Las Vegas Fight Journal: Pacman, Miss Universe and Reflections

LAS VEGAS FIGHT JOURNAL. Las Vegas was sizzling like summer in November.

Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao returned from the briefest of speed bump retirements to face the tenuous holder of the WBO welterweight title, hometown hero Jessie Vargas. It was the main event on Top Rank’s fight card at Thomas and Mack Center.

After 12 somewhat entertaining rounds the hand of Pacquiao was abruptly raised as if it would be ludicrous to expect any other result. Kings are kings and if Ricky Bobby of Talladega Nights were real he would be shouting “if you aint first, you’re last.”

First, let’s talk about the arrival.

Driving into Las Vegas on the day of the fight was interesting. Surprisingly the roads were crowded. When I arrived I soon discovered a rodeo was in town and another event which I somehow forget. Boxing wasn’t the only show in Vegas.

Immediately after I checked in I raced toward the Thomas and Mack on the other side of town. The first time I ever set foot inside that arena was when Evander Holyfield defended his title against Lennox Lewis in a rematch. It was a Don King show and somebody stole all of the press credentials.

The mighty media was left standing outside in 100 degree heat as new badges were concocted. The fight card had already started when I finally was let in. About a dozen of us packed into a tiny elevator and I found myself physically brushed up against Sarah Jessica Parker while her husband Matthew Broderick was aside of her. Perspiration dripped down my face from embarrassment doubled by the heat inside the lift. Broderick was humorous about the situation and introduced himself and his wife to me. “I feel we should know each other,” he said.

Man, I couldn’t wait to get out of that elevator.

That was my first visit to the Thomas and Mack. One of my favorite visits came about years later when Emanuel Steward was walking out of the arena while I was walking in with one of my co-workers. It was still very early and Steward was telling us he was on the way to the airport to pick up Lucia Rijker. He asked if we would join him so we walked back to my parked car and headed to the airport.

Steward was not only a great boxing trainer but one of the nicest human beings. We always spent time talking whenever we ran into each other. When he died four years ago it was a crushing blow to the sport and all those who knew him.

The Thomas and Mack Center brings back a lot of memories.

Walking inside the spacious arena I remembered when the late Diego Corrales fought Jose Luis Castillo in the rematch and lost in the Thomas and Mack. It was five months after his thrilling come-from-behind win to knock out the Mexican lightweight in a fight people still talk about and re-watch over and over.

Crowds don’t arrive until around 7 p.m. in Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Unlike New York City where 20,000 people arrive by the second bout of the evening, the West Coast doesn’t rev the engines until much later.

One of the first journalists I saw walking into the media room was a good friend Muhammad Mubarak. Few have covered boxing as long as the L.A.-based Mubarak. We’re both around the same age but his involvement in boxing’s behind the scenes goes further back than mine. He’s also a prominent artist who has sold many paintings to celebrities like Redd Foxx and Stevie Wonder.

Later I ran into some other boxing media types like Butch Gottlieb and photojournalist Mary Ann Owen who live and work in Las Vegas.

The opening bouts were fairly interesting and included a match between China’s Xu Que and Riverside’s Fernando Fuentes. Que entered undefeated or one loss depending on whose fact sheets you believed. Fuentes had basically a 50/50 record. I had seen him brawl several times on small cards in California and knew he would give anybody trouble. He’s a long armed brawler who fires awkward looping combinations that are hard to adjust to at first. Que adjusted around the third round by beating him to the punch. Then, Fuentes adjusted by going to the body. That opened up the firing lanes even more and the Riverside fighter commenced to out-punch Que to victory.

During the fight somebody shouted “Welcome to America” to Que as he absorbed punishment. What a welcome as hundreds of fans of Chinese descent watched in disappointment.

The Chinese fans would find their joy later when Zou Shiming would enter the ring and fight Thailand’s Prasitak Phaprom for the WBO flyweight title.

Luckily I was sitting next to Helen Yee who was covering the fight card for Top Rank and other media entities. Raised in Las Vegas, she has her own sports radio show and speaks Mandarin. She had some interesting anecdotes to share about Shiming.

Shiming was fighting Phaprom, a Pacquiao look-alike in a rematch. Shiming won the first encounter. This time it was smooth riding for the two-time gold medalist from China who looked the best I’ve seen since he turned pro. His trainer Freddie Roach has been working out those amateur habits and Shiming was attacking with strong blows instead of glancing amateur touches. He won easily and his fans were loud as he strapped the WBO title around his waist. His wife was the most ecstatic of all.

During intermission in the media room a few of us sat around a round table while munching on barbecue chicken and discussing various things. At the table was Arne Lang of the, Mubarak, Lance Pugmire of the LA Times, Mark Whicker of the L.A. Daily News and Yee.

Most of the time was spent talking about Donald Trump and the impending election. Of course the other time was spent on boxing talk.

Back in the arena the fights went mostly as expected. Filipino fans shouted support for both Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire. It was good to see that every seat seemed filled all the way to the very top.

One of the fans in attendance was Miss Universe Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach who was sitting about 10 feet away from me. I spotted her walking to her seat but I didn’t recognize her as the beauty contest winner who was erroneously skipped by pageant MC Steve Harvey who named someone else. The reporter Yee sitting beside me informed me she was Miss Universe and was invited by Pacquiao to attend the fight.

Pacquiao has made a huge impact on boxing in the last 18 years, the years flying by with the speed of one of his combinations. I remember when he arrived and Roach telling me and others that he was the best prospect he’d seen in his life. It was immediately evident that Roach was not exaggerating. You never forget moments like that.

During the fight card I kept looking around the arena taking in the sights and sounds of the pro-Pacquiao crowd and wondering if the Filipino fans would ever find another hero like the speedy southpaw with his mop of black hair and nice guy attitude outside the ring and killer assassin aura inside the ropes. For a little guy he lasted a very long time.

Pacquiao never did make it to the post-fight press conference. Aside from the media a slew of Top Rank fighters were standing around waiting to hear what he had to say including Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley, Terence Crawford and some others. Instead, Bob Arum stepped to the podium and declared Pacquiao wasn’t coming or he just simply wanted to end the night.

Jessie Vargas suddenly arrived and kept the press conference going insisting that he did the best he could and that fighting Pacman was like playing “speed chess.”

Pacquiao will be back, says Arum. But who will it be?

Floyd Mayweather attended the fight but he is still retired. Or will it be Amir Khan who has expressed interest and has the speed to bother anyone?

By the time the media exited the Thomas and Mack it was close to 12:30 a.m. Some of us headed to the Orleans Casino to eat at TGIF. We ended the night talking about boxing. What else?


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