Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man in Las Vegas, Sept. 15 – Part I

 

Las Vegas has hosted 568 major title bouts, however, in the last 10 years only five heavyweight title fights have been staged there. The 12th-round KO that Oleg Maskaev (left) scored over Hasim Rahman in 2006 was the last.

  

RingTV.com’s resident historian Lee Groves looked into the storied title-fight lineage of Las Vegas before working the CompuBox keys for Showtime’s big quadrupleheader topped by the Saul Alvarez-Josesito Lopez fight at the MGM Grand on Sept. 15

Friday, Sept. 14: If I hadn’t looked at the calendar I would’ve sworn I was reliving Sept. 7. I departed the Home Office at exactly the same time, arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport at nearly the identical juncture, passed through security with similar dispatch and attempted to resolve the same Southwest frequent flier issues with the agent who addressed them then.

“Hey, you look familiar,” John said as soon as I reached the front of the line. “Weren’t you here last week?”

“I certainly was,” I replied. “I’m flying to Vegas to work another boxing card.”

Actually, I understated the situation. Unlike last week’s trip to “Sin City,” this marks the first time I will work a genuine big-fight weekend in Vegas, the kind I fantasized about attending since my teen years. Back then, more often than not, I turned on ABC at 8 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday and I heard the inimitable inflections of ABC’s Howard Cosell intone “Live from Las Vegas” while an aerial shot of the venue filled the screen. Three, and sometimes four, fights would follow and the ratings showed that boxing was a welcome departure from the usual prime-time fare.

But not only was I working a marquee boxing event, I was doing one during Mexican Independence Day weekend, where passion, pageantry and a reverence for history merged into a dynamic package. In this extremely diversified marketplace, boxing has precious few opportunities to make mainstream noise and for the past several years this period in mid-September has served as a launching pad in terms of putting the best foot forward.

It’s no accident that Las Vegas was the site of choice for not one, but two major boxing cards (an issue I’ll address at more length in Part Two). That’s because Vegas has been the top destination for high-profile boxing action for more than 50 years, and there’s nothing more persuasive to promoters than the sure-thing moneymaking partnership the casinos bring to the table.

Just how experienced is Las Vegas in terms of hosting championship contests? The following stats helped me acquire a much better grasp of its place in history:

* The first title fight staged in Las Vegas took place May 27, 1960 when Benny “Kid” Paret dethroned world welterweight champion Don Jordan by 15 round decision. The bout was held in the Convention Center, a site that hosted title fights until March 9, 1984 when Tim Witherspoon decisioned Greg Page to capture the vacant WBC heavyweight belt and Carlos DeLeon retained his WBC cruiserweight title by outpointing Anthony Davis. Though it remains open, that doubleheader represented the facility’s last boxing event.

Including the six title bouts to come, Las Vegas has been the site of 568 fights involving major titles. The following is a division-by-division breakdown along with its respective first Vegas title fight:

Heavyweight – 65 (First title fight: Sonny Liston KO 1 Floyd Patterson II, July 22, 1963)

Cruiserweight – 19 (First title fight: Marvin Camel W 15 Mate Parlov II, March 31, 1980)

Light heavyweight – 19 (First title fight: Willie Pastrano W 15 Harold Johnson, June 1, 1963)

Super middleweight – 13 (First title fight: Thomas Hearns W 12 James Kinchen, November 4, 1988)

Middleweight – 45 (First title fight: Gene Fullmer W 15 Sugar Ray Robinson IV, March 4, 1961)

Junior middleweight – 52 (First title fight: Freddie Little W 15 Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, March 17, 1969)

Welterweight – 55 (First title fight: Benny “Kid” Paret W 15 Don Jordan, May 27, 1960)

Junior welterweight – 52 (First title fight: Saoul Mamby W 15 Maurice “Termite” Watkins, October 2, 1980)

Lightweight – 51 (First title fight: Carlos Ortiz W 15 Joe Brown, April 21, 1962)

Junior lightweight – 40 (First title fight: Alexis Arguello W 15 Arturo Leon, November 10, 1978)

