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Las Vegas no longer undisputed champ as boxing capital

Las Vegas, which used to claim to be the boxing capital of the world, is a capital under siege.

There’s competition from all over. The local economy is still fighting an uphill battle and promoters don’t get the deals from casinos they used to get. In 2013, just 16 fight cards were held in the city. The year before, there were 27.

As Top Rank chairman Bob Arum astutely pointed out a few months ago, “The world is getting smaller.”

During a recent three-week span, boxing held some big cards, none in Las Vegas. On Nov. 23 in Macau, Manny Pacquiao proved he still had something left, administering a one-sided beat-down to Brandon Rios. On Dec. 7 at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn in New York, Paulie Malignaggi also showed he wasn’t through, getting the better of Zab Judah. On Dec. 14 in San Antonio, Marcos Maidana unleashed his fury and power in dominating Adrien Broner and taking his WBA welterweight title.

Even smaller cards, which used to have a home in Las Vegas, now can be found at Native American casinos in California, Arizona and Washington. And Atlantic City still gets its share of fights, big and small.

“The bloom is off the rose in Las Vegas,” said Arum, whose company is headquartered five minutes from McCarran International Airport. “There’s only two venues in the city that can do a big fight other than Thomas &Mack (Center), and one company (MGM Resorts International) controls both of them (the MGM Grand Garden and Mandalay Bay Events Center). As a promoter, that limits your ability to negotiate.

“It’s not like the old days when you had most of the hotels having different owners and it created competition and everyone worked together. When Caesars Palace did the big fights, they worked with the other hotels to make sure their customers would be happy. There weren’t any problems. Everyone did well.”

Arum said a recent meeting with Richard Sturm, president of MGM Grand Entertainment and Sports, to discuss Pacquiao’s return went well. Arum said the hotel said it would try to create a more even distribution of choice ringside seats to other hotels so their best customers can attend fights at the Grand Garden.

And while Las Vegas may have been on the outside looking in over the final six weeks of 2013, it did host boxing’s biggest event of the year. On Sept. 14 at the Grand Garden, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez set records for gross pay-per-view sales ($150 million on Showtime PPV) and live gate ($20.03 million). Mayweather, who won a 12-round majority decision that night, also put up big numbers May 4 when he outpointed Robert Guerrero at the MGM. That live gate was $9.92 million.

But Mayweather-Alvarez was the exception rather than the rule. Less than a month later, Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez met at the Thomas &Mack. That fight had a live gate of $3.02 million — just a third of what Mayweather-Guerrero did, and far less than the Mayweather-Alvarez gate — as Bradley retained his WBO welterweight title with a 12-round split decision.

Yet, despite losing out on some fights and with only 16 cards to draw from, boxing still generated $2.19 million for the state’s general fund in 2013, thanks in large part to Mayweather. That was slightly below the $2.36 million made in 2012 and more than the $2.08 million in 2011, according to figures obtained from the Nevada Athletic Commission.

But that doesn’t mean the commissioners aren’t concerned. Nevada can’t count on Mayweather, who turns 37 in February and plans to fight only four more times, to keep generating $20 million gates each time he fights at the MGM.

“We’re losing the small cards, the club fights that the local fans like to attend, and we need to find a way to bring those cards back here,” commissioner Bill Brady said. “I believe the big fights will always come here. It’s the small fights I’m worried about.”

Commissioner Skip Avansino said: “I think the sad fact is there are less boxing matches now than years ago. We have to realize there is competition for Las Vegas, and we have to take that competition seriously.”

NAC executive director Keith Kizer said he believes 2014 will have more fight cards in the city. The first half of the year will be busy, beginning March 8 when Alvarez returns to the MGM Grand Garden. On April 12, Pacquiao will fight at the MGM Grand. Mayweather is expected to fight May 3 at the MGM Grand. Opponents for those fights have yet to be announced.

“We have three major cards — one each month — and we’ll likely have cards the night before each of the big events,” Kizer said. “So I’m expecting a big year for the state in terms of boxing.

“I think the problem is that with some of the smaller cards, the casinos are a little hesitant to get involved like they used to. They don’t want boxing to be a loss leader, and they can’t offer promoters the site fees and other things they have in the past. So promoters are looking elsewhere.”

Longtime boxing announcer Al Bernstein, who lives in Las Vegas, said the city still has too much to offer to not get its share of megafights. But he concedes that promoters have a lot of attractive options to take smaller yet competitive cards to places like San Antonio, where the locals enthusiastically support the sport.

“We’ve seen this before where the number of fights in Las Vegas has dipped, but it always seems to bounce back,” said Bernstein, one of the lead analysts for Showtime. “I think what’s changed is the smaller cards are going elsewhere. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing for the sport. You’re exposing boxing in markets that will support it and San Antonio is a perfect example.”

The networks, which have a say in the matchups, aren’t ready to abandon Las Vegas.

“Vegas isn’t dead by any means,” said Showtime Sports vice president Stephen Espinoza. “There’s a certain mystique about Las Vegas that you can’t find anywhere else. There’s a sexiness, an energy that adds a layer to the excitement.”

HBO Sports VP Mark Taffet said: “I still believe when you tell someone you’re fighting in Las Vegas, it still means it’s a big fight. Las Vegas still has a special cachet about it. When it comes to hosting big fights, Las Vegas still has a well-earned and well-deserved reputation.”

Still, reputations need to be upheld. NAC chairman Francisco Aguilar said if Nevada doesn’t make itself attractive to promoters, both big and small, it will lose even more business.

“We have to talk to the promoters and see what their needs are,” he said. “There are always fixed costs that are built in and you have to be careful it doesn’t lose money for the state. But the fact is there is competition and we have to make sure we do what we can to maintain our place in boxing.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at 702-387-2913 or scarp@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.

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