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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fight Night: Experience of a Lifetime

Competition is an inherent part of the human experience.  This is why sport, in one form or another, has been a part of all cultures from the beginning of recorded history.  There is no purer form of competition then two men facing each other in single combat.  The ancient Greeks engaged in pankration.  The European knights had jousting tournaments.  The continent of Asia gave birth to a host of martial arts.  In modern times, we have prize fighting.

Banshee and baby sister
I am one of the biggest sports fans I know.  But, at thirty-five years old, I grew up in an era where it was difficult to be a boxing fan.  Other sports were readily available on TV, but becoming a student of the sweet science required a concerted effort and the expenditure of money.  Nonetheless, even as a little girl, it seemed clear to me that a world championship boxing match must be one of the most thrilling events a person could attend.  Not only is a title fight a connection to the ancient history of sport, but it is also connection to American sports history.  It is a connection to the days of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.

On May 3, 2014, my sister and I attended Floyd Mayweather's latest title defense against Marcos Maidana at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  It was an experience that I could not have had if it were not for my Uncle Don Hawk and his associate Mike Black and the Bellagio.  It was the experience of a lifetime, and I did not take it for granted.  For those of you who are wondering what fight night in Vegas is really like, here are my impressions.

The Casino on Fight Night.  I am not a Vegas expert.  In fact, this was my first trip to Sin City as an adult.  My understanding is that the city always has an electric feel to it, but it seemed clear that there was a little extra adrenaline in town with Floyd Mayweather defending his title and undefeated record.

My tickets
Even as I was boarding the plane in Lynchburg, VA, the baggage attendant was talking to me about who I was betting on in the fight.  The airport in Las Vegas had signs announcing that "The Moment" was this weekend, and on the trip from the airport to the hotel, there were numerous billboards celebrating the fight.  On the afternoon of the fight, I was riding the elevator at the Bellagio with my tickets in my hand.  The men behind us on the elevator saw what I was holding and immediately engaged in excited conversation about the fact that we were going to see "Money" Mayweather fight live.

On the night of the fight, the MGM Grand was very crowded.  Even without a title fight, it was a warm Saturday night in Vegas.  Prior to the fight, the steady flow of foot traffic passed through the casino floor to the far end of the enormous building where the arena is located.  The closer we got to the arena, the more the conversation in the crowd was focused on the fight card.  After the fight, the mood was even more excited.

Since the MGM Grand forces all the fight fans to funnel back through the casino in order to exit, the halls, restaurants and casino floor were jam packed with people after the fight.  The crowd was packed so tight that you really did not have a choice but to be carried along in the flow.  The surprising thing to me was the strong smell of marijuana smoke in the air over the tightly packed crowd.  The other surprise was the stampede following the fight that left the hallways and bathrooms strewn with ladies shoes and discarded drinks.  My sister and I escaped the chaos with only a few bruises, a broken souvenir cup and a wild story to tell our friends.

The crowd at the MGM Grand Garden Arena
The Glitz and the Glam.  A high profile boxing match in Las Vegas is a cross between a sporting event and a red carpet party.  It is almost impossible to be overdressed.  Most of the men wore sport jackets over crisply pressed shirts and slacks.  Many of the ladies were dressed in their finest night club attire, complete with tight skirts and stunningly high heels.  Of course, the announcer wore a tuxedo and even the referees wear bow ties.

It's not just the average people who are there to see and be seen.  "Iron" Mike Tyson was in the audience, and we brushed shoulders with Evander Holyfield and his entourage in the hallway outside the arena.  Of course, Mayweather's usual posse was on hand, including the odd pairing of Justin Beiber and Lil Wayne.

The presentation of the fights themselves are also glamorous.  The lighting is more like a theater than a basketball arena.  And the ring walks before the fights are theatrical spectacles.

View From the Seats.  All that stuff I wrote before is exciting and interesting, but once the bell rings, a boxing match is about the boxing.  The first thing that most of my friends asked me after the fight was, "Can you actually see what's happening from the seats?"  My answer is an emphatic, "Yes."   I am sure the sight lines vary from arena to arena, but the MGM Grand Garden Arena was built with championship boxing in mind.  Our seats were in the front row of Section 112.  That is the first row of the upper tier of seats.  Not only could we see what was happening in the ring, we could hear the action, as well.  We could hear the bell, the 10-second notice and the punches.

Floyd Mayweather vs Marcos Maidana
One of the most interesting things about the viewing experience is that the action in the ring is the absolute focus.  Fans are not allowed to come and go from the seats during a round.  There are no vendors yelling out for you to buy soft pretzels, and there are no beers or money being passed down the rows.  There are no cheerleaders.  The ring girls are only visible in between rounds.  There is no music pumped in during the action like at an NBA game.

However, even though the view from the seats is excellent, there are large video screens located in each of the four corners of the arena.  Those screens show the television feed of the fight.  I cannot imagine taking my eyes off the ring during a round, but the screens allow you to watch replays between rounds.  The screens are also great for watching the ring walks and the post fight interviews.

Vibe in the Crowd.  When my mother found out that my sister and I were attending a boxing match, her mind's eye pictured her girls entering the Roman Colosseum to watch lions eat Christians.  She envisioned a bloodthirsty mob that would not rest until they saw bodily fluids spilled on the canvas.  As it turns out, the crowd at the fight was not at all a frightening bunch.

Don't get me wrong.  There was certainly passion, especially amongst the Maidana admirers who vociferously sang the "Ole, Ole, Ole" song throughout the evening.

And, there was an extra rush of adrenaline that filled the arena when a fighter was able to land damaging blows on their foes.  I am certain that I did yell, "Put him down, Amir!" as my sister shouted encouragement beside me during the tenth round of the Kahn-Collazo fight.

In reality, though, the mood amongst the fans was not so different than it is in a football stadium where big hits are anticipated and celebrated.  I can also say that the patrons at this fight were far less intoxicated than the fans I've encountered at other sporting events.  Perhaps it was because the mixed drinks cost $17 a piece (not an exaggeration) or perhaps it was because fans who paid on average $1,000 for a ticket wanted to be able to remember what they had seen.

In either case, I did not see anyone pour beer on an opposing fan like I have seen at a baseball game, and I saw no fisticuffs like I have seen at basketball games.  From what I observed, even the most passionate fans were able to engage in good natured and educated debate between rounds and after the fights.

Maidana crowds Mayweather
Respect for the Judges.  One of the biggest complaints about boxing is the perceived incompetence or corruption from the judges that decide the fights.  There may be corruption, and there may be incompetence.  But, I learned from attending a live fight that judging boxing matches is hard.  When you watch a fight on TV, the camera angle switches continuously to make sure that the viewer always has the perfect vantage point for the action.

Despite what I said before about the excellent view from the seats, fans and judges only get to see the ring from one angle.  Boxing is a close-quarters sport.  Depending on the viewing angle, it is extremely difficult to tell if a punch lands squarely or was partially deflected.  Action generates emotion in the arena, and it is easy to feel like a boxer is winning a round simply because he is busy, even if he is actually ineffective.  I believe the judge who gave Maidana a draw against Mayweather is a prime example of both of these things.

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