Featherweight – 32 (First title fight: Danny Lopez KO 6 David Kotey II, February 15, 1978)

Junior featherweight – 31 (First title fight: Wilfredo Gomez KO 10 Carlos Mendoza, September 28, 1979)

Bantamweight – 25 (First title fight: Carlos Zarate KO 4 Emilio Hernandez, June 9, 1978)

Junior bantamweight – 17 (First title fight: Gilberto Roman W 12 Sugar Bebis Rojas II, November 7, 1988)

Flyweight – 10 (First title fight: Danny Romero W 12 Francisco Tejedor, April 21, 1995)

Junior flyweight – 27 (First title fight: Humberto Gonzalez W 12 Melchor Cob Castro II, June 18, 1991)

Minimumweight – 15 (First title fight: Ricardo Lopez W 12 Kermin Guardia, May 7, 1994)

The most recent title fight staged in each division (before the six September 15 title fights) provides a telling picture:

Heavyweight – August 12, 2006, Oleg Maskaev KO 12 Hasim Rahman

Cruiserweight – March 1, 2003, Jean-Marc Mormeck KO 8 Alexander Gurov

Light heavyweight – June 2, 2012, Beibut Shumenov W 12 Enrique Ornelas

Super middleweight – March 5, 2005, Jeff Lacy KO 7 Rubin Williams

Middleweight – July 31, 2010, Dmitry Pirog KO 5 Daniel Jacobs (the first since Bernard Hopkins-Jermain Taylor II in December 2005)

Junior middleweight – May 5, 2012, Saul Alvarez W 12 Shane Mosley

Welterweight – June 9, 2012, Randall Bailey KO 11 Mike Jones and Timothy Bradley W 12 Manny Pacquiao

Junior welterweight – July 14, 2012, Danny Garcia KO 4 Amir Khan

Lightweight – April 14, 2012, Brandon Rios W 12 Richard Abril

Junior lightweight – May 2, 2009, Humberto Soto KO 9 Benoit Gaudet

Featherweight – November 6, 2010, Juan Manuel Lopez KO 8 Rafael Marquez

Junior featherweight – June 9, 2012, Guillermo Rigondeaux KO 5 Teon Kennedy

Bantamweight – August 13, 2011, Abner Mares W 12 Joseph Agbeko I

Junior bantamweight – August 15, 2009, Nonito Donaire W 12 Rafael Concepcion

Flyweight – October 1, 2008, Nonito Donaire KO 6 Moruti Mthalane

Junior flyweight – October 1, 2011, Roman Gonzalez KO 2 Omar Soto

Minimumweight – February 18, 2006, Ivan Calderon W 12 Isaac Bustos

* Here’s the most stunning – yet illustrative – stat derived from this research: In the last 10 years only five heavyweight title fights have been staged in Las Vegas: Maskaev KO 12 Rahman, Lamon Brewster W 12 Kali Meehan, Lamon Brewster KO 5 Wladimir Klitschko I, Roy Jones W 12 John Ruiz and Wladimir Klitschko KO 10 Jameel McCline. In the 1980s and 1990s Las Vegas heavyweight title fights were an industry staple because American-based big men virtually saturated the weight class. Since then, most American athletes that might have become boxers instead turned to football and basketball and as a result the balance of power – and geography – has shifted to Europe. That’s because there boxing is still treated by its media as a mainstream sport.

* Finally, as hot as the 168-pound division has been over the past 20 years, it’s interesting to note that the WBO belt has never been contested for in Las Vegas. In fact, there hasn’t been a WBO super middleweight title fight on U.S. soil since Hearns decisioned Michael Olajide at the Taj Majal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City on April 28, 1990.

*

This week’s flight was far less bumpy than the one I took seven days earlier, but there were a few noteworthy shakes and shimmies as we flew over the Rockies. We touched down at 6:35 p.m. Pacific Time, 15 minutes earlier than advertised, and the line at the taxi stand was far shorter and moved much faster than I would have thought on the night before a giant fight weekend.

