You might have to stay on hold for several minutes before reaching a ticket operator to buy seats for the big ring event at the MGM Grand this weekend. It has one of those catchy nicknames: "Halloween Havoc." The main event is a big draw, as are the matches on the undercard, with both featuring some of the biggest stars. Ads promoting the event are everywhere. Ringside seats are coveted, and the only tickets available figure to be in the hands of scalpers along Las Vegas Boulevard.
People actually care about Mike Tyson fighting somebody named Orlin Norris Jr., in a bout that will start after midnight Eastern Time Saturday night?
No, silly. The big deal here this weekend is that other ring attraction, a World Championship Wrestling extravaganza Sunday.
Once upon a time it was an insult to the boxing game to compare it to pro wrestling. Now, boxing should be so lucky.
The wrestling is sold out. But there were 7,500 unsold seats Thursday afternoon for the Tyson-Norris bout, which will take place in a 16,000-seat arena. An advisor to one of the boxers on the Tyson undercard said the MGM Grand's approach to putting bodies in the seats for the fight has been for people to "buy one, get four." An MGM Grand executive says the hotel-casino will give away enough tickets to "make it look good for TV." Speaking of TV, folks who want to watch the pro wrestling show will have to see it on pay-per-view, while the Tyson fight is being telecast on Showtime and made available for free to DIRECTV subscribers.
This is what's known as the chickens coming home to roost.
It's not like boxing just became seedy. People have been complaining about controversial decisions since the previous turn of the century. But ultimately, people have kept coming back, particularly to watch the top heavyweights. And the ticket sales have been fairly brisk for next month's rematch between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. But Tyson's personal and professional demise, a recent run of shameful judging decisions, and the proliferation of these so-called "governing bodies" and bogus "championships" seem to have offended people who used to be willing to forgive and forget.
True story: There's a junior lightweight fighter on the Tyson undercard named Diego Corrales. This morning, his "Continental Junior Lightweight Championship" belt was on sale on eBay for $1,000. The belt was said to have been "personally pawned at a Las Vegas pawn shop by the belt holder."
Never mind the fact that there is something called the "Continental Junior Lightweight Championship." Thirty years ago, give or take a year, there were eight champions, total. Today, there are more than eight of these "world governing bodies." The ones we can come up with are the WBA, WBC, WBO, WBU, IBF, IBC, IBA (run by former major league pitcher Dean Chance), and the recently formed NBA. I take it David Stern doesn't know about that last one yet. Another true story: A federal grand jury in New Jersey is investigating whether the IBF, WBA and WBC have committed fraud by selling rankings.
Norris's advisor, Mike Marley, said Thursday: "They're running out of letters. I think there's a northeast Las Vegas super mini-flyweight, six-round division." He was joking, I think. "There are at least three divisions of flyweights," Marley continued. "It used to be flyweight was anybody up to 112 pounds. Now there is a 105-pound division, and a 108-pound division. There's a guy named Ricardo Lopez who weighs 105 who is the mini-flyweight champion. He's no bigger than an ashtray."
Pro wrestling is a farce, but at least it's a planned farce. It is what it is. Boxing, increasingly, has no idea what it is. Everything is under legitimate attack: the alphabet soup "governing bodies," the judges, the boxers themselves. The great fights between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker, Tyson and Holyfield (Version I) seemed to have been fought a long time ago. And now we're left with ear-bitings and controversial decisions. Even people drawn to boxing's roguish charm have dialed down the passion.
This just in: Joe Frazier's daughter issued a public challenge Thursday to Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila, who is a veteran of one fight. Like fathers, like daughters?
The Tyson fights here used to provide relief from the madness; now they're at the center of the absurdity. Boxing needs Tyson to walk in and throw bombs the way he used to; instead, he recently said he might bite again if he's in the mood. He did backtrack a bit Wednesday, saying, "I was just talking smack, just hyping the fight [when asked by the Los Angeles Times about the possibility of biting an opponent again]. I was trying to sell some tickets. The Nevada State Athletic Commission knew I wasn't serious. They knew the trauma that I went through. I won't do that in the ring. . . . I was just blowing a lot of hot air. . . . "
But Tyson never has demonstrated he can successfully work through frustration in a ring. All three people who got on his nerves--Buster Douglas and Holyfield twice--beat him decisively. Suppose Norris, who knows upsetting Tyson (literally and figuratively) would make him millions, does something that enrages Tyson?
"If I'm rusty, I'm rusty," Tyson said Wednesday, perhaps sensing that having his career interrupted by long stretches of inactivity isn't exactly conducive to rediscovering a championship form.
The great irony here is that because Holyfield is old, because Lewis has done nothing to prove himself a great fighter, because Oscar De La Hoya diminished himself in that passive display last month, Tyson can actually stimulate the sport by pounding Norris and then putting together two or three impressive fights. That's exactly what the alphabet "governing bodies" and boxing's TV partners are hoping.
But depending on Tyson to help boxing out of this mess demonstrates just how desperate a predicament the sport is in.