City of Big Purses

Once casino owners saw how many high rollers a fight brought in, Las Vegas became home to the big bouts
January 17, 2005


by Tim Dahlberg

Stephens Press 228 pages, $34.95

In 1955, when Las Vegas was more dust than dreams, Archie Moore came to town for a heavyweight fight with Nino Valdes. The bout, staged in a ring erected on a baseball infield, was hailed as the "greatest event for the town since the government started using the area for atom bomb testing." That was a stretch, but the match did produce measurable fallout, to the point that Las Vegas, as detailed by Tim Dahlberg, has truly become ground zero for the sport of boxing.

Nearly half a century later very few fights of any magnitude find a home outside Las Vegas. That's because the economics of big-time boxing simply do not work outside the casino environment, where gamblers plump site fees with their heavy rolling. For the 1980 Larry Holmes--Muhammad Ali heavyweight fight, Caesars Palace erected a temporary stadium to hold nearly 25,000 and sent for all its heavy hitters. That first megafight doubled the casino's drop for the month. For Las Vegas ever after, boxing has become the cheap buffet, luring serious money to the tables.

By now it has become tradition, and Dahlberg, who has covered the sport in Las Vegas for the AP since 1979, has done more than preserve that tradition in this oversized book, which is stuffed with photographs. In tracing the growth of boxing in his city, he has dug up more than a few gems and arranged them with wit.

There was Sonny Liston, the first man to defend a heavyweight title in Vegas, in 1963. He trained at the old Thunderbird Hotel and set up his p.r. office in the coffee shop. A sign strung across his booth read SONNY LISTON, HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD. NO ONE SITS HERE. And almost from the beginning there was Ali, who arrived for Liston's title defense against Floyd Patterson that year specifically to heckle the champ.

Both Liston and Ali, for all their promise of spectacle in a city that turned ever more spectacular, came to sad ends in Las Vegas. Liston's tombstone--he died at home from an apparent heroin overdose at 38--is not far from the airport runway that welcomes people luckier than him. And an aging Ali was sacrificed in an unnecessary and damaging fight with Holmes. Still, boxing was the one thing that reliably delivered on Las Vegas's promise of excitement, and Dahlberg's roll call of great fights over the years is enough to remind us how glorious the sport can be.

The 1980s were a good time to be in the business, with such fighters as Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler sweeping through town for title bouts. The '90s brought heavyweights Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and, yes, Mike Tyson, and with their eclipse, an even fresher group led by Oscar De La Hoya. By then the city was dedicated enough to the sport that casinos like the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay were constructing indoor arenas and filling them. Together, Las Vegas and boxing had grown to be big-time.

Dahlberg lovingly depicts this growth, digressing to choose his favorite fights and fighters and to remember the sport's capacity for surprise. Whether it was the Fan Man flying into an occupied ring or a former champ biting off an ear, it's all here, fallout from that brilliant idea: to bring boxing to Las Vegas.

COLOR PHOTOSTEPHENS PRESS LLC (BOXING BOOK) COLOR PHOTOERIC JAMISON/AP (FIGHT) CENTER STAGE Dahlberg (inset) reveals how the stadium bout became a Vegas staple. COLOR PHOTOK.M. CANNON (DAHLBERG) [See caption above]