a.m. Then I head back to California all the while talking to Applerose about the tiring but exciting journey.
Oh yeah. And about the lightweight champ Vazquez who we saw eating hot dogs and ice cream. He won by unanimous decision. I guess that stuff is good for you.
Next stop is California.