Vegas wary of fights after hit from Tyson Casino-ring marriage sours after June incident


LAS VEGAS -- Major casinos and professional boxing have long been synonymous in this gambling mecca, with marquee fighters capable of luring high rollers to the colossal hotels that occupy The Strip.

But the relationship has become far more cautious after a mini-riot at the MGM Grand last June in the aftermath of Mike Tyson's ear-chewing disqualification against Evander Holyfield. There was reported gunfire as guests scrambled for cover, and 15 were injured in a stampede for the exits.

Hotel spokesmen later said that popping champagne corks were mistaken for gunfire. But the MGM lost potential millions in revenue when forced to shut its casino, and chips were stolen when tables were overturned.

MGM Grand president and CEO Alex Yemenidjian subsequently terminated a contract with promoter Don King and Tyson, who had one fight remaining on a six-bout deal.

Yemenidjian said ending the contract was a result of Tyson's being placed on indefinite suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. But it was the bad publicity the MGM suffered as a result of the mini-riot that prompted the CEO to re-evaluate the hotel's alliance.

King still came out a substantial winner. He had been advanced $15 million as a non-interest loan to purchase 618,557 shares of MGM stock at $26 a share. He was bought out at $44.40 a share, or a total of $27.5 million.

Last night, Holyfield and Michael Moorer met in a heavyweight unification title bout at the Thomas & Mack Center, with Steve Wynn's Mirage Hotel serving as host. But Mirage executives acknowledged that the entire casino industry had suffered a major public relations hit.

"It was bad for everyone and didn't do Las Vegas any good," said Alan Feldman, vice president of public affairs at The Mirage. "But realistically, in a strange way, when Tyson comes back, it will make him a bigger attraction."

But promoter Bob Arum, based in Las Vegas, believes boxing will never fully recover from the Tyson fallout.

"That changed all the rules," he said. "Now, none of the hotels wants to pay site fees [ranging from $4 million to $8 million] to the promoter. Every bit of revenue is important. Now, almost all your revenue has to be generated by pay-per-view."

Arum now believes that Caesars Palace, which has staged most of superstar Oscar de La Hoya's matches, is the only major casino still interested in promoting fights on a regular basis.

"The Las Vegas Hilton is presently out of the picture, along with the MGM. And no one knows what will happen when Caesars World's parent company, ITT Corp., is bought out," said Arum, referring to the financial bidding war currently taking place. "However it plays out, I'm certain we'll have less fights here in the future."

Another predictable change is seeing long-term contracts between a hotel and headline fighter replaced by "fight-to-fight" deals.

The Mirage was badly burned in dealings with former heavyweight champion Buster Douglas and middleweight king Michael Nunn.

Eight months after Douglas scored his stunning knockout of Tyson in 1990, Wynn gave Douglas $24 million to defend his title against Holyfield. An out-of-shape Douglas went belly up after three rounds and then retired.

A year earlier, Nunn's multi-fight deal fizzled after he was upset by Marlon Starling.

Wynn had justified these multi-bout contracts by saying he was simply eliminating the middle man.

"The days of exploiting fighters shamelessly are over," Wynn said when he opened his 3,000-room hotel by staging Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran III in a temporary 16,000-seat arena.

"Fighters see the wisdom of not needing to pay someone like Arum $3 million when they can talk to me themselves. If we have a hot fight, people will buy it on pay-per-view. No hyping by an Arum or King will change that"

Las Vegas competes with Atlantic City and Mississippi casinos for fights, but holds the upper hand with just under 104,000 hotel rooms and four mammoth hotels under construction.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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