ARLINGTON, Texas – Promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank desperately wanted to bring Manny Pacquiao, the pound-for-pound finest boxer in the world, to Cowboys Stadium as soon as he completed a deal in January for the Filipino superstar to defend his World Boxing Organization welterweight title on March 13 against Joshua Clottey.
A sense of duty to his hometown as well as a sense of obligation to MGM Mirage, a company with which he’d had a long and fruitful business relationship, prompted Arum to first pitch the bout to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, however.
Pacquiao is the most popular fighter in the world and Nevada’s casinos got a first-hand example in November when he defeated Miguel Cotto at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Nevada Gaming Control Board reported that state casinos had their first increase in revenue in 22 months and specifically noted the Pacquiao-Cotto fight was the primary impetus for it. The state’s baccarat win in November increased 138 percent year over year, largely because of the high-rolling gamblers from Asia who came to Las Vegas to watch Pacquiao.
Despite that, MGM Mirage declined the Pacquiao-Clottey fight, a fateful decision that may have a positive long-term impact for boxing, though a not-so-positive impact for boxing’s capital.
MGM Mirage opted to pass on Pacquiao-Clottey because its closest business partner is Golden Boy Promotions and it held the arena for a potential Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight that Golden Boy was trying to arrange.
And so, when perhaps as many as 50,000 fans are watching Pacquiao fight in Texas on Saturday and are spending their money at Texas restaurants and in Texas hotels and in Texas stores, the MGM Grand Garden Arena will be dark, because it turned out Mayweather opted to fight on May 1 instead.
Had the MGM accepted Pacquiao-Clottey, it would have a full casino and still would have the Mayweather-Shane Mosley fight in the hole in seven weeks.
As soon as he had the door slammed in his face, Arum picked up the phone and called Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jones quickly made a deal with Arum that will have major repercussions for the sport.
More than 40,000 tickets have already been sold and pay-per-view projections are rising dramatically. Arum had earlier said pay-per-view projections of between 500,000 and 700,000 “were reasonable,” but said Wednesday indications are that the fight may perform better than expected at the box office.
Mark Taffet, the president of HBO Pay-Per-View, conceded that the opulent new $1 billion-plus stadium was playing a major role in attracting customers.
“The venue is really the third fighter in this situation,” he said. “It’s a big part of the story and people want to see a fight from this place they’ve heard about so much.”
The Pacquiao-Clottey fight is the first of two Arum has scheduled at lavish new iconic stadiums. On June 5, he’ll promote a super welterweight title fight between Yuri Foreman and Cotto at Yankee Stadium. He said he may also host Pacquiao’s next fight in Cowboys Stadium.
Boxing fans – not high-rolling gamblers – will fill the seats on Saturday and in June. There is also suddenly formidable competition for the big-time fights that almost without fail used to wind up in Las Vegas.
“We are going to be in communication with Bob and we’re looking for ways to bring more fights like this to Cowboys Stadium,” Jones said. “I can’t tell you what it means to us to have a guy like Manny Pacquiao, the best fighter in the world, to be fighting here. And we want to be involved when there are other significant fights.”
Boxing used to routinely have many of its biggest fights in baseball stadiums, where fans could afford to buy a ticket and see the most significant fights live. A large majority of the most desirable bouts now, though, are held in Las Vegas at either the 16,000-seat MGM Grand Garden Arena or the 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center. In order to pay the boxers, ticket prices are exceptionally high and often go to casino customers and not actual boxing fans.
By taking the act on the road and putting on cards in opulent new venues with prices that the 9-to-5er can afford without taking out a home equity loan, Arum is hoping to create a new generation of fans.
“For boxing to get back to being a big-league sport – which it is not – but to be a major, major sport, it has to put on events around the country and around the world, in big, big arenas,” Arum said Wednesday before the Pacquiao-Clottey news conference. “That is essential. You can not consider yourself a major sport [by] going back to the same town, and, indeed, the same casino and putting on events for the customers of the casino with ticket prices too high for the average fan. You can’t do that and consider yourself a major sport. You’re not. You’re not.
“You’re a side event, a circus act, to bring in casino players. That’s all boxing, at the top level, has been.”
Arum said boxing in Las Vegas was special when Caesars Palace was hosting major fights in the 1970s and 1980s at its outdoor arena. Matches such as Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney, Holmes-Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns, Leonard-Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Hearns-Hagler were all held outdoors at Caesars’ stadium.
“Those were ‘Wow’ events,” Arum said.
But the stadium no longer exists at Caesars – a hotel expansion took care of that – and the only casino venues with arenas are MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, both of which are owned by MGM Mirage.
Promoters got too comfortable at the casino trough and, in essence, may have overstayed their welcome.
“You kept going back and back and then Caesars was out and then you were in an arena that looked, frankly, no different than any other indoor arena in the world,” Arum said. “You started putting on these events and you looked at ringside when Mike Tyson was fighting and you thought you were in Hong Kong because all of the customers came from China. That’s what we got into.
“Now, everybody made a lot of money. Everybody made money, but you were not growing the brand.”
Las Vegas will still land its share of big fights as a result of the exceptionally close relationship between Golden Boy and MGM Mirage.
The often-volatile Arum, however, isn’t wishing ill will on his hometown or on MGM Mirage. He’s feuded often with the city’s casino power brokers, only to patch up the feud when there was a mutual need.
He conceded he’ll likely promote again at an MGM Mirage property in Las Vegas, but said it’s likely Pacquiao has made his last appearance there unless an outdoor stadium is built.
There had been talk, as Las Vegas was angling to land the failed Pacquiao-Mayweather bout, that city officials would build a 30,000-seat stadium, with a bubble, on land on Las Vegas Blvd. opposite the Wynn Hotel.
Opposition to the project from MGM Mirage, though, killed the deal.
“If Vegas had a 30,000-seat or 35,000-seat venue where you could put on an event and do reasonable ticket prices for actual fans, that would be great,” Arum said. “That would be great. Las Vegas is a great city. It has great hotel rooms, [a nice] convention area. Why not? But to go back all the time to this one arena, where to come out [OK financially] and the ticket prices are impossibly high, you’re not growing the sport. You’re becoming a circus act for casino customers.”
For far too long, boxing has neglected its core audience and instead focused on bowing to the wishes of Las Vegas’ deep-pocketed casinos.
Las Vegas puts on special events as well or better than any city in the world and there is a magical feeling when big bouts are held there.
The Cowboys are going to have football games in their stadium and the Yankees are going to have baseball games and it’s not always going to be possible to put on fights in these kinds of iconic venues.
But by doing it as often as possible, the sport’s fan base will expand and only then will the fights that wind up in Las Vegas be truly monumental affairs.
Author: Kevin Iole