In a hotel parking lot next to a warehouse out back where they stack old craps tables, they've put up temporary bleachers for 20,000 customers who might want to see Larry Holmes and a cast of thousands fight Friday night for the heavyweight championships of the U.S. of A., the planet Earth and the universe according to Don King.
Holmes fights Tim Witherspoon, a young anonymity, as opposed to the old anonymities the World Boxing Council champion has disposed of lately. The World Boxing Association champion, Michael Dokes, fights Mike Weaver, who lasted 63 seconds when they met five months ago. In another bout, Greg Page goes against Renaldo Snipes for the U.S. Boxing Association title.
Apathy is rampant. The card's publicity man, Murray Goodman, reported two days ago that only 7,000 tickets had been sold at prices from $500 to $50. Bookmakers here have Holmes a 6 1/2-to-1 favorite and Dokes 5 to 1. The numbers haven't changed for a week, meaning bettors are using their money for groceries. Even the grandiloquently hyperbolic King won't guess what the pay-per-view television audience might be and he won't say the fighters are guaranteed the $10 million he's bragged about.
"I don't recall the guarantee," said King, who is famous for recalling everything, even if he had to recall it from the vivid depths of his imagination.
The top story in Tuesday's Las Vegas Sun, more important here than the Israel-Lebanon talks or the Holmes et al fights, was the elimination of defending champion Jack Straus from the no-limit, hold-'em, $540,000-to-the-winner World Series of Poker. "Straus was eliminated at 6:13 p.m.," the Sun reported, "when actor Gabe Kaplan beat his pair of 9s with a pair of kings."
Guarding against the possibility these signals are misleading and much of the Western world does quiver in anticipation of the Friday night fights, your correspondent sought testimony from a woman with fingernails the size of bayonets.
Fingernails are Las Vegas: silver nails, pink nails, golden nails, curling-under nails, oxygenated-blood red nails, black nails, nails with gold initials glued to them and blue nails matching blue eyelashes. This city is wall to wall in polyester slacks the color a Bloody Mary leaves on the glass. But fingernails tell you you're in Las Vegas (Howard Hughes never cut his here), and so to get a sense of the city you talk to the owner of raspberry nails strong enough to shred radial tires if you back over them.
"They're three inches long, and I can't put them on until I'm finished dressing," said a blonde whose professional name was Monica. "I can't button any buttons with them on."
Fascinating, Monica. Now, what about the fights Friday night? Who's going to win?
"Muhammad Ali, who else?" she said.
Don King, the electric-hair promoter, believes that by fight time the 20,000 seats will be warmed by high-rollers anxious to be in on the historic occasion when two heavyweight championships are decided in the same ring the same night for the first time. It is history possible because only under King's avaricious direction has the heavyweight championship been split in two between warring groups, one (the WBA) under King's domination. This is a war in which King sells guns to both sides, having locked up both WBA and WBC champions to exclusive contracts to fight for him.
Monica might not care about all that, but she would understand why King likes to stage his promotions in Las Vegas.
"This is a natural place for fights," King said this week. "All the glitter and glamor, the city of sin, anything you want, any hedonistic pleasure is yours . . . With boxing, it's a natural marriage."
Well, that's a terrible thing to say about boxing. The game has earned it, however. To borrow a line Tony Kornheiser wrote on another subject, boxing is the ooze in the swamp of life. If promoter Bob Arum isn't peddling racism in South Africa, Don King strangles the game by controlling the top fighters.
"The fight game, I have found, to be a very crooked game," said Mike Weaver. "The people take advantage of the fighters, tie the fighters up. That's what I don't like about the fight game. Boxing itself, the sport, is good. But the people in the sport--he would sell his soul for a nickel more."
Weaver said he would turn down any amount of money if it meant giving up control of his career to a promoter such as King. Someone asked, "You mean you would pass up $4 million to fight Holmes if King insisted on you signing a contract that gave him your next three fights? You would go fight Joe Blow, instead?"
"I would fight Joe Blow around the corner," Weaver said.
Statements of principle last as long as fingernail polish around here, as Holmes proved a year ago when he moaned about Don King ripping him off with the delivery of half the promised money from a fight. Holmes (he said) would never fight for King again. Holmes would never speak to King again. Then King came around, saying how's about fighting this young anonymity Tim Witherspoon, and Larry Holmes says Don ol' buddy, where the heck you been?
"You say a lot of stuff in boxing," Holmes said, "but you don't always mean everything you say. Don King and Larry Holmes have been good for each other for a long time. We might get crossways sometimes, but we always work it out for the best."
Larry Holmes' fingernails are nicely manicured with a clear finish.