"I love Syracuse," said Mike Trainer, Sugar Ray Leonard's lawyer. "I love Syracuse. It is a virgin city."
It's nothing personal, of course, just an assessment of the city's marketing potential and another example of the savvy promotion that has make Sugar Ray Leonard a megamillionaire.
On the surface, Saturday's WBC welterweight title fight between Leonard and Larry Bonds seems like a losing proposition. Syracuse? Larry Bonds?
Whatever the outcome in the Carrier Dome ring Saturday night -- and some would say it is a sure thing -- the fight is already a sure thing financially. With 18,000 tickets sold, and a walk-in crowd of 5,000 expected, the promoter, the Syracuse, Chamber of Commerce, has already "cut the nut," as they say in boxing: made back the $200.000 guarantee it paid Leonard.
Trainer estimates that when all is said and done, Leonard will have earned nearly $750,000 for his first title defense since beating Roberto Duran in New Orleans last November. Leonard will get all the money from the Home Box Office television rights, which Trainer says will be more than $400,000; $150,000-200,000 for the foreign television rights; 70 precent of the gate against the guarantee, and $30,000 for allowing a Mexican brandy company to put its logo on the ring mat.
The Carrier Dome will receive the other 30 percent of the gate, while the Chamber of Commerce will get a small amount to cover expenses.
Bonds, 29, the WBC's fifth-ranked welterweight, earned $1,600 the last time he fought, in April 1980. His purse for this fight will be $85,000, plue $15,000 for expenses.
When Leonard decided he wanted a fight before his June middleweight bout with Ayub Kalule, Trainer tried and failed to make a deal with Wilfred Benitez and Randy Shields, both of whom he says "are prime-time fighters."
That is something Larry Bonds is not, though if he can fight nearly as well as he can talk, he might have a prime-time future. "I haven't gotten this much attention since I was escorted to the Denver police station . . . to get someone else out."
Without a big-name opponent, Trainer was faced with a choice of an afternoon fight on network television for which, he says, he was offered $400,000 by ABC, or an evening telecast on HBO. An afternoon fight, he reasoned, would cut into the gate, so he went to HBO. Fortunately, he said, HBO was in the middle of litigation with the movie studios that normally provide its films and had some air time to fill.
HBO had already scheduled a two-hour program of Tomorrow's Champions for March 28 and offered to add time to the program to make room for a Leonard-bonds fight. Trainer then paid Bob Arum of Top Rank Inc, who had organized the HBO card, $40,000 to move his fights from Great Gorge, N.J., to Syracuse.
Meanwhile, said Bill Hanbury, the director of the Syracuse visitors and convention bureau, the Chamber of Commerce had already contacted Top Rank about doing a show at the Carrier Dome. "They told us to call Mike Trainer." Hanbury said. "We had the date open and Mike needed a site. It was just good timing."
Hanbury estimates that the fight will bring the city approximately $750,000 in hotel and restaurant revenues. Initially, he said, they expected to draw 12,000. The break-even point was 9,000. "But we're not in it to make money; we're in it to bring the event here. Do you know how much it would cost us to get the kind of exposure we're getting? You can't put a price on that.
"The reason it's coming here is because we waived our rights to have a big payday in order to make sure it came here."
All of which explains why Trainer is singing the music from "The Boys from Syracuse." With no major league sports to compete for press attention and fan support, Trainer had a ready-made audience. He priced most tickets at $10 or $20.
"When you price it right, it's almost a tease," Trainer said. "You've got to come see him; you might not ever get another chance. The city is full of hard-working people who like to play hard, and are looking for something to do. It's a natural. Go to the fight and have a beer."
If Leonard is using this fight in part, as a warmup for Kalule, well, so is Trainer, who is negotiating with the Houston Astrodome for the rights to the June fight.
"If I do 20,000 out of population of 400,000, in a city with 6 percent HBO penetration, what do you think a city of 2 1/2 million will do?" Trainer asked. "I could have made more money on this fight in a larger metropolitan facility. I don't like the word loss leader, but you sell off this one. Twenty thousand tickets in Syracuse, they say: 'geez, this kid's got to be something.' I'm looking at the next one."
The successful merchandising of this fight in Syracuse has affected his negotiations with the Astrodome, Trainer says. "They always wanted to take it," he said. "But it's helping me in terms of how much money I get."
He is seeking more than $1 million for the site rights in Houston.
"They know what the ticket sales are," Trainer said. "They know he (Leonard) had 750 people at a workout one day (6,002 for 10 days). There have been damn near riots. It's almost like Elvis Presley."
You can excuse hyperbole from a lawyer, but you can't dismiss it from an opponent. Before he left Denver, Bonds' children had one request. "Do us a favor, Daddy," they said. "Please bring us Ray Leonard's autograph."