By Arne K. Lang
Today, Sept. 16, marks the 35th anniversary of an iconic fight, Hearns-Leonard I. The bout was staged at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip in a temporary wooden arena set up in the parking lot. A seminal moment in the casino era of boxing, the bout and the flurry of big fights that followed stamped Las Vegas as the fight capital of the world and lifted Caesars Palace into an iconic brand in the world of gambling resorts. The property adopted the motto “Home of Champions,” a catchphrase they would ultimately abandon.
Hearns-Leonard I was a marvelous fight that washed away the lingering odor of the first big outdoor fight at Caesars Palace, the sad Ali-Holmes spectacle. Sugar Ray, trailing on the scorecards, his vision blurred by a puffed right eye, turned the tide with a big 13th round and stopped the “Motor City Hitman” in the next frame.
Caesars Palace, which opened on August 5, 1966, has had several owners over the years. The motto “Home of Champions” was adopted during the reign of the Perlman brothers, Clifford and Stuart, who acquired the property from the original ownership group in 1969. The brothers, sons of a Philadelphia dentist, made their first fortune selling hot dogs.
In 1956, the Perlman brothers purchased a modest little Miami Beach restaurant named Lum’s. They grew the restaurant into a publically traded nationwide restaurant chain with almost 400 branches. In September of 1969, Lum’s Inc., of which Clifford Perlman was secretary, treasurer, and Chairman of the Board, acquired Caesars Palace.
The signature item on the Lum’s menu was a hot dog steamed in beer. There were no hot dogs on the menu in the Bacchanal Room, the most upscale of the dining options at Caesars Palace. At the sumptuously-appointed Bacchanal Room, hostesses in togas poured wine and massaged the necks and backs of the patrons on request.
How does one parlay a hot dog joint into the ownership of what was then the most opulent gambling emporium on the Las Vegas Strip? It’s a great mystery, but the Perlmans obviously had help from private investment bankers. Very private.
The acquisition of Caesars Palace by Lum’s would be credited with ushering in the modern era of gambling in Las Vegas. Folks with MBA degrees – “corporate suits” in Vegas lingo – supplanted the streetwise characters that comprised the first generation of casino operators. But at Caesars Palace this was hardly a sharp transition.
The Perlmans did not hire Jerome Zarowitz and Irving “Ash” Resnick; they inherited them. But Zarowitz and Resnick remained key employees.
In 1947, Zarowitz, a bookmaker, was found guilty of attempting to rig the outcome of the 1946 NFL title game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears and sentenced to a year in prison. At Caesars Palace, he was the credit manager. He approved markers and made arrangements for the satisfaction of debts.
Zarowitz was forced to resign following a raid by federal agents in 1970. In a Caesars Palace lock box controlled by Zarowitz, agents found $1.12 million dollars in cash.
Ash Resnick, born in 1916, was a great high school athlete in his native Brooklyn and went on to play 14 seasons of professional basketball. Lore has it that he was a great free throw shooter, so great that he could purposely miss a free throw without anyone being the wiser. Resnick, it was said, liked to win but he didn’t always like to “cover.”
Resnick was the Las Vegas version of Toots Shor, the fabled New York City nightclub host. Akin to the convivial Shor, he was seemingly on a first-name basis with every famous athlete in the country. Ash was their go-to guy in Vegas for show reservations, etc. Partial to boxers, he was frequently seen in the company of his bosom buddy Joe Louis. But Resnick wasn’t everybody’s pal. In 1974, eight sticks of dynamite were found tied to the undercarriage of his Cadillac.
Resnick, who bounced around, was an important figure on the Las Vegas boxing scene before he hooked up with Caesars Palace. The first big fights in Las Vegas were staged at the Convention Center. The “A” fighter was invariably lodged at the casino-hotel where Resnick was employed. In exchange for free room and board, the fighter held public workouts on the property and was obligated to hobnob with big gamblers.
When Caesars Palace got into the fight game, Resnick was on board and poised to implant this template. When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Bugner in 1973, Ali’s afternoon workouts attracted big crowds. Resnick shrewdly planted a stooge in the audience to heckle Ali when Ali’s workouts were finished. The barbs they exchanged were great theater. It was the best lounge show in town and it was free.
Resnick left Caesars Palace in 1974 after the government alleged that he failed to pay taxes on $300,000 skimmed from casino profits. He was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned. He later acquired a boxing promoter’s license and promoted a few shows up the street at the Aladdin.
The Ali-Bugner fight, sponsored by Caesars Palace, was held at the Convention Center. It was the first fight in Las Vegas to attract a large delegation from overseas. Englishmen arrived in droves to support the London-based Bugner and his stablemates John Conteh and John L. Stracey who appeared on the undercard. And the honchos at Caesars Palace were enlightened. Far better, it was determined, to keep these events on property.
In the back lot behind the tennis courts, Caesars Palace erected a “sports pavilion.” From a distance the building had the look of an Army Quonset hut, but this humble edifice would house many memorable fights. George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle (Jan. 24, 1976), Roberto Duran vs. Esteban De Jesus (Jan. 21, 1978), and Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton (June 9, 1978), among others, were humdingers.
Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard achieved such immense fame that their fights were moved outdoors where larger crowds could be accommodated. Thus began an era that one wag dubbed the era of parking lot extravaganzas.
The Perlman brothers ran into trouble when they purchased the Boardwalk Regency Hotel in Atlantic City and set about converting it into another Caesars Palace. The regulators in the Garden State investigated would-be license holders more meticulously than did their brethren in Nevada. The Perlmans were deemed unsuitable because of their business associates in Miami and because their Nevada casino provided credit to individuals with ties to organized crime.
The regulators wouldn’t allow Caesars Palace to enter the Atlantic City market unless the Perlmans were out of the picture. In the summer of 1982, they complied and sold off their stock in the parent company which had shed the name Lum’s in favor of Caesars World. Clifford Perlman, who had a larger stake than his brother, had stock holdings valued at $92 million.
Several months after defeating Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, the third (and last) boxer to win the coveted award, following in the footsteps of Ingemar Johansson (1959) and Muhammad Ali (1974). Both Leonard and Hearns would go on to have memorable bouts with Marvin Hagler. Those events also played out under the stars at Caesars Palace.
Clifford Perlman, who outlived his younger brother by 28 years, died earlier this month in Bel Air, California at age 90. This reporter never met him, but if by chance I had I would have said “thanks for the memories.” For many older boxing fans, boxing was never more fabulous than during the Perlman brothers reign at the “Home of Champions.”