Las Vegas, Boxing’s All-Time Champion, Faces its Toughest Challenger Yet

After Tim Tszyu defeated Brian Mendoza in October to run his record to 24-0 (17 KOs) and announce himself as a major force in the junior middleweight division, he made it clear that he felt he had outgrown his native Australia. It was time, he said, to switch to the main stage, which meant the United States – specifically, Las Vegas.

While Madison Square Garden in New York styles itself the Mecca of Boxing, the bright lights of Sin City have been the sport’s biggest attractant for decades. It was there that Marvin Hagler knocked out Thomas Hearns, where Hearns flattened Roberto Duran, and where Ray Leonard controversially outpointed Hagler. It was in Las Vegas that Larry Holmes beat George Cooney, Evander Holyfield shocked Mike Tyson, and Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield’s ear.

It was where Oscar De La Hoya fought the great majority of his big fights, as did Floyd Mayweather (including the two richest fights in history – his wins over Manny Pacquiao and Conor McGregor); where Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin twice went toe-to-toe; and where Diego Corrales stopped Jose Luis Castillo in what many regard as the greatest fight of all time.

Las Vegas has not gone unchallenged. MSG’s history and status has continued to exert a pull, Atlantic City threatened in the 1980s and early 1990s to be Vegas’ equally brash East Coast cousin, and boxing even enjoyed a brief flirtation with the Chinese administrative region of Macau.

So far, Vegas has seen off all comers, retaining its status. But now it is facing a new threat in the form of Turki Alalshikh and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Over the past couple of years, the desert nation’s boxing offerings have combined a brief dalliance in influencer events with a more committed pursuit of the very biggest heavyweight fights – the kind of fare to interest even the most casual fans. But now, Alalshikh, chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, is also putting on cards to entice more hardcore followers of the sport, such as the June 1 light heavyweight unification between Dmitry Bivol and Artur Beterbiev.

But as the China experiment showed, such things do not always last. Is the Saudi spigot destined ultimately to turn into another Macau mirage? Or are Vegas’ days as the ultimate boxing destination truly numbered?

A representative of one major boxing promoter told Boxing Scene they were sanguine about the threat Riyadh poses to Las Vegas’ place in the boxing firmament.

“Vegas, because of its rich history with the sport, will always be a No.1 destination for boxing,” the promoter said. “And we embrace that tradition. The largest gates in boxing have been generated in Las Vegas.”

In contrast, veteran Sin City combat sports journalist Kevin Iole thinks his hometown’s status is at genuine risk.

“I think it’s really in jeopardy, more than it’s ever been since I’ve been in Las Vegas, which is over 30 years,” said Iole, who now blogs at kevinole.com , after covering boxing for many years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Yahoo! Sports. “The Saudis are able to outspend even the Las Vegas casinos. I think all the super-big fights are going to go over there. There are going to be very few holdouts. Canelo looks like he’s going to be one; he wants to do his own thing. But for most, it looks like there’s no way to compete with the Saudis.”

A representative for MGM Resorts International declined to comment for this article, but Iole says he suspects that the casino operators are relaxed about the situation. The city, he notes, now has an NFL franchise and the NHL’s defending champion, with a baseball team and a new NBA arena on the horizon.

“We have [the most recent] Super Bowl, we have the NFL Draft, we have Formula One,” Iole said. “These are all things that we didn’t have a couple of years ago, and all those things were conspiring to push boxing out anyway.”

Much as boxing fans are loath to admit it, for broadcasters, casino operators and Saudi princes alike, boxing is a means to an end. For Saudi Arabia, it is one of a number of easily persuadable sports with great international appeal that can be leveraged into portraying the nation and its ruling class in a flattering light. For broadcasters, it is a relatively affordable way to attract advertisers or subscribers. For casinos, boxing fans – or at least, those who turn out for boxing’s biggest events – bring money for rooms, restaurants, shows and gaming tables.

But boxing fans aren’t the only visitors with spending power. And although Vegas has always been an entertainment town, the sheer numbers it is able to draw to other events is far in excess of what it has experienced in the past.

“Last year, during the [Stanley] Cup run, it was crazy,” Iole said. “Even after the games had started, Toshiba Plaza [outside T-Mobile Arena] was filled with people, let alone the people who were inside. I think that all that stuff impacts boxing, impacts casinos’ desire to go out there and say, ‘Hey, let’s deal with the craziness that these boxing promoters make us put up with.’”

(Of course, Saudi Arabia also has Formula One, has instigated a civil war in golf, is reportedly making a play for the global tennis circuit and has secured the 2034 FIFA World Cup even though the bidding hasn’t officially begun. Given the country’s growing collection of baubles and the sport’s penchant for repeated self-immolation, one wonders how long it will be before the Saudis, too, decide boxing isn’t worth the hassle.)

That doesn’t mean that Vegas boxing is going away. The city boasts an abundance of gyms and ready-made fight camps, as well as the presence of major combat sports promoters. Numerous boxers, active and retired, make their home there. Gambling is woven into the Sin City experience. (If you want a place to make a wager on the fight you’re attending, you won’t find it in Riyadh.) For American fans, at least, it is relatively easy to get to. And even if Vegas may not need boxing as much as it once did, big events are still potentially lucrative and welcome affairs, and there remains industry enthusiasm for staging cards in the city.

“A part of our DNA is providing shows that boxing fans – ticket-buying boxing fans – can access,” the promoter said. “There aren’t a lot of regular boxing fans able to fly to Saudi, pay for hotels and go to fights.”

While acknowledging the obvious and understandable lure of Saudi money, the promoter cautioned that throwing the bulk of that money at the biggest attractions risks neglecting the sport’s roots.

“Historically, when the promoters have chased money, it’s led to shrinkage of the sport’s fan base – from network TV to HBO/Showtime cable and PPV, for example,” they said. “We’re trying to build the fan base, and I’m not really sure you can do that with a steady diet of Saudi fights.”

The coming months and years will show whether Vegas successfully defends its boxing supremacy or whether it chooses to abdicate its throne. But for the first time in a long time, it faces a formidable challenger.