Las Vegas loves a good thrash and to be in the middle of the whirlwind this week, as I was, gave a strong indication of how robust and popular the sport continues to be in the US. Despite the headliners being foreign - Golovkin from Kazakhstan, Alvarez from Mexico - the buzz was remarkable. All 20 000 tickets were sold out in a day, the cheapest for R4 800.
It’s different in other US cities, but it’s easy to tell when there’s a big fight in Las Vegas. The boxers’ faces were plastered everywhere, not least on the side of the MGM Grand, the biggest hotel in the city (5 700 rooms), and the sports books pushed it hard. Inevitably, high rollers dropped huge dollars on the super fight. I wasn’t one of them, my puny $10 (R132) on a Golovkin win the closest I came to risking a punt.
The fight was also broadcast on close-circuit television in bars and casinos, so the promotional push was strong there too. Everywhere you turned, there was the bearded Mexican and his Kazakh rival, their faces beaming down on thousands of tourists.
Golovkin has boxed all over the world, but, remarkably, this was his first time in the City of Sin. His broad smile as he forced his way through a crowd seven-deep at the “grand arrival” in the hotel lobby on Tuesday indicated that he loved every moment. Despite being the so-called B-side in the fight, the energy and excitement swirled around him, notwithstanding it emanating mostly from Latinos in support of Alvarez, nicknamed Canelo (Spanish for cinnamon), because of his red hair. The hype was ramped up even more, with it being Mexico Independence weekend.
Ten-time world champion and former Olympic gold medallist Oscar De La Hoya was the chief promoter and he knows how to give the public its juice.
His famous million-dollar smile reflected his happiness at how the fight, almost two years in the making, electrified boxing fans. The press conference a day later was thrown open free to the public, who flooded the David Copperfield Theatre in the MGM Grand.
Such events are designed to be over the top, with boxers getting in each other’s faces, but there was none of that. There’s no warmth between the pair; they let their boxing do the talking and couldn’t pull off smack talk if they tried. Once, when Curtis Stevens threatened to put Golovkin in a coffin, he gave an icy stare and said, “we shall see”. Days later, on the verge of a knockout over the brash American, Golovkin was implored to knock him out. “Just a few more rounds,” he said coldly. He wanted to draw the pain out.
The slickest line was from his trainer, Abel Sanchez: “The sky is blue, water’s wet and Cinnamon’s toast.”
A prominent boxing writer once called Las Vegas “the biggest toilet bowl in the world that can’t flush” because of the many seedy things have occurred around big fights here. Indeed, the 21st anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death by shooting, in the wake of a mad Mike Tyson fight weekend, was this week. But Las Vegas has cleaned up, despite some boxing judges still turning in dubious cards.
Tyson himself continues to be prominent in the city, where he experienced some of his best (and worst) moments as a fighter.
He lives here, too, where his one-man show, The Undisputed Truth, is a hot ticket on the strip. To hear him talk about life after boxing, not least his role in movies which has extended his wild popularity, was R1 000 well spent.
For $300 (R4 000), fans could line up, have a boxing glove autographed by Tyson and a photograph taken with the former champion at a local sport shop. It was a place bursting with people and memorabilia, including one of Shaquille O’Neal’s size-22 Reebok shoes.
There was also a signed picture of Tyson with Muhammad Ali. “Ali was the greatest, but I was the baddest,” Tyson scrawled.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas isn’t strictly true. For a boxing fan, what happens in Vegas is what makes the sport so compelling and electric.