Boxing still has a fighting chance

Baxter and Pugmire are Times staff writers.

Billy Baxter has won -- and lost -- millions wagering on everything from boxing and billiards to football and poker.

Yet there is one thing the 68-year-old Baxter, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, won't wager on: mixed martial arts, the rapidly growing combat sport that encompasses a variety of fighting techniques.

However, if Baxter and other traditional gamblers are betting that MMA is a fad that will go away, they might lose their shirts. "I can see MMA supplanting boxing," says Jay Rood, director of the MGM/Mirage Race and Sports Book. "I can see an MMA fight being one of the biggest gates in Vegas history."

But that won't happen immediately, and certainly not this Saturday when Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao meet in a welterweight boxing match that will generate about $17.5 million in live-gate revenue in Las Vegas, plus an estimated 1.5 million pay-per-view buys worth more than $80 million.

Although MMA is growing fast, the money generated by big boxing matches still dwarfs their combat sport rival.

The De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight in May 2007 produced $18.5 million in Las Vegas gate receipts, plus 2.4 million pay-per-view sales worth $134.4 million, both records for the sport's most popular boxer. Meanwhile, the high-water mark for MMA was the Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz bout in December 2006, with Las Vegas gate receipts of $5.4 million and an estimated 1.05 million pay-per-view buys worth about $42 million.

And given the demographic differences between the two sports' fan bases, major boxing matches draw older, more established patrons who stay at the major hotels and spend more freely, boosting gaming revenue by as much as 50% on the weekend of the fight. MMA events, on the other hand, draw a younger, more frugal crowd that has a much smaller impact on the local economy.

"The MMA fan may come to the property only for the fights, a few beers and a meal at one of the restaurants," says Rood, whose MGM Grand is staging the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight as well as three Ultimate Fighting Championship events this fall.

"The difference in crowds is a natural thing," he says. "Boxing is older, more established with more disposable income. As MMA grows the sport, they'll grow that income too."

Now with the 35-year-old De La Hoya closing in on retirement, boxing is being forced to contemplate a future without its biggest draw.

"Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya right now are carrying boxing," says Joey Odessa, an offshore bookmaking consultant, while lumping De La Hoya in with a boxer who's retired (Mayweather) and another who's from England. "Other than that, mixed martial arts, the biggest shows, can hold its own against them all."

Neither sports books nor the Nevada State Gaming Commission would release figures on the amounts wagered on boxing or MMA bouts, but they agree that betting on combat sports is mushrooming while boxing is not.

Frank Streshley, senior research analyst for the state commission, said overall gaming revenue in Las Vegas is down 6% compared with last year, but gambling for non-major sports, which includes boxing and MMA, are up. "The people out at the sports books I talked to said the big growth has been in ultimate fighting," he said.

The growth trend favors MMA. The 10 largest live gates for MMA events in Nevada have all taken place in the last three years, while only three of the top 10 boxing events took place in that same period, according to the state athletic commission.

Odessa, who has been tracking MMA wagering since 2000, said his figures show action on combat fighting has climbed about 30% from a year ago. "The success that it's had, though, during these tough times is amazing," he said

Bob Arum, co-promoter of the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight, concedes the numbers but said it's like comparing apples and oranges.

A recent survey of fans purchasing pay-per-view events for boxing and MMA, Arum says, found just 4% of viewers watched both, dispelling the notion that one sport's gain is another's loss. "Most boxing fans won't watch MMA. And most MMA fans won't watch boxing," Arum says. "It's a different audience."

Although both sports are personality-driven, few boxers other than De La Hoya are household names today, something Arum blames on the sport's disappearance from "free" TV. Conversely, the MMA's top series, "The Ultimate Fighter," will be featured at least 38 times this month alone on Spike, a cable network aimed at young male viewers.

Among the young Las Vegas crowd watching Brock Lesnar defeat Randy Couture for the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title last month were twentysomething friends Adam Krajewski and Mark Hanza, who spent more than $650 each to attend the fight.

For them, part of the MMA's allure was the approachability of the fighters.

"Couture's a guy you could be neighbors with," Hanza said of the former UFC champion, who earned just $250,000 for the Lesnar bout. De La Hoya, by comparison, is guaranteed about $20 million for his fight Saturday.

Nearby, 29-year-old Kirk Porter agreed. An MMA fighter, he said, "isn't as untouchable as the boxer. The big fights are nothing but a marketing machine."

Baxter, the veteran gambler, is open to new ideas and he may soon be interested in betting on MMA bouts, he says. Gambling, after all, is all about identifying trends and exploiting them.

"I just started watching it," Baxter says of MMA. "It's faddish right now. And it may become the biggest thing ever invented.

"That can theoretically happen. You've got to give it some time."


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