N17 months ago, the tense anticipated rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder marked a victorious return of big-time heavyweight boxing to Las Vegas for the first time in more than two decades. And what a return it was: two undefeated boxers in each their prime with 67 professional victories between those who wound up the unfinished business in a previous stalemate.
For many years, Las Vegas represented the heavyweight prize fighters’ most ambitious and coveted platform — where the world’s biggest, worst men fought for the richest purses against a glittering backdrop of deep necklines and immaculately tailored suits. The surplus and chaos and seductive mythology in the heart of this desert city of 600,000 souls have made it the perfect home for a trade that has been called the red-light district of professional sports.
Muhammad Ali fought for the championship here on five occasions, as did George Foreman (10 title fights), Larry Holmes (17), Mike Tyson (10) and Evander Holyfield (11). But for all the money-spinning blockbusters that became the headlines of Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather in the years since, the sport’s bell division had almost given up America’s gaming and entertainment mecca when the Klitschko brothers, and later Anthony Joshua, took their largest shows for European soil.
Not since the late 1990s had Las Vegas hosted a heavyweight title fight of such increased size, and the crackling atmosphere on the ground during the campaign week did not disappoint, with rolling British fans spilling out of pubs down the strip and inside the casinos amidst incessant singing of “There’s Only One Tyson Fury!” it would ring in your head in the coming weeks. And after the gypsy king faced a shockingly one-sided beatdown by Wilder to conquer the World Boxing Council title and complete one of the most astonishing comebacks in modern sports history, crowds of supporters and benevolence penetrated the upscale Hakkasan nightclub inside the MGM Grand, where the shirtless master held the court on stage next to DJ Steve Aoki and caroused well into the night.
These breathtaking sights and sounds from the last days of the past — three weeks before the lights actually went dark in this party town amid a global pandemic — have all felt like a distant memory this week during up to Saturday’s third meeting between Fury and Wilder at T-Mobile Arena. It cannot be blamed on the city itself, which has returned nicely after Covid-19 effectively shut down the hospitality and gaming industry, which are its twin engines. The number of visitors has risen steadily despite Nevada’s rise in coronavirus infections and a new mask mandate, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which reached 83.8% of pre-pandemic levels in August.
Instead, the absence of British-based supporters due to coronavirus restrictions and the lukewarm buzz around a rematch that feels redundant and unnecessary after the final result of their second match, has created a somewhat subdued atmosphere. Various campaign events that would normally be open to the public and teeming with noisy crowds — such as Wednesday’s last press conference and Friday’s official weigh-in — have been staged behind closed doors with all the sterility and precision of a television information program (complete with three and one half minute commercial breaks).
It all felt more like the fulfillment of a business commitment than an organic sports experience because that’s exactly what it is. Fury’s final victory of the seventh round in a rematch that removed any lingering uncertainty from their first meeting ought to has given way to an all-British showdown with Joshua to unite the long-running heavyweight championship for the first time since Lennox Lewis at the turn of the century. But Wilder took a blow to the lucrative plans by exercising the rematch clause in his contract. When the American’s legitimate claim to a third match was confirmed in an arbitration meeting, and all reported offers of step-by-step money from the champion camp were rejected, Fury-Wilder III was up and running.
It is smart business, at least. Wilder must raise a minimum of $ 20 million. (£ 15m) In addition to a 40% reduction in pay-per-view revenue for the match, far more than he stood to take home against a minor opponent. The pie is even sweeter for Fury, who must earn a guaranteed purse of $ 30 million. (£ 22 million) In addition to 60% of the TV pool.
But despite the head-spinning sums of money changing hands and all the familiar features of a large-scale full-size box office event in the MGM Grand lobby with a gilded lion in the center, merch stands and chops designer T-shirts, posters in limited circulation and overpriced swag with the similarities of both fighters — there is a conspicuous lack of anticipation and excitement on earth. That reality is exposed in the secondary ticket market, where the cost of getting in the door at the five-year-old T-Mobile Arena has been about a quarter of what it was for the second match.
The prevailing sluggishness may turn out to be misleading. The annals of boxing are marked by sequels that were considered unnecessary at first hand only to confuse these expectations. The fourth meeting between Juan Manuel Márquez and Pacquiao, which went from superfluous reflection to classic all the time in 23 blistering minutes. The third match, without a title on the line, between Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. Even Ali’s epoch-making fight with Joe Frazier was considered an act of nostalgia between faded greats in the prelude.
And it remembers how unpredictable both previous Fury-Wilder fights have been. In the first, the gypsy king had only taken two warm-up matches against a couple of almost unknown opponents since returning from a 31-month dismissal, and the feeling at ringside was that there was no guarantee he would make it through the early rounds . In the second, the equal match, as many expected, quickly became a one-way street. The substantial volatility of this rivalry, amplified by nearly two years of inactivity for both men, makes it compelling theater alone.
It all points to the fundamental truth of the foundations of this capital with gold and glitter, destinies and fortunes: one never really knows.