The traveling circus that is a major boxing fight week has planted itself in Las Vegas again, waking the echoes of past happenings that have entrenched the sport as one-of-a-kind.
Fight week is a wild concoction fueled by the electricity reserved for national conventions – especially the after-hours portions of those gatherings – and the sometimes crazed personalities and behavior stimulated by the pressure and significance of the event.
The craziest? Likely the 1993 night when “Fan Man” dropped his paraglider from above toward the Caesars Palace ring where Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe were fighting in the seventh round for the heavyweight title. Instead of treating Bowe’s cut, his cornermen began beating failed airman James Miller to a pulp.
The most tragic? Tupac Shakur was shot and killed after leaving MGM Grand following a 1996 Mike Tyson fight.
Many other stories can’t be repeated in a family newspaper, but they’re embedded in the minds of the constant faces found when the big fights touch down – the writers, the promoters, the handlers and the hangers-on.
And those tales never fail to find a way into the week-long conversations that renew again with Mexico’s Canelo Alvarez preparing to fight a Cinco de Mayo weekend middleweight unification against Daniel Jacobs at T-Mobile Arena.
DANGEROUS INTENTIONS: The man who made Cinco de Mayo the sport’s best weekend had to navigate some serious brushes with haters.
Oscar De La Hoya said he was on a Fernando Vargas’ fight-week run in 2002 on a two-lane Las Vegas street when a car came careening toward him, speeding with the clear intent to strike him.
“He wants to shake my hand. He shakes it and starts squeezing it. Then, he’s got me by his two hands and he’s squeezing my hand to the point he’s trying to break it. You can imagine what security did to him. And they found out he had a bet against me.”
FIGHTING WRITERS: We all know the seriousness of the New York-Boston rivalry, and in 2004, it extended into the media room.
The occasion was a middleweight title defense by long-reigning champion Bernard Hopkins against Robert Allen, and there was controversy that week because Hopkins was threatening to leave Las Vegas instead of allowing Puerto Rican referee Joe Cortez to officiate his fight.
Hopkins had previously thrown the Puerto Rican flag to the ground on a promotional tour of the territory with its beloved former champion Felix Trinidad, and he was concerned Cortez would use the Allen fight as a retribution – these are the mad thoughts that invade fight week.
During a discussion that week, promoter Bob Arum criticized Hopkins’ stance and Boston Globe writer Ron Borges supported Arum, prompting New York Times writer Michael Katz to retort, “This sounds like a Don King [shill] … attacking a guy Don King hates.”
Borges had his fill of the opinionated Katz, who carried a cane and wore a neck brace, telling him, “You need a punch in the face,” and lunged at Katz, sending his infamous beret flying in the air as writers hurried to stop the fight and the cane-wielding Katz as Arum was knocked to the ground.
WHO’S EAR IS THIS? The winner for most unstable fight-week personality is easily Tyson, who clinched his crown in 1997 when he grew frustrated at heading to a second consecutive loss to Holyfield and decided to bite off chunks of Holyfield’s ear.
On deadline, as they finished off writing about the sport’s most disgusting act, Frauenheim and Los Angeles Times writer Tim Kawakami were approached by a rattled MGM Grand employee who was carrying a napkin, opening it to reveal a fleshy piece that he identified as part of Holyfield’s missing ear.
The employee wondered if there was enough time to transport the piece to doctors tending to Holyfield at the hospital. Frauenheim and Kawakami shrugged, Kawakami wondering to his peer, “Can you believe we do this?”
Legend has it that the employee dashed to a taxi bound for the hospital, but apparently left the napkin and the ear piece in a cab that was forever lost to the night on The Strip, with something far more valuable to Holyfield than a wallet or cell phone.
EYE CANDY OVERDOSE: Only one year after Olympic hero Leon Spinks shocked Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title, the bloom was off his rose.
On the fight week leading to the Ali rematch in New Orleans in 1978, Arum came down an elevator first thing in the morning to find Spinks fallen to his knees, obviously rip-roaring drunk.
“Leon! You’re fighting in two days!” Arum scolded.
“I’m coming in from the road now,” Spinks answered, prompting Arum to roar another word for bull dung.
So when it came time for a pair of 1979 fights that would lead to a World Boxing Assn. heavyweight title bout, Arum said he became hopeful Spinks would lose his semifinal to South Africa’s Gerrie Coetzee to set up a title bout in South Africa between Coetzee and John Tate.
Spinks didn’t disappoint. With the bout in Monte Carlo, Arum said he dealt that fight week with reports that Spinks had wiped out the mini-bar in his suite and needed a $50,000 advance to deal with his wife’s spending spree.
“So we put Spinks up in a suite in San Remo, where they had just passed a law allowing women to go topless on the beach,” Arum said. “Leon didn’t train. He spent the entire day on the patio, looking at the [women] going by.”
Spinks rushed into three consecutive power punches by Coetzee and was knocked down three times in the first round to end the fight, leading to Arum arrange the match he sought, drawing 86,000 to South Africa, with a rare agreement not to allow apartheid restrictions during the event.
ALL THIS FOR ME? When Arum sought to heighten interest for what would be the epic Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns 1985 middleweight title fight at Caesars Palace, he invited the legendary former champion Jake LaMotta of “Raging Bull” fame.
LaMotta gladly accepted the invitation and decided to double-down on his free trip to Las Vegas, arranging to marry for the eighth time, staging the ceremony across the street at the now-closed Barbary Coast casino-hotel, Arum said.
“I asked him who his best man was, and he told me Sugar Ray Robinson,” the all-time great whom LaMotta fought six times, including the famed “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
After the wedding, LaMotta and his new bride crossed the street back to the fight hotel at Caesars and saw a raging Budweiser-sponsored pool party that Arum had scheduled to entertain high rollers who’d flocked to Las Vegas for the fight.
LaMotta mistakenly assumed it was his wedding reception, and no one ever corrected him.
“I don’t know how long that marriage lasted, but I guarantee he never forgot that party,” Arum said.
He knows why the late heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison lost his belt by first-round knockout in 1993. “My room was on the same floor as Tommy’s. All week, I saw hot [women] going in and out of there, noises and weird people at all hours … I thought, ‘something weird is happening,’” DiBella said.
He’s had to deal with the late, great Arturo Gatti going missing, only to be found in an apartment with two strippers. “Maniac,” DiBella summarized. He listened as heavyweight Ike Ibeabuchi descended into mental anguish, telling his mother evil spirits lurked in the hotel air-conditioning unit.
“Police come looking for unpaid child support, guys get arrested on warrants … another guy negotiated a deal with the baby mama of his kid on the day of the fight, and I entered a dressing room with a fighter on a cell phone 30 minutes before his fight because his girlfriend found pictures of another naked woman on his computer,” DiBella said.
“When you spend 30 years in the biz, you understand everything on Earth happens on fight week. We’re a strange breed.”