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How Did Las Vegas Overtake New York As the Boxing Capital of the World?

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There are plenty of fights happening in New York throughout a typical year.

Madison Square Garden in particular is a popular venue, hosting big names like the Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr. match in June 2019 and the Joe Calzaghe vs Roy Jones Jr. bout in November 2008.

UFC visits the city even more frequently, with several major events taking place in NY, at MSG and Barclays Center, every year.

Since NYC hosted UFC 205 back in 2016, it’s become a popular spot for fans, with numerous notable fights taking place in the city. This includes Georges St. Pierre vs Michael Bisping, Conor McGregor vs Eddie Alvarez, and Rose Namajunas vs Joanna Jedrezejczyk II. Despite playing host to all of these great fights, New York pales in comparison to the frequency and fame that Las Vegas has.

Of course, many will argue that Madison Square Garden and the Big Apple’s other venues offer a better experience for fans, but when you look at numbers alone, Vegas is definitely the fighting capital of the world.

This wasn’t always the case though. For a long time, New York was the world’s center for major fights. Here’s how it gained and lost its title.

The Rise of New York

New York is one of the world’s most influential cities. You’ll find canvases that contain its iconic yellow cabs hanging on the walls of homes right around the world. Many of the world’s most famous television shows and movies have been at least partially set in the city and its landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park attract millions of tourists every year.

While all of that is common knowledge, many people may not realize that before Hollywood, New York was also the home of television and movie production in New York. It still plays a prominent role, with many of America’s most famous shows broadcast from studios in the city including Saturday Night Live, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. This is a holdover from the early days of television and radio with most companies founding in the city.

In these early days, boxing was regularly broadcast on TV. In fact, a featherweight title fight between Willie Pep and Chalky Wright became the first sporting event to be broadcast over the airwaves in 1944. So with television companies based in New York, boxing found itself drawn to the city to take advantage of this new medium.

At its height, boxing matches were being broadcast to millions upon millions of fans, and that could account for around one-third of all television owners at the time. However, like many of the early television broadcasts, producers were still ironing out the kinks. Many of the weekly “Friday Night Fights” were of poor quality, leading to declining viewing figures.

A Fresh Start

After several scandals and poor quality television bouts, boxing needed a fresh start. So several key figures in the sport decided to take a trip west. Las Vegas, at the time, was nothing like it is today. It was still finding its feet as the casino capital of the country and was looking for different ways to attract visitors to the city.

Like today, it was hosting performances from A-list celebrities and international sporting events. The first fight that took place in the Nevada desert was between Archie Moore and Nino Valdes, in 1955.

The casinos in the city saw the opportunity to attract customers to their gaming floors and also to take bets on the bout. Several of the casino owners gave $100,000 ($1 million in today’s money) to help the event run smoothly. And although the fight didn’t attract as much attention as everyone involved had initially hoped, it did spark the beginning of the now flourishing sports betting market in the city.

Today, betting on boxing in Las Vegas is a multi-million dollar affair with online sports betting sites also getting involved. Many fans will also use free bet promotions that are offered by major brands to make their boxing bets go further.

By 1960, the first indoor boxing match took place in Las Vegas at the newly constructed Las Vegas Convention Center. Like Madison Square Garden in New York, this new facility was ideal for TV broadcasters and was a convenient place for guests to get to, no matter which hotel they were staying at.

The Modern Setup We Know Today

Boxing continued to grow in Las Vegas throughout the 1960s, with most casinos working together to help bring visitors to the city. Eventually though, self-interest took hold, and casino owners began competing with each other to host fights. The first of these was Sonny Liston vs Leotis Martin at the International Hotel (now the Westgate Resort), but nearby Caesars Palace took the idea and ran with it. The resort began hosting what we would recognize today as a big-time fight in Las Vegas. For the owners, ticket revenues, TV money, and concessions sales were a nice bit of extra income, but their main focus was using boxing to attract high rollers who would spend several days at the hotel, watch the fight, and wager a lot of money on casino games in between.

With fights being broadcast around the world, they also acted as great advertising for the hotel and the city as a whole.

Over the following years, Caesars hosted many of the most famous bouts of the second half of the 20th century.

This included George Foreman vs Ron Lyle in January 1976, Larry Holmes vs Muhammad Ali in October 1980, and Sugar Ray Leonard vs Marvin Hagler in 1987.

The hotel also began hosting wrestling in the 1990s, including WrestleMania IX in 1993 and the Clash of the Champions XXX in 1995. The model was so successful for Caesars that it also replicated it in other sports. It hosted a round of the Formula 1 World Championship in 1981 and 1982, and IndyCar in the years following that. More recently, it’s also hosted NHL preseason games.

Eventually, Caesars lost its hold over boxing and the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay have taken over as Las Vegas’ home of the sport. While these resorts may also have to give way to progress in the future, it seems unlikely that Vegas will lose its crown as the boxing capital of the world any time soon.

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