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Boxing's familiar ring

7 May 2007

By Frances McCabe and John Przybys

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Cigar smoke floated past bettors lining up at the MGM Grand sports book.

The liquor flowed as quickly as the gambling tips. The working girls worked. The crowd buzzed. Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. boxed.

It was fight night in Las Vegas. A throwback to big-time bouts last seen a decade ago, when Mike Tyson battled Evander Holyfield on the Strip.

There was concern, including among Las Vegas police officials, that Saturday's fight would attract a tough crowd, much like the one that traveled to Las Vegas for NBA All-Star Weekend in February.

But MGM workers and tourists agreed this was no All-Star Weekend.

By Saturday afternoon, the Tecate beer girls were handing out Mexican flags and boxing fans were passing around fight gossip. In the food court, a guy at one table was sharing inside information he had heard from a guy he knows who knows another guy who knows someone else.

There was no mystery which boxer the crowd favored.

Outside the entrance to the MGM Grand Garden, chants of "Oscar, Oscar, Oscar" erupted at the slightest provocation: the arrival of a Univision reporter, the waving of a Mexican flag, the appearance of a Mayweather Jr. fan.

Joining the De La Hoya fans was Ruben Ortiz, 29, who traveled to Las Vegas from Pomona, Calif. He and his family had tickets for the closed-circuit showing of the fight at the MGM Grand. He had paid $50 for his ticket but said he was hearing $250 offers for closed-circuit tickets two hours before fight time.

Not that he had any thoughts of selling.

"It's Oscar," he said.

The De La Hoya fans went home disappointed after Mayweather Jr. scored a split decision for the WBC super welterweight championship.

As the crowd exited the arena, most folks seemed happy to have seen a good fight.

Ed Frassinelli of Yuma, Ariz., who attended the bout with his wife, Sonia, said Mayweather Jr. seemed to land solid punches, while De La Hoya's jabs were weak.

But some fight attendees weren't pleased with the split-decision outcome.

"Who won it tonight? It sure wasn't Mayweather," one man said.

Another added, "The judges were as blind as that one-eyed horse in the Kentucky Derby."

A heavy police presence, including members of the gang unit, was visible throughout the casino.

Officials said 120 Las Vegas police officers worked the event, along with several undercover teams. The MGM Grand will pay overtime costs for the officers.

"As always, Metro has contingency plans in place to handle any type of event which may occur," Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Bill Cassell said in a statement released Saturday afternoon.

Police had expected to see an influx of gangs from Southern California. But officials predicted fight weekend would be less problematic than NBA All-Star Weekend.

The De La Hoya-Mayweather Jr. fight involved one event in one location, while All-Star Weekend included several events throughout the valley over several days.

Elroy Coleman of Los Angeles, who was in town for the fight and also traveled to Las Vegas for All-Star Weekend, noticed the difference. "This is a little calmer than NBA weekend as of right now, but that remains to be seen for the rest of the night," he said.

The 48-year-old said the All-Star crowds weren't as polite.

Coleman, who works security back in L.A., said Las Vegas knows how to handle a big fight night. "The NBA was a new thing for them (the police). They will be more prepared tonight, because they are used to handling events like this."

An MGM Grand security guard called Saturday "a walk in the park" compared with NBA All-Star Weekend.

A bartender at the hotel agreed. "It seemed then that everybody was ready for a fight. ... This is a more subtle crowd than compared to NBA weekend," she said.

Not everyone in town was here for the fight. Jonathan Choquette, 22, and a group of friends came to Las Vegas from Ontario, Canada, for a bachelor party, not knowing they would be part of a very busy weekend.

"I don't watch sports," Choquette said.

For at least part of Saturday afternoon, the main event on Choquette's schedule was figuring out a way to avoid the crowds.

Jessie Burgess, 75, of Toronto said if she had known about the fight, she wouldn't have come to Las Vegas this weekend. Burgess, who was vacationing with her family to celebrate her daughter's 50th birthday, said it was too crowded for her.

But the size of the crowd was her only complaint. "Everyone seems nice and helpful."

For those without tickets, there was plenty of people-watching. When the crowd wasn't hooting and cat calling the Tecate beer girls, it was ogling celebrities such as Ron Howard and Bob Saget.

A "professional escort," as one called herself, handed out cards to male passers-by, advertising "prompt, professional, discreet" service.

Some spent time watching the lions as they were fed inside the habitat at the MGM.

Others watched celebrities at Wolfgang Puck's Bar & Grill, where the likes of John Cusack, Will Ferrell and Patricia Arquette ate, drank and conversed.

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