The fight had ended a couple of hours before, but already Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali had gone their ways, mere bit players now. Holmes stood in front of Caesars Palace, wearing a blue blazer, and kissed a blonde at her request. "You want one, too?" he playfully asked another. In the hotel, Ali had already taken a painkiller and gone to sleep. In the casino at Caesars both men were as forgotten as the last roll of the dice.
For a kind of bedlam had descended over the casino. Around the craps tables, even at the $100-minimum tables, prospective players stood six deep, filling the carpeted aisles waiting for openings. They gathered about the roulette and the blackjack tables, even at the wheel of fortune. All eight of the baccarat tables were full, 20 big spenders betting the $8,000 limit on every hand. And in the background, people stood cheek by jowl at the rattling, coin-spitting slot machines: chickchickchickchickchick. Ali and Holmes had done their job. The action on the casino floor was heavy.
This was just the type of scene—a betting hall filled with gamblers—that Caesars Palace had counted on when it decided to ante up more than $5 million to bring Holmes and Ali together in a jerry-built stadium in the middle of its parking lot. For years the center of boxing in America was New York, with Chicago as a satellite, but those days are gone.
In the last few years Las Vegas has emerged as big-time boxing's U.S. headquarters, and the scene in the casino after the fight helps explain why. Casinos are willing to pay inflated prices for fights, even taking a loss to stage a major championship, because they have a chance to recoup at the gaming tables. Most of the reasons that the fight game has moved to Vegas have to do with the bottom line. With the heightened interest of television in the sport, the networks have found this garish, isolated town to be an ideal setting for their telecasts. Because the televising of a fight generally involves blacking out the city where it takes place, networks are loath to broadcast one from a major market such as New York or Los Angeles. But they have no qualms about darkening this city of 176,600 in the middle of a desert. The Nevada State Athletic Commission also happens to be the most aggressive body of its type, with members traveling about the country to bring more and better fights—and hence more gamblers to see them. Finally, unlike New York State and New York City, neither Nevada nor Las Vegas taxes personal income, making the state attractive to fighters earning big purses.
So the sweet science has flourished here. And, almost to the exclusion of the other casinos, Caesars Palace has taken over the big fights. It has the money and the facilities, to be sure, but it also has Clifford Perlman, the chairman of the board of Caesars World, the Las Vegas casino's parent company (its holdings also include two other casino-hotels—one in Lake Tahoe, the other in Atlantic City). Perlman bought the casino in 1969, when it was a 600-room hotel without any sports facilities, for $60 million. The 55-year-old businessman-lawyer, a onetime produce handler in his native Philadelphia, has since developed it into an 1,800-room complex with 12 tennis courts and an indoor sports pavilion that has been the setting for everything from gymnastic meets and Ping-Pong tournaments to karate competitions and boxing matches. In 1970, when Perlman started building tennis courts, "People thought I was crazy," he says. "This was a golf town then. The big thing was the Tournament of Champions." Perlman is an ardent tennis player himself—he often shows up at the office in shorts and gym shoes—and sensed a tennis boom was on the way. So he hired Pancho Gonzalez to run a tennis program and began sponsoring major matches, such as the Jimmy Connors-Rod Laver duel in 1975.
With the rise of boxing's popularity, especially after the U.S. Olympic boxing team attracted national attention at the 1976 Games, Perlman turned the pavilion over to boxing. Not that boxing was anything new to the town. In the 1960s, beginning when Benny Paret won the welterweight title from Don Jordan, a number of big-time fights were staged in Las Vegas. Gene Fullmer, Dick Tiger and Carlos Ortiz fought there, and Ali himself made four appearances, beating Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner and Ron Lyle. These were the days when the big fights were held not in a casino but in the Las Vegas Convention Center.
However, the days of fights in the Convention Center were not long for Caesars World. Deciding that it would be more profitable to hold matches at the hotel, where the customers would be but a few steps from the tables, and seeking television exposure to advertise the casino nationally, Perlman staged the George Foreman-Ron Lyle melee at Caesars on Feb. 24, 1976. By 1979 nine championship fights had been held there. Holmes knocked out Earnie Shavers at Caesars, and Sugar Ray Leonard won the welterweight title from Wilfredo Benitez at the casino.
What Perlman had done was make the hotel a lucrative fight site. Promoter Bob Arum says the chief advantage of fighting there is Caesars' willingness to put up substantial money for the rights to the gate revenues. "They pay you a sum of money and they worry about the gate," says Arum. "It makes it easier for the promoter. It's as simple as that."
There was considerable worry among some Caesars' board members over committing almost $5 million to bring Holmes-Ali to the hotel—fear that Ali might not train and that the fight wouldn't sell. Bob Halloran, the director of sports at Caesars, advised Perlman that he thought they could count on a $3.5 million gate. Because it cost $4 million to buy the rights to the live gate and about $1 million to set up the stands in the parking lot, a deficit of about $1.5 million was in prospect. And there were other risks, too. With high rollers playing at all the tables, over a short period of time the house could take a bath from the gambling. On top of the projected deficit, it was not, to some, an appealing prospect.
But in the end Caesars took the gamble. Harry Wald, the chief operating officer of Caesars, sent invitations to 2,500 of Caesars' highest rollers. For the best customers there would be free rooms, food and beverages, and choice seats at the fight.
What ensued, Halloran said, more than justified the entire enterprise. Every seat was sold. The gate topped $6 million, minus the estimated $500,000 that the house gave away in complimentary tickets. At the first roll of the dice after the fight, the house was even. And the casino was filled for hours with gamblers, many of them betting the limit. There's been no word as to who came out ahead, the house or the rollers, but the odds were in Caesars' favor.
Having discovered that boxing can be as big a draw as Ol' Blue Eyes, Caesars Palace's Perlman anted up $5 million for the bout. Part of that amount went into the building of a 24,790-seat temporary stadium in the parking lot.