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History of boxing takes shape in unique Las Vegas vault

Photo: Isaac Brekken/SI

Jason Tang has assumed the arduous task of organizing the thousands of bouts Top Rank has on tape.

LAS VEGAS -- On the bottom floor of the Top Rank Boxing offices, there is an unlabeled white door. Beyond that, a steel door that resembles an oversized bank vault. Beyond that, a third door; and, finally, a room filled with thousands of tapes.

Of Top Rank's dozens of employees, only a handful are allowed inside. They need a key fob, a safe combination and a key to gain entry. The room they enter has its own generator and is built to withstand natural disasters, fires, even bombs.

If that all seems excessive, consider the value of the contents stacked inside. Those tapes number over 10,000, date back to 1970 and contain, by conservative estimate, at least 25,000 fights. Muhammad Ali is in there. So are Roberto Duran, George Foreman, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, who will add to the collection this Saturday when he fights Tim Bradley for the second time here at the MGM Grand.

The tapes occupy a series of gray metal shelves in a cramped room with no windows. They provide visual evidence of 40-plus years of boxing history. To Bob Arum, founder of Top Rank, they are also like home videos. They don't represent his life's work. They are his life's work -- and his company's single most valuable asset.

"If the building blew up, the vault survives," says Todd DuBoef, Arum's stepson and Top Rank's president. "They told us we could rent out space in the vault to banks or casinos to stash valuables."

"It's our own Yucca Mountain," Arum says, referencing the nuclear waste repository with a cackle.

It's hard to quantify just how much the collection is worth. It's like art in that way, valuable only if someone is willing to pay for it. Still, one boxing archive sold to ESPN years ago for a reported $100 million.

Arum believes his boxing library is the largest that exists. He says that Don King also owns an extensive archive, and he heard once that King offered it to an interested buyer for $500 million. When the buyer balked, Arum says King cut his price in half. He never sold.

"It's probably worth eight figures," Arum says. "But put this in the story: worthless. Because when I die, and they total up my stack, I don't even want to count. It's old film!"

Joking aside, Arum says he realized as far back as the second Ali-Leon Spinks fight, in Sept. 1978, that he needed to save his tapes and guard the rights. Previous to that, he would give the rights away, but always in a non-exclusive exchange, so that he also retained them.

The keeper of the vault is Jason Tang, officially in charge of new media operations and international sales at Top Rank, unofficially the master of the tapes. He met DuBoef while he worked as a personal assistant on a Michael Buffer television series. DuBoef needed some help archiving.

That became Tang's life.

Top Rank had stored thousands of tapes, in big boxes, in an ├╝ber-secure facility in North Las Vegas called Iron Mountain. Many were not labeled. None were organized.

Tang organized them. He tagged each tape with the date of the fight, the network and the city where it took place. He labeled the tapes "dirty," meaning they contained graphics, or "clean," meaning they did not.

When Top Rank moved into its new office space in 2013, rather than pay the thousands a month it cost to rent space at Iron Mountain, the company built its own vault. It was the first part of the office that was constructed, a ceramic shell fortified to withstand pretty much anything -- even, one employee joked Tuesday, Arum's notorious wrath.

The vault also inadvertently shows the evolution of broadcasting. There are fights captured on two-inch reels and VHS tapes, in Beta format and DigiBeta format and, for years now, in high definition.

Tang started the process of converting the older footage into newer formats roughly seven years ago, long before Top Rank moved into its new space. Broadway Video, based in New York, does the converting. The process is not a swift one. As long as it takes a tape to play is how long it takes to convert it. The really old tapes present their own problems, because they oxidize and begin to disintegrate when run through the machine.

Photo: Isaac Brekken/SI

With bouts recorded in many ways, Jason Tang has spent thousands of hours updating to new formats.

All told, Tang says he has converted 3,000 to 4,000 hours of footage. He did 1,000 hours last year alone. He's not even halfway done. "It's like a new science," he says "It's like a black art. Content is. Formats. Coding. Because once it's in a digital format, what digital format should it be in? How can it play on an iPad? You have to evolve with it."

Top Rank regularly sells the rights to certain tapes to individuals or companies for use in documentaries, commercials, films. Some want generic montages of early knockouts. Others want specific Pacquiao fights. Arum says he always hears the same thing. "We're making a documentary on a very small budget."

As boxing became more of a global sport in recent years, as the number of channels and mediums increased, so, too, did the demand for footage. Top Rank sells parts of its library all over the world, in more than 100 countries. It even sold footage of Butterbean for use in "Jackass: The Movie."

The rights must also be protected. On his honeymoon, DuBoef traveled to Thailand, where he saw an old Ali fight on ESPN International in Bangkok; in Japan, he saw another Top Rank bout on TV. He called the lawyers. He says they worked out a settlement. "Paid for the honeymoon!" Arum says.

That happens all the time. Arum says payment for Pacquiao rights were of particular concern in the Philippines, so now Top Rank only deals with one network and requires the money paid up front.

"The real question now is what happens to all this content, once you have the digital platform built up," DuBoef says. "Do you become your own Netflix-type boxing franchise?"

To that end, Top Rank is watching closely what happens with World Wrestling Entertainment. In February it launched a pay channel heavy on video content. Top Rank could do the same, but it does not own the rights to its fighters the way the WWE owns its characters and their storylines. In fact, when a company buys rights from Top Rank for a commercial use, it also must secure the rights for a fighter's likeness from the fighter or his estate.

In May, Arum says that Top Rank will begin a show in China. Part of that is screening older fights that fans there have never seen. Arum will speak, and they will watch, and he is looking forward to the experience, all these fights he has not seen in 30, 40 years.

The tapes themselves will remain protected, in the name of future monetary gain. Inside the vault, there is even an oversized fire extinguisher. It sucks the oxygen out of a room to prevent fires from spreading.

That's the vault. The one place where boxing history is bomb-proof.

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