Once I reached the MGM Grand’s Signature Hotel, the production team’s hotel listed on my itinerary, I experienced a Travelin’ Man moment. When I reached the head of the check-in line following a 15-minute wait, the hotel’s computers couldn’t find my name. I gave her all the possible derivations only to come up empty.

My mind briefly flashed back to a snafu one of my punch-counting partners suffered earlier this year, one which forced him to bunk with his colleague instead of having his own room. A quick phone call revealed I was booked at the MGM Grand’s Grand Tower, a different entity than the Signature. I was given a map and shown which path to follow, though the overhead signs did a good job of pointing me in the right direction. The walk was lengthy as I trekked through three moving sidewalks and a fairly large chunk of the casino. Just before I approached the front desk I spotted Jesus Soto Karass chatting with three other people that I assumed were members of his team.

This time the check-in process was flawless and soon I was inside my 14th floor room, which offered a scenic view of The Strip. After settling in I called a couple of friends with whom I hoped to spend some time – Alexandre Choko, author of the recently released “The Future of Boxing,” and James “Smitty” Smith, the longtime host of “In This Corner” who was busily covering both megacards. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with either, so I contented myself with a late-night (for me) snack at one of the food courts.

On the way down I ran into a group that included Showtime broadcasters Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood, who were about to enter one of the restaurants. After being introduced to the other members of their party, I told Steve “I want to show you something.” Spotting the twinkle in my eye perhaps Steve thought I was up to some mischief but I wasn’t. Some weeks ago while reorganizing my files I ran across an old artifact: The original “official correspondent” business card he issued to me when Steve was THE RING’s editor-in-chief.  Aside from the slightest of yellowing, the card was in perfect condition and the sight of it sparked several memories.

“January of 1992!” he exclaimed as he looked at the expiration date on the card. “I probably haven’t seen one of these since then. You never know what can happen in 20 years, and here we are at a big fight weekend.”

For me, writing for THE RING represented the realization of a dream. Several years before I was issued the card, I was a 23-year-old fresh out of college who was looking for exposure on the most prestigious pages in the boxing business. Steve – along with Nigel Collins and Phill Marder – saw something that persuaded them that this West Virginia walk-on was worth the risk. Once they opened the door I worked as hard as I could to make sure I stayed in the room. Although there were a few detours along the way, my journey has taken me to where I am today – CompuBox operator, Hall of Fame voter, seven-time BWAA award winner, fight video collector and writer for THE RING and its web site. Although I reflect on the odyssey on a daily basis, and give thanks for it just as often, I still am amazed that it actually happened. I am living proof that dreams do come true.

Another incredible turn of good fortune occurred on my way back to the hotel room. Just across from Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant I spotted Roberto Duran and his interpreter walking in the opposite direction. Five years earlier, on the morning of his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, I presented Duran with a DVD scrapbook that included dozens of his fights as well as exhibitions, sparring sessions and specials. It was my way of paying tribute to Duran, for his second fight with Esteban DeJesus provided the “thunderbolt moment” that sparked my interest in boxing and established the path for my life going forward. A picture of that moment in Canastota, one of the proudest of my life, serves as my profile picture on Facebook and this was only the second time I had seen him face-to-face since then. Last year at the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame, one of his daughters told me he loved those DVDs because it allowed him to relive many of the glory days.

I approached his interpreter and explained the story to him. After a few seconds Duran turned to me and said “those fights…from your collection?”

I told him yes.

“Thank you,” he said as he shook my hand.

“No, thank you,” I said.

The whole episode lasted less than a minute and soon Duran was on to the next group of admirers, for whom he posed for pictures. I walked away with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. I knew Duran would be at the MGM for a public autograph signing the following afternoon but I doubted whether I would get close enough to him to remind him who I was. Now I didn’t have to worry.

I returned to my room to complete various work responsibilities, after which I wound down by watching TV. As I switched off the lamp next to my bed a little after midnight, my thoughts turned toward the exciting day to come.

*

Photo / Ethan Miller-Getty Images

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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