Boxing and Las Vegas have been synonymous for the last few decades. Since the 1980s, many top matches have been broadcast from Sin City.
Las Vegas is a natural location for fights. The city has multiple venues in which big fights can be held. The ability to bet on the sport draws fans in to pay Las Vegas a visit. The short distance from Los Angeles allows for celebrities to attend that boost both attendance and viewership. And Nevada has set itself up as the premier sports regulatory board in the country.
The history of boxing in Las Vegas goes back over 7 decades. In fact, the first nationally televised boxing match emanated from Las Vegas was in 1955 when Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore fought Heavyweight contender Nino Valdes for the right to battle World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano for the belt.
In the 1960s, the Las Vegas Convention Center would become the premier venue for boxing in the city. The venue hosted bouts featuring some of the greatest boxers of all time including Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, and the Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali.
The entire time, casinos wanted to get into the boxing game as an event would keep guest in the hotel and keep them gambling. This finally happened on June 12, 1969, when casino resort mogul Kirk Kerkorian arranged for former World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston to face Leotis Martin for the newly created North American Boxing Federation Heavyweight Championship.
Since the Liston – Martin fight, thousands of bouts have taken place in Las Vegas, the majority of which in casino resorts. Some of the greatest bouts of all time would emanate from the Entertainment Capital of the World.
1 – Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney in 1982
The early 1980s saw a change in the world championship picture of boxing. Muhammad Ali has just retired. New faces started appearing on the scene. One of these faces was WBC World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes. Holmes was on a crusade to beat Rocky Marciano’s 49 – 0 record. Another face was Gerry Cooney, who by the end of 1981 had amassed a 25 – 0 record including a win over former WBC World Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton.
The stage was set for these 2 to clash.
Both fighters traveled the country and attended press conferences. Cooney was made to look like a star and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. King stimulated further interest by arranging for Cooney to hang out with Rocky star Sylvester Stallone. The night of the fight saw several Hollywood stars attend.
King positioned Cooney as “The Great White Hope” as there had not been a white World Heavyweight Champion in over 2 decades.
The promotion, however, got out of hand when white supremacists threatened to shoot Holmes before he got to the ring. Black groups promised to have armed members at the bout to protect Holmes. Due to the threats, the Las Vegas Police Department deployed snipers on the roofs of all the hotels surrounding the Caesar’s Palace casino.
The fight was a back and forth battle for the first 9 rounds, with Holmes scoring a knockdown in the 2nd round. The 10th round saw Cooney having points deducted for low blows (these were not intentional, he was having issues keeping his hands high due to fatigue). By round 13 Cooney knew he was going to lose and just wanted to make it to the end of the 15 round fight. With about 10 seconds left in the 13th round, Holmes rocked Cooney with a punch that caused Cooney to stumble and hold the ropes to prevent him from falling and Cooney’s corner threw in the towel.
The gate for the night was $ 6,239,050.00. In today’s dollars, that’s the equivalent of 16,522,038.85, which when adjusted for inflation makes it one of the top 20 gates in Las Vegas history.
2 & 3 – Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield I & II in 1996 and 1997
These 2 fights were highly anticipated matchups. The posters for the bout simply used the phrase “Finally”. The bout was for Tyson’s WBA World Heavyweight Championship that he had won 2 months prior. Tyson was stripped of the WBC World Heavyweight Championship for his choice to fight Holyfield instead of the choice of the WBC.
Oddsmakers heavily favored Tyson to win. However, Holyfield’s strategy kept Tyson on the defense, with Holyfield moving forward and Tyson backward for most of the match, this forced Tyson to put his weight on his back foot throughout the fight which minimized his punching power and threw off his balance.
By the 11th round, Tyson was to the point where he was unable to defend himself and was out on his feet. The referee stopped the bout and awarded the championship to Evander Holyfield.
After the bout, Tyson’s camp attributed Holyfield’s win to frequent headbutts during the bout. Although the headbutts were ruled accidental by the referee, they would become a point of contention in the rematch.
Tyson was granted a rematch roughly 8 months later on June 28, 1997. The bout, titled “The Sound and the Fury” took place at the MGM Grand.
This fight only lasted 3 rounds and was the most controversial in the previous 50 years of boxing. In the 2nd round, Holyfield ducked a punch from Tyson and in the process, unintentionally headbutted Tyson, causing a cut to open over Tyson’s right eye.
This enraged Tyson (due to the headbutting in the 1st bout). Tyson came out of his corner for the 3rd without his mouthpiece. Referee Mills Lane ordered him to return to his corner with the mouthpiece in place.
Tyson began the third round with a furious attack. With 40 seconds remaining in the round, Holyfield got Tyson in a clinch, and Tyson bit Holyfield on his right ear. The bite took out a 1″ piece from the top of the ear. Tyson spit out the piece of ear onto the ring floor. Holyfield shrieked in pain and jumped in circles at which point Lane called for a time-out. As Holyfield turned to walk to his corner, Tyson shoved him from behind. Lane sent Tyson to a neutral corner as an enraged Holyfield gestured for Mills Lane to look at his bitten ear, which was rapidly bleeding.
The fight was delayed for several minutes as Lane debated what to do.
During another clinch, Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear. Tyson’s second bite just scarred Holyfield’s ear. The men continued fighting until time expired. When Lane discovered the 2nd bite was discovered, the fight was stopped.
Tyson went on a rampage at Holyfield and his corner. Lane told Tyson’s corner that he was disqualifying Tyson for biting Holyfield. Security immediately surrounded Holyfield and Tyson was taken back to his corner by security. Lane said he knew from experience that the bites were intentional. He had told Tyson not to bite anymore and he disqualified him for disobeying that order. Holyfield left the ring seconds after the interview, which gave the fans and audience the hint that the fight was over.
Twenty-five minutes after the brawl ended the official decision was announced to the crown. Tyson was disqualified and Holyfield remained champion. It was the first time in over 50 years that a fighter was disqualified in a heavyweight championship bout.
For his actions, Tyson was fined $3 million and was suspended indefinitely (which lasted a little over a year) by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Both fights saw almost identical attendance and gates with a combined attendance of 32,382 and a total gate for both events totaling $28,427,900.
Part 1 – Conclusion
These 3 fights were among the most anticipated matchups of their times. Holmes and Cooney was a time where the old guard of fighters like Ali, Frazier, and Liston had all but left the sport and new faces were taking their place.
In the case of Holyfield and Tyson, both men had left the sport (Tyson for legal reasons and Holyfield for health reasons) and were making a comeback.
However, in all 3 matches, the promoters and fighters chose Las Vegas to host the bouts. In many ways these bouts (as well as a few that will be mentioned in part 2, helped build the reputation of Las Vegas as a mecca for boxing and sports in general.
While heavyweight championship bouts seemed to be the primary type of bout that main evented in Las Vegas, that’s not always the case as you’ll see in part 2.