Diego Corrales of California (R) lands a left to Cuban-born Joel Casamayor during their WBC Lightweight championship fight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center
Diego Corrales of California (R) lands a left to Cuban-born Joel Casamayor during their WBC Lightweight championship fight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center (Reuters Photo / R. Marsh Starks)

At a championship fight, a lot of the action is outside the ring

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob Azevedo
Globe Correspondent / June 21, 2003

LAS VEGAS -- Night falls and floodlights wash over the linen- and leather-clad legions outside the Thomas & Mack Center. Men and women of consequence emerge from their Lexus sport coupes, taxi vans, and Humvee limousines with a smooth, calculated swagger, as if someone had just shouted, "Action!"

It's fight night in Vegas.

Gamblers and corporate chiefs, rap musicians and professional athletes, doctors and delivery men line the steps of the 17,000-seat arena, waiting to see the championship boxing match between John Ruiz and Roy Jones Jr. Jones is trying to become the first man in 106 years to earn a heavyweight crown as a middleweight title holder.

Inside, the atmosphere is similar to a packed nightclub.

"This is my first big fight," says Terrell Davis, 30, who is in town with his cousin. "This is like going to the Super Bowl or the NBA All-Star game," he says between bites of pizza. Davis should know; the Denver Broncos' running back was the MVP in Super Bowl XXXII.

For me, attending a bout in Las Vegas has little to do with history makers and stinging combinations; it's the crowd that tweaks my spirits. I'll walk 20 laps around the promenade looking for the person who decided to wear Dolce & Gabbana shoes and a skirt to the event.

Kelvin Roperson of Detroit stands at a concession counter with a buddy. Looking fit in a fedora and black blazer with extra-wide shoulders, Roperson sips a beer and says, "You can feel the electricity. You can feel it in everyone."

Las Vegas has good reason to call itself "The Boxing Capital of the World." According to the Las Vegas Sun, a fight of this caliber can bring $100 million to the city, which already draws more than 90 percent of the state's professional boxing matches. So far this year there have been nearly 70 professional matches in the state, where, of course, betting on them is legal.

John Piet, a senior research analyst for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, estimates that on average, each of the last five professional fights here brought in up to $7 million in non-gaming revenue: transportation, lodging, ticket sales, dining, and shopping.

Ticket sales are no small part of that total; tickets to the Ruiz-Jones fight cost from $200 to $3,000 (for ringside seats). "A lot of the people a fight brings in are usually higher-income visitors," said Piet.

Since the late 1970s, when Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown, Las Vegas has played host to some of the fiercest matches of all time.

Today, Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, and Caesars Palace casinos hold top-ranked boxing events almost every month. Most of the great champions have fought in the desert: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Marvin Hagler, Oscar de la Hoya, Sonny Liston. They bring their game here because it is where dreams come true, bankrolls swell, and careers crumble.

Standing a mile tall, Rasheed Wallace, 28, is with his wife near the doors. The Portland Trail Blazers 6-foot-11 forward looks irked as I approach with questions. "I'm just here for the fights," he says, unsmiling. "It's all about the competition." Like us other fans, professional athletes from all sports stand in awe of boxing's spectacle and craft.

Everyone here has come to see the fight, but the carnival gathering steam outside the ropes is just as intoxicating.

Wearing leather pants, Rachel Schltens, 24, from Ontario, leans on a trash bin, smiling. "I'm here for the celebrities," she says.

Somewhere in the building Jones, a breeder of roosters and pit bulls who lives in Pensacola, Fla., must know he will make history soon. Ruiz, of Chelsea, Mass., has got to be worried.

As the two wait backstage, middle-aged men dipped in cologne sit ringside with their arms curled around the tanned, strapless shoulders of the women next to them.

Soon, the music of "Scarface" blares through monster speakers as the fighters enter the ring. Cameras flash. Men pound one another's backs, screaming, "Who's it gonna be, baby! Who's it gonna be!"

"Jones in seven!" someone shouts back.

"Yeahhhhhhhh, Roy!"

Gary Grodecki, 33, an entertainment director for the New England Patriots, is sitting fourth row ringside. Glancing over his shoulder, he tells me through a pinch of tobacco, "You know you have good seats when you look back and see Lennox Lewis sitting behind you."

Jones's dominance swallows his opponent whole by the end of 12 rounds. Humiliating him with repeated jabs and rope-a-dope punches, Jones taunts Ruiz into submission. He wins a unanimous decision.

Frustrated, shapeless, and emotionally spent, the now former champ returns to his corner defeated and fast forgotten.

The arena empties quickly. The fight is over, but the chase is on. Limousines are put into gear as fans make for the clubs and restaurants. A floodlight from the nearby Luxor hotel divides the darkness above the Strip, and those who came for blood now seek the thump of a night spot.

Rob Azevedo is a freelance writer who lives in Melrose.

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