Beatings In The Bushes There's little glamour and less money on boxing's casino-and-cable circuit, but every sport needs a minor league

March 10, 2003

Rodney (The Assassin) Tappin is not what you would call a
polished fighter. A sturdy welterweight, Tappin has an
abundance of potential, but he cleaves the air with wildly
errant punches and has a habit of leading with his face. Yet on
Feb. 21, Tappin fought on a card held at the Miccosukee Indian
resort and casino, in the swamplands outside Miami, that was
broadcast live nationally on ESPN2. Was he awed by the bright
lights? "Nah," Tappin said after winning a unanimous decision,
raising his record to 5--0. "It's not like I hadn't been on TV
before."

For all its ills, boxing has received a boost lately thanks to a
one-two combination: the proliferation of casinos and the
proliferation of cable channels. From Mashantucket, Conn., to
Temecula, Calif., scores of new casinos--most of them on Indian
reservations or riverboats--are paying promoters between $50,000
and $150,000 for the right to host a card. Like the 99-cent Coke
that draws you to the grocery store, the boxing is often just a
loss leader, aimed at getting you onto the property to gamble.
"But still, it's really helped the sport," says Tom Brown, a
matchmaker for Goossen Tutor Promotions, which put on the
Miccosukee card. "The casinos have become the minor leagues of
boxing. If 100 casinos do a few cards a year, that's a lot of
boxing."

Likewise, the sport is being televised more frequently than ever.
The broadcast hours are erratic, the production quality is
sometimes lacking and the fighters are often of Tappin's caliber.
But it's on. ESPN2's Friday Night Fights televises close to 50
cards a year, Fox Sports Net will air 18 cards and various
regional outlets have also taken a shine to the sport. Boxing
will even return to network television this summer, as NBC plans
to broadcast a series of mid-level fights on Saturday afternoons.
"Two guys whacking each other," says Rob Beiner, the producer for
Friday Night Fights. "Who doesn't like to watch that?"

Television exposure is usually a reliable indicator of a sport's
health, but in boxing's case, the tale of the tape, as it were,
can be misleading. While HBO and Showtime pay top dollar to air a
big-time fight, the rights fees doled out by the other cable
networks are negligible. Fox pays $40,000 for the right to air a
card--a pittance for two hours of programming that's often
reaired repeatedly. What's more, sources say that NBC is paying
nothing for its upcoming fights. "It's good that boxing is out
there, but a lot of times it's just filler," says Lou DiBella, a
promoter and former HBO executive.

A promoter who makes, say, $50,000 from TV and $75,000 from the
casino has little left to pay the fighters. For the Miccosukee
show the undercard fighters made from $500 to $3,000. The
headliner, WBC cruiserweight champ Wayne Braithwaite, made
roughly $30,000 for a title defense--a fraction of what Clifford
Etienne made for lasting 49 seconds against Mike Tyson the next
night in Memphis.

There were plenty of other reminders that Miccosukee was miles
from the big time. The ring announcer (a former Playboy model
wearing a dress aerosoled onto her body) pronounced Braithwaite's
name three different ways. His dramatic ring entrance was
undermined when he nearly collided with a forklift. His "dressing
room" was a mobile home parked outside the arena on the lip of a
swamp. Still, after knocking out challenger Ravea Springs to
retain his belt, the champ was philosophical. "You'd rather be
fighting for millions," he said. "But this is a lot better than
nothing." --L. Jon Wertheim

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY TIM BOWER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)