A plaque at the foot of the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino — downtown, where Freemont intersects Main — commemorates the first telephone installed in the city of Las Vegas. It belonged to Charles “Pop” Squires, a publisher and local pioneer who was known around town as “Mr. Las Vegas” — long before Wayne Newton ever crooned a note. Squires maintained an office inside the Hotel Nevada, where the Golden Gate now stands, and to reach him you only had to ring his number: 1.
When Squires arrived from Seattle in 1905, the same year Las Vegas was founded as a city, the place was an ass-backwards, sun-scorched slab of barrenness — a settlement that numbered in the dozens and that hadn’t yet claimed its sliver of fame as a railroad refueling way-stop between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. But as the twin engines of industry and entertainment were sending America hurtling into the 20th century, Las Vegas hopped aboard (with a not-insignificant boost from mob money and influence). Eventually, Squires, who in his adopted city’s sewer-less infancy had taken it upon himself to enforce a local law requiring metal enclosures for every shitbox across Las Vegas’ 110 acres — someone had to keep the flies away — would live long enough to see the Hoover Dam, a booming resort economy and the world’s grandest gambling scene rise up around him.
A few miles south of the old Hotel Nevada, and a lifetime after Squires first achieved connectivity, another noteworthy landline was installed. By June 11, 1982, Las Vegas had evolved into the epicenter of both the gambling and boxing universes. The Strip was now the city’s glowing heart of neon-lit decadence, and Caesars Palace — itself a marbled, muscular ode to excess — was its lighthouse guiding fortune-seekers and fight fans safely to the bacchanal. In a dressing room near the Caesars Outdoor Arena, a telephone was set up with a singular distinctive feature: a direct line to the White House. The room had been appointed for Gerry Cooney, a 25-year-old, undefeated Irish-American heavyweight with a screaming left hook, a soaring pompadour and — not inconsequentially — a pasty-white complexion. The phone? It had been arranged to allow Cooney to receive congratulations from President Ronald Reagan after the No. 1 contender’s victory over his opponent, champion Larry Holmes. Only one catch: Cooney hadn’t won yet.
In fact, presumption turned out to be something of a running theme for the fight promotion. Holmes, who had deposed Muhammad Ali as the lineal champion almost two years prior at Caesars Palace, entered the Cooney fight — his fourth title defense — with a record of 39-0, having also bested Earnie Shavers and Ken Norton along the way. A gifted boxer with a legendary jab but a fairly wooden demeanor, Holmes had the bad fortune of succeeding the most charismatic figure in boxing history. The public largely rejected the new champ and, in fact, had very specific change in mind. It was Cooney who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the lead-up. It was Cooney’s reps who insisted on an even split of the fight purse. It was Cooney, the challenger, who came out after Holmes’ ring walk, a breach of boxing protocol.
Would it surprise you to learn that Don King had something to do with this odd turn of circumstances? It was King and Cooney’s manager, Dennis Rappaport, who concocted a promotion that pitted Holmes, who is black, against Cooney, who had shared the cover of Time with Sylvester Stallone as “Rocky,” and who was enthusiastically thrust into the role of “Great White Hope.” The heavyweight champion hadn’t been held by a white man since Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson 1960, and not by a white American since Rocky Marciano in 1956. A certain segment of the country was enamored by the idea of the still-unproven Cooney dispatching Holmes, and because there was a buck to be made off it, King and Rappaport dove head-first into the racial narrative. Neither fighter participated, but they didn’t have to. Others carried the water. Members of Cooney’s team, for example, wore T-shirts with a not-so-subtle message: “Not the White Man, But the Right Man.”
The politics of boxing are rarely to be outdone, and then, typically only by the politics of politics. Through 12 rounds of Holmes-Cooney, the three white ringside judges had given as many rounds to the challenger (two low-blow penalties notwithstanding) as they had to the champion, who, despite Cooney’s powerful hook and physicality, appeared to all clear-eyed observers to be commanding the action. Holmes would remove the fight officials’ burden in Round 13, as the toll of a barrage of clean, powerful shots finally cut down the spent Cooney. Holmes would go on to make another eight defenses, reigning for nearly five full years — longer than any heavyweight champ since Joe Louis retired in 1949. He eventually earned a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the reverence that eluded him during his fighting days. He’d played the game, fought and won. But in Holmes’ dressing room after the Cooney fight, no special phone had been set up. There was no call from the White House.
Dirayah, northwest of the Saudi capital of Riyadh, is often depicted by the ruins of its weathered mud-brick structures — the centuries-old original home of the Saudi royal family. But you might as well snap pictures of Stonehenge and call it London. Today’s Dirayah is a sprawling modern city marked by shopping, nightclubs, luxury hotels, gorgeous villas, a golf course, a Formula E racetrack, and ambitious future plans: Dirayah Gate is a development project with a Godzilla-like scope and a similarly expansive goal of creating a high-end, come-one, come-all tourism trade. There’s money here — lots of it — and the implicit hope is that a gilded Westernization of the area will help recast Saudi Arabia in the global consciousness as something other than a curious desert oasis and a human rights rats’ nest.
It was against this backdrop that Saturday’s Andy Ruiz Jr.-Anthony Joshua unified heavyweight title rematch was hurriedly constructed, a 15,000-capacity temporary arena literally slapdashed together for the event, televised on DAZN. Joshua is rumored to be taking home several times more than a second Ruiz fight at Madison Square Garden or Wembley Stadium would have earned him, and he has taken stick for it. Ruiz recently commented something to the effect that he had to travel to Dirayah to prove “the doubters” wrong. This is, of course, all horseshit. Fighters fight, and they’re going to follow their instincts to monetize it. Ali famously threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after he was refused service at a whites-only restaurant, and he was stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted for failing to report for the Vietnam War military draft. But, presumably, he didn’t give his cut of the purse back from blockbuster fights financed by totalitarian regimes in Zaire and the Philippines. Fighters from Floyd Mayweather to Tyson Fury have appropriated the shit out of a culture other than their own to market themselves to a wider audience. For every Vitali Klitschko who speaks out against corruption in his homeland, there is a Manny Pacquiao making uncomfortable bedfellows with a despot.
Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, when confronted with the moral conundrum of staging one of the biggest fights of the year — they’re aptly calling Ruiz-Joshua II “Clash in the Dunes” — in a country best known for the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he was matter-of-fact: It’s his job to make fighters money, he said.
Hearn isn’t wrong. And at the risk of distilling this all as a hackish riff on a John Mellencamp tune, that doesn’t necessarily make anyone involved in this promotion or card right. It just is. Joshua and Ruiz were wealthy men coming into this fight, and they will both be far wealthier coming out of it. But I do wonder about United Arab Emirates’ lightweight Majid Al Naqbi, who fights in a four-rounder on the undercard. Or Kuwait’s Omar Dusary, fighting eight rounds against Saudi Arabia’s Zuhayr Al Qahtani. How much do they take home? It isn’t millions — or even hundreds of thousands. Ten thousand? Less? How far does that sum get them? Also: What’s their alternative? Whether it belongs to the railroad or the casino or the cringingly problematic government, money doesn’t just talk — it puts shoes on children’s feet. Fighters fight.
As usual, I don’t have any answers. I do know, however, that the world is a complicated place that forces us to make difficult, extraordinarily personal choices. Standing on principle — always and unflinchingly — makes for great cinema. But the business of boxing is cruelest to those already taking the physical blows. A fighter’s time is short. We’ve all gotta eat.
(Photo by Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing USA)