MGM Grand Garden marks 25 years as iconic boxing venue

Here’s something you probably would not have noticed about the MGM Grand Garden on its 25-year anniversary as one of the world’s most iconic boxing venues: There are only 10 seats in the middle section rows, with the ones on the aisles lining up with the ring posts.

Though the Grand Garden is touted as a multipurpose arena, it was built with boxing in mind.

It made its sports debut Jan. 29, 1994, with Julio Cesar Chavez meeting a lesser super lightweight named Frankie Randall.

SHORT DESCRIPTION (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Big-time prizefighting in Las Vegas was about to undergo a seismic shift.

Most blockbuster bouts previously were staged in an outdoor arena at Caesars Palace. Smaller displays of fisticuffs also were held at Caesars, at a venue called the Sports Pavilion.

That would change on the Saturday night before the Cowboys defeated the Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII.

“About the time I arrived, we had a lunch meeting with Kirk Kerkorian — he drove a station wagon,” Daren Libonati said about the MGM mogul tossing his hat into the ring and his automotive sensibilities. “He made it very clear: This arena was built for boxing, and I want great boxing in here, and I want the world to forget that Caesars Palace ever existed for boxing.”

Change of plans

Dennis Finfrock was the Grand Garden’s first general manager. Libonati, who had worked alongside Finfrock when the latter ran UNLV’s Thomas &Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium, became his chief lieutenant.

George Foreman was in his renaissance. The plan was to open the Grand Garden with a colossal heavyweight tussle pitting Big George against Lennox Lewis. But then Foreman lost to Tommy Morrison at the Thomas &Mack Center, and then Morrison lost to a tomato can called Michael Bentt at the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Civic Center.

The Grand Garden would not be opening with a heavyweight fight.

But it had signed Chavez to a three-fight deal, believing that a rematch of his epic encounter with Meldrick Taylor would make an attractive main event at some point. When the planned clash of heavyweights went kaput, MGM higher-ups wanted Taylor as Chavez’s opening night opponent.

Libonati wanted The Surgeon.

The Surgeon was Frankie Randall’s nickname. When Libonati was working with former lightweight champ Greg Haugen, they had watched Randall on film. They thought his style might give Chavez fits.

They thought Randall could beat Chavez, though Chavez had never been beaten.

The Mexican legend was 89-0-1 coming in. He was 89-1-1 going out. In the 11th round, Randall knocked down Chavez — the great warrior’s first time on the canvas. Randall, an 18-to-1 underdog, earned a split decision.

“We were rolling the dice, and I might be the luckiest guy in the world,” Libonati said.

Filling the void

“At that point, there were no heavyweights (available),” Libonati said. “Mike (Tyson) was in jail; the middleweights were just coming up — (Roy) Jones and (James) Toney were the two best, but we had to put up the curtain in the Garden just to make that fight happen.

“Everybody wanted Taylor (vs. Chavez), but we thought Frankie was the right guy. It was the best decision we ever made. That got us the rematch, and that created even more excitement.”

Chavez-Randall II happened almost immediately, on May 7 — Cinco de Mayo weekend. Only then, nobody called it that, at least not in a boxing context. Chavez was gifted a victory after suffering a head butt, and a horde of Mexican fans celebrated the outcome and their independence long into the night. Many Cinco de Mayo promotions featuring prominent Mexican fighters were to follow.

Over the next 25 years, MGM would host some of boxing’s most iconic fights: Holyfield vs. Tyson II, De La Hoya vs. Mayweather, De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao, Mayweather vs. Alvarez, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao.

And the Grand Garden eventually got its Foreman fight: On Nov. 5, 1994, Big George knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight title at 45 — “One for the Ages,” pundits called it.

While the fight game has lust some luster in the 25 years since the Grand Garden opened, the arena — like Big George Foreman in the 10th round — still packs a punch. When Pacquiao fought Adrien Broner on Jan. 19, virtually every seat was filled.

The rows of 10 high-priced ones in the middle sections were first to go.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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