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Wilder, Fury bring marquee heavyweight boxing back to Las Vegas

Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame founder Rich Marotta brandished a collection of photographs and programs at the museum last week. Ones chronicling some of the most memorable heavyweight fights in the history of Las Vegas.

There was a black and white photograph of Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, who fought in 1963 at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the WBC title in the first heavyweight title fight in the city. And a vintage color photo of George Foreman and Ron Lyle, who brutalized each other in 1976 before Foreman prevailed in the fifth round of their fight at Caesers Palace.

Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney’s fight program is dated June 11, 1982, and features the Caesers Palace emblem at the bottom. It’s still in its original plastic casing.

“Vegas heavyweight fights are a different breed. It’s Vegas,” said Marotta, a boxing historian with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. “I can’t tell you how many of the fighters have said how important it was for them to see their names up on those electronic marquees on the strip. It’s very important for the fighters.”

Las Vegas has been devoid of a marquee heavyweight boxing match for more than two decades. The kind worthy of fight worthy of a place in Marotta’s collection. But that’ll change Saturday when undefeated heavyweights Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41 knockouts) and Tyson Fury (29-0-1 20 KOs) fight at MGM Grand Garden.

They’re both in their respective primes, competing for Wilder’s WBC title and supremacy in the division. To the winner go the spoils.

“This is who’s the better man. Titles aside. Belts aside. Glory aside,” Fury said. “It’s two men going to to toe to see who’s the better man, once in for all in their prime. It rarely happens. We rarely see it. But, we’re going to see it.”

Heavyweight boxing has a rich tradition in Las Vegas — beginning with Patterson and Liston, who won the WBC title on July 22, 1963. Muhammad Ali won the title from Liston and defended it against Patterson at the Convention Center on Nov. 22, 1965 in the first of his five local title fights. Foreman fought here 10 times. Larry Holmes won the WBC title from Ken Norton at Caesers Palace in 1978 and fought in 16 more title fights in Las Vegas.

Evander Holyfield fought in 11 local heavyweight title fights and Mike Tyson in 10, including their memorable 1997 bout during which Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear at MGM Grand Garden. But that was that was one of the last local marquee heavyweight title fights, with Holyfield and Lennox Lewis following on Nov. 13, 1999, at Thomas & Mack Center.

Ukranian heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko dominated the division from 2000 through 2015 and fought mostly in Europe, competing four times in Las Vegas against opponents that lacked equal billing.

“When I was coming up, no one in America knew who the heavyweight champion of the world was,” Wilder said. “And it’s very hard when you’re in the division and you’re trying to get notoriety and bring it up and bring up a sport that is not our top priority and you try to make it exciting so people get to talking about it again.”

Wilder won his title here from Bermane Stiverne in 2015 and knocked Luis Ortiz out in November at MGM Grand Garden to re-ingratiate the market with his style and personality. Fury dethroned Klitschko in 2015 and fought twice in Las Vegas last year after signing a co-promotional deal with Top Rank.

Their charismatic approach to the promotion has galvanized the division and built anticipation locally, nationally and internationally. Top Rank chairman Bob Arum is expecting a sellout and believes the fight can exceed two million buys on pay-per-view.

Only six fights have broached that number. Tyson and Holyfield hold the record among heavyweights with 1.97 million buys.

“Nothing really compares to this,” Arum said. “You talk about the biggest heavyweight fights. The last one that compares to this…was in 1971 when the great Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier.”

Maybe hyperbole. Maybe not.

Welcome back to the home of the heavyweights.

“When (people) connect boxing, they connect it to the heavyweight division,” said Las Vegas resident and former welterweight champion Shawn Porter, who is part of the broadcast team Saturday. “This fight being in Las Vegas, in America, it’s humongous.

“All eyes are on boxing on Saturday night. And I love it. I think this fight is going to take boxing to a whole other level in the world, and definitely in America.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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