ACROSS SIX lanes of traffic from McCarran International Airport, shadowed by jets delivering fight fans to Las Vegas, former champ Sonny Liston lay unbothered last week beneath a small marker bearing his epitaph (a man), his guessed-at year of birth (1932) and his presumed year of death (1970). Linking those uncertain dates was the short hyphen of a sad life.
"They're fighting for eternity," the president of the World Boxing Council, Mauricio Sulaiman, said before Floyd Mayweather Jr. won a unanimous decision over Manny Pacquiao late Saturday night. But in Las Vegas, Eternity is only ever a nightclub, or a stripper, or the metaphysical state at Davis Memorial Park, where Liston—combatant in two Fights of the Century—is now in permanent repose in the Garden of Peace, barely four miles from the latest stab at a Greatest Fight of All Time. Depending on which T-shirt you believed, Mayweather-Pacquiao was supposed to go down as the FIGHT OF THE CENTURY or the FIGHT OF THE MILLENNIUM, but in truth it was only ever going to be "the biggest fight of all time right now," in the words of Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, who knows that nothing ever lasts in Las Vegas, a land of permanent present tense.
On one of the biggest sports Saturdays in memory, it was as if two Kentucky Derby entrants—Carpe Diem and Itsaknockout—had foaled the fight that followed the horse race. It wasn't a knockout, not even close, but when a ticket holder has paid a hundred grand for 47 minutes of sporting diversion, he learns to live in the moment and carpe the diem.
At the Caesars Palace sports book before the fight, the big board was dominated by boxing bets, but still fizzing with action on the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs. The casino's ancient Rome--style statue of Joe Louis stared at the bettors, who stared at the TVs. The plaque on the plinth describes the Brown Bomber as the WORLD'S GREATEST BOXER, proof that Mayweather's self-anointed superlative of TBE—The Best Ever—carries on a grand boxing tradition of almost everyone staking a claim as the best fighter in history.
Louis, who is certainly on that short list, spent the last years of his life as a greeter at Caesars, and the last night of his life attending the Larry Holmes vs. Trevor Berbick fight in 1981. Hours after that bout Louis died of cardiac arrest, and his funeral was held in the casino, his gold casket placed in the center of a boxing ring. Muhammad Ali—the Greatest—sat ringside for the funeral. Frank Sinatra delivered a very Vegas-y eulogy. "He knew too well that life has 15 rounds," he said, "and none of us wins them all." Sammy Davis Jr. sang, "Here's to the winners."
This weekend's winners were always going to be Mayweather and Pacquiao, or maybe Mayweather & Pacquiao, business partners in a lucrative joint venture witnessed on Saturday night by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also a eulogist at Louis's funeral. Every generation gets the Fight of the Millennium it deserves, sometimes several. "The ultimate goal was to make nine figures in one night," as Mayweather said after. "And that's what we did."
That payday was thanks in part to the planes that flew in over Liston's grave last Friday, disgorging passengers drawn to the pool parties and the pai gow rooms—the Speedoed and tuxedoed, the miniskirted and muscle-shirted, the preachers and protesters, a disparate group all inhaling the same air of fight week, which smelled principally of cigars and Axe body spray. They posed with their selfie sticks in front of the Arthurian castle of Excalibur, the ancient pyramid at Luxor, the Roman columns of Caesars Palace, all those lost civilizations whose buried histories have nothing on Las Vegas itself, which sweeps up its history every morning. As the vendors hawked their prefight souvenirs on the sidewalk outside the Strip's 24-hour Fatburger, a pedestrian fingered the hem of a match-hyping T-shirt and said, "But it won't mean s--- on Monday." The guy knew that this week's Who's Who is next week's Who's He?
And while both fighters have boundless entourages employed to tell them the opposite—one member of Mayweather's Money Team kept shouting the affirmation "O.K., Champ!" at a press conference last week—this fight wasn't for eternity. Like the rest of them, the fight was for Right Now.
ON SATURDAY NIGHT, after months of build-up, the silver-tongued Michael Buffer—platinum hair shining in the klieg lights—pronounced both parties ready, at long last, to rum-bull. And in a moment that didn't last quite as long as expected, the baying crowd, the rising smoke, the thumping music, the Fall of Saigon helicopters outside—all contributed to a feeling of impending apocalypse.
But then it can feel like that at any given moment in Las Vegas, the place constantly crumbling to dust and rising again—the decline and fall of Rome repeating itself every 15 minutes on the quarter hour, like the dancing fountains at the Bellagio.
