Frontline Diary: Knowing absurdity and refreshing respect in Vegas
Chris Williamson in Las Vegas
Chris Williamson surveys the scene in Las Vegas as Frampton and Santa Cruz weigh-in, speaking to Barry McGuigan and Carl Froch among others as the atmosphere builds for a big night of boxing ...
To the boxing enthusiast, landing in Las Vegas can feel strangely familiar. I first visited the city back in the nineties when I was young(er) and innocent. This week the temperature on the strip is the coolest I've known, but some things remain refreshingly similar; namely the knowing absurdity of the whole place.
Something called the 'AVN Adult Entertainment Expo' was held at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino last weekend, where punters (I'm choosing the term carefully) were offered the chance to meet 'over 500 sexy adult stars'. I imagine it's like a shady version of the IBHOF weekend in Canastota and wonder how delegates explain it to their wives and girlfriends: "It's good for my career honey, it's not like I want to go!"
Elsewhere, under the inviting banner of 'Namaste in style', 'Heliyoga' offers luxury helicopter flights to the Valley of Fire, where participants practice mindfulness and 'downward-facing dog' with oversized headphones strapped to their ears. The photographs are comedic works of art. I still can't decide if it's a spoof, but this being Vegas, it's almost certainly not.
When my esteemed editor metaphorically packed me off to Vegas, he reminded me that what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas. Alas, that runs counter to writing a diary, so I arrived at the final press conference looking for a story. What I found was even better: a lady wearing a wonderful, original Mike Tyson vs James 'Bonecrusher' Smith jacket. After complementing her impeccable taste she confirmed she wasn't actually at the 1987 heavyweight unification bout at the Las Vegas Hilton.
The final press conference was a refreshing modern boxing occasion: a complete and utter love-in. "Leo is a tremendous fighter who I have the utmost respect for inside and outside of the ring," said Frampton. "Both of us fight for our families. That's really all the motivation you need. Two young men with young kids who just want to give their children a better life. Those are the ingredients for a top quality contest." Santa Cruz echoed those comments: "He's [Frampton] very respectful and I know that he does this for his family too. When you do this for your family, you do it with heart and hunger and you leave everything in the ring."
Carl was the first to applaud when Leo's father, Jose Santa Cruz - now thankfully in remission from the cancer he suffered - was introduced. Leo announced that he's raffling his outfit and gloves for a charity helping children with cancer.
Carl's manager and mentor Barry McGuigan was on terrifically charming form and told Boxing Monthly he's immensely proud of Frampton as a man and a fighter.
"They're [Frampton and Santa Cruz] both deeply respectful of one another. When you look at something like Bellew vs Haye and the shenanigans which go on there, it's a breath of fresh air isn't it? It's a good feeling. How beautiful was that? But let me tell you something: those guys are going to beat the living daylights out of each other on Saturday night.
"All the way through Carl's career he's had comparisons with me, because we're like kindred spirits in the sense that [he's a product of] mixed marriages, similar weight division, a humble guy who makes friends easily, " added McGuigan. "But stylistically he's different. Physiologically he's different. Intellectually he's different."
McGuigan told me of his long history with Showtime television, although the partnership had an inauspicious beginning when he lost his WBA featherweight title in the summer Las Vegas heat over thirty years ago. "It was Showtime's first showing of me [in Las Vegas vs Steve Cruz]: Hearns and Duran were fighting on my undercard!" he laughs wryly.
As Richard Schaefer introduced the Zlaticanin vs Garcia WBC lightweight title fight he said a "well-respected journalist" had immediately called him and told him not to make the contest as it was too dangerous for Garcia. ESPN's Dan Rafael later told me it was him who called Richard. Team Garcia are very, very confident. Rafael Lopez, a close friend of and key part of Team Garcia told me they are very interested in a Terry Flanagan unification bout if they win on Saturday. Interestingly, this is partly because, according to Lopez, a boxer who wins three WBO belts in different divisions receives a special ring. Of course, Garcia is a two-time champ with the organisation (feather and super featherweight).
Schaefer's new 'Ringstar' company has enjoyed a high profile return to Las Vegas, with plenty of T-shirts and merchandise sporting the new logo in the MGM Grand shops. Schaefer told a good gag about converting Frampton's fans from Guinness to one of the sponsors of the show, Corona. Talking of which, the Corona promotion girls seemed the only ones choosing the salad option at the media buffet laid on the the promoters. They also handed out promotional bottle openers with mini-boxing gloves attached.
When his fight with Jonathan Barros was scrapped minutes before they were due to weigh in, Lee Selby described himself as "nearly crying and sorry for fans who travelled out".
I spoke to Selby's manager Chris Sanigar, who confirmed the team only found out as they were about to hit the scales and would look at the possibility of fighting on upcoming Frank Warren or Cyclone shows.
Prior to the problems with the Barros fight, Selby told BM of his future: "Most of the reporters have been talking about me with the winner of Frampton and Santa Cruz, so maybe [that is next]. It's easy to make as we're both advised by Al Haymon." Selby predicts Frampton and Garcia will both win by knockout in the two remaining title fights.
Before dinner, I visited the 'Las Vegas Fight Shop' located in the 'Miracle Mile' shopping area housed within Planet Hollywood. With US T-shirt sizes being slightly different to the UK I was keen to try on my selections. Sadly, someone seemed to be have fallen asleep in the one changing room, so after a wait the assistant informed me that if I wasn't shy there was a mirror located in the corner. Trying on a Julio Cesar Chavez 'Roots of Fight' T-shirt, my mind temporarily transported from a middle-aged man half-naked in a hotel casino to those great battles waged by 'El Gran Campeon Mexicano'. I left the shop considerably poorer.
A media dinner was hosted by the promoters, Showtime TV and the MGM Grand. I was sat with Carl Froch and Adam Smith, both terrific company when cameras are off. With the application for an extra 10,000 tickets for Joshua vs Klitschko freshly granted, Smith ribbed Froch about it mercilessly. Froch, in that delightfully dry manner where you're not quite sure if he's joking or not, claimed Joshua vs Klitschko would be scheduled at the O2 if it wasn't for him.
Carl was on the look-out for carbs and currently training to be a reserve marine, as part of a new documentary. Froch looks hopefully in Smith's direction as he tells me he's pitching for it to be shown on Sky One. Through his career, Carl won WBC, WBA and IBF super middleweight titles but says there's something about the green and gold belt which makes it his favourite. Carl hinted about a possible comeback in a recent IFL TV interview, but says this was mainly to wind up Eddie Hearn.
Talking of TV shows, Michelle Joy Phelps, owner of behindthegloves.com has a few ideas for TV shows which she's pitching to producers. Phelps was encouraged to get into the boxing business by Amir Khan and David Haye and admits that her competition, UK based IFL TV are "killing it right now" with their viewing figures. More than half (60%) of her own views are from British fans.
UFC superstar Conor McGregor is scheduled to walk out Michael Conlon to the ring for his debut against American Tim Ibarra on St Patrick's day in New York. Photographer Amanda Armstrong happens to be a good friend of Ibarra and approached Floyd Mayweather Sr about walking out Ibarra. I ask Amanda if it's likely to happen and she shakes her head wistfully: "He's going to have to get paid. I cant even charge my phone!" she says as she calls an uber before her phone battery dies.
The weigh in attendance was confirmed as 3,500. Fans certainly made themselves heard and the feeling in the air - despite the Selby vs Barros disappointment - is that we're in for a terrific, positive night of boxing.