When Roach moved to Las Vegas from Massachusetts as a young professional boxer, he took a job as a busboy at the Golden Nugget while also fighting at the Silver Slipper. He stayed for 15 years. "I still have four houses in Las Vegas," says Roach, who now resides in Los Angeles. "My sisters live in them, so I don't get too much rent."
Like Roach, who has Parkinson's, the Golden Nugget has taken its lumps but remains standing. The Silver Slipper, once owned by Howard Hughes, was razed in 1988, though Hughes had long since deactivated the spinning footwear of its marquee. According to Las Vegas legend, Hughes thought the slipper concealed a camera that spied on him through the window of his suite next door at the long-since-departed Desert Inn.
These ghostly casinos, and the ghostly fighters they hosted, are everywhere and nowhere in Las Vegas. Like Roach, late of the Golden Nugget and Silver Slipper, casinos and the fighters go fisted hand in padded glove. In 1953, Sugar Ray Robinson, yet another claimant to the title of World's Greatest Fighter, consigned his boxing gloves to an aluminum time capsule that was buried, with great fanfare, on the grounds of the Sands hotel. The rocket-shaped vessel, which held other treasures of its age, was to be exhumed 100 years later, in 2053. But a decade after its burial, the capsule's contents were reportedly found in a local dump, having been accidentally excavated during a Sands renovation.
The 22-year-old MGM Grand Garden Arena increasingly qualifies as the city's repository of ancient performance history, the place where Evander Holyfield entered the ring in possession of two ears and left with something like one and a half. It's where the rap star Tupac Shakur spent the last conscious night of his life, attending the Mike Tyson--Bruce Seldon match in 1996, before being shot a short distance away, at the corner of Koval and Flamingo. On a recent day the only onlooker at that intersection was a larger-than-life lady on a gentleman's club billboard, her gaze 1% come-hither, 99% go-thither.
Another archaeological layer was added on Saturday night, when the 16,800-seat arena was filled once again with what looked like most of the famous people of the age. An observer in section 19, seated in front of Paulie Walnuts but in back of the Jonas Brothers, could survey from that perch manifold Batmans and Birdmans, sundry ballers, brawlers, shot-callers.
In a voice like drawn butter, Hall of Fame ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. calls the MGM Grand Garden Arena "the epicenter of the sports world." But only a couple of blocks away, on Frank Sinatra Drive, a state-of-the-art arena is nearing completion, with 9,000 season-ticket deposits already sold in the hope of attracting an NHL team.
Told that that team should be called the Rink Rats, in homage to the Rat Pack, a local hockey fan at Caesars last week raised both eyebrows and said, "I don't think that would mean much to people like me in their 20s."
In that way, the fight crowd did not appear overly concerned with Mayweather's history of domestic violence, though it was called to account by a group of demonstrators outside the MGM Grand before the fight's weigh-in, a drive-by reminder that this bout took place in a troubling context. This was never going to be where propriety won the day. Visitors arriving at McCarran last week were greeted at baggage claim by an electronic billboard advertising a concert by a man convicted of domestic assault: FIGHT NIGHT, it read. CHRIS BROWN.
In apparent defense of Mayweather, the rapper Doug E. Fresh counseled members of the press: "Write it right. This time, get the man right."
But getting it "right," as Mr. Fresh put it, presumably meant getting it wrong. After all, day is night in Las Vegas—Mayweather himself keeps vampiric hours—and the Strip is an endless inversion. People wear sunglasses indoors and lingerie outdoors. Mayweather himself equated his success in the ring on Saturday with personal vindication. "I made you guys eat your words," he told the press, more than once.
WHEN SINATRA sang, "I'm gonna take the town and turn it upside down," he might have had Las Vegas in mind.
That song is called "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die"—carpe diem, baby—and Fight Week was alive until 9:45 p.m. PDT on Saturday, when suddenly it was very dead. The crowd filed out quickly and quietly, many faces fallen, even those recently lifted. Inside, Mayweather mentioned that he had just made $2.8 million a minute.
And so another Fight of the Century bit the dust. The city's most famous graveyard is the Neon Museum, home to—among other iconic signs—the former marquee for the Stardust hotel, which now exists only as a vacant lot.
Thirty-six hours after the Fight of the Millennium ended, with the MGM Grand Arena peeling off the Fight of the Century posters to welcome the incomparable Bette Midler later this month, another of the dilapidated grand casinos was, like Liston, dying unnoticed. At noon on Monday, the Riviera—the first high-rise hotel and casino on the Strip when it opened in 1955, Liberace headlining—closed its doors for the final time. It will be imploded, and turned into more valuable convention space, because everything in Las Vegas passes, and gets replaced by something more lucrative. Sic transit gloria money.