Down and Out in Vegas

November 19, 2001|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN COLUMNIST

LAS VEGAS - There was a buzz in the air, something faint and mysterious, as Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman came bounding out from their corners for the fourth round. The judges had given the first three to Lewis because he had landed punches to the face of his younger opponent from Baltimore. These attacks, and an uncharacteristic Ali-like dance in Lewis' movements, had excited the crowd and brought the movie stars and other big shots near the ring to their feet. But now the crowd in the Event Center at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was quiet and attentive again, and there was this odd buzz, a sinister little vibration, in the big room.

A minute of inconsequential boxing passed. Then, somewhere between the 88th and 89th second of the fourth round, Lennox Lewis unleashed what his trainer would later call "one of the most beautifully executed combinations in the history of boxing" and the buzz became the sound of a Rock cracking.

The long buildup to Saturday night's world heavyweight boxing title rematch - the road to Mandalay - had been a promoter's classic: Lots of sarcastic mouth from Rahman as he tried to get under Lewis' skin ("He's scared of me, y'all!"); Rahman being dismissed as a one-punch wonder who'd scored a lucky knockout of Lewis for the heavyweight title last April in South Africa; Lewis stomping out of a news conference as the trash-talking Rahman loudly chided him.

The two fighters scuffled nasty, and to the floor, during the taping of a television show. Rahman had made comments about Lewis' sexuality. Lewis had branded Rahman a clown.

Rahman needed to prove that he wasn't a flash in the pan.

Lewis needed to regain his title or, at age 36, face retirement.

So, going into the weekend, Rahman-Lewis II had taken perfect shape: The strong, smartly tailored, soft-spoken British champion who called himself a "pugilist specialist" against the bragging, brawling Baltimorean in 'do rag and sweats who called himself The Rock.

And the setting was ideal. Can there be a more suitable place in America for this brutal sport's biggest show than the freaky Vegas Strip?

Mandalay Bay is a three-winged golden tower rising from an architect's idea of a sprawling palace of colonial Burma, with terraces of palm trees and waterfalls and a fake 11-acre "lagoon." Inside, the huge carpeted and tiled spaces are devoted to gambling of every conceivable form, hip restaurants serving "world food" - one with a huge, high-rise wine cellar and a "wine angel" who scales it by rope to fill an order - and bars filled with young to middle-aged men and women on the make, on the prowl, on the hustle.

Men wear black T-shirts and tight jeans, or home-boy sweats and heavy jewelry. Women wear halter tops, tube tops and sometimes almost no tops. They come to get matched, married, loaded or rich. They arm-wrestle an army of slots, shoot craps, play poker and blackjack and baccarat, and they bet on sports. They drink and throw chips all night and go to bed just before dawn.

"This place is fake from the architecture to the boobs," said Baltimore lawyer Billy Murphy, as he stood in a swirl of people near the lobby of the Mandalay. "The finest places here were created for the sole purpose of getting the maximum number of people to give up the maximum amount of their money through gambling. It's a place where people come to indulge every sin imaginable ... It's not my cup of tea. I'm here for the fight, and I'm out of here."

Murphy, who represents promoter Don King, was heading out to deliver to friends the 14 tickets he had to the fight.

By Saturday evening, genuine Sugar Daddies -- moneyed men escorting exotically dressed women half their age -- and other high-rollers had moved into the casino for some action before the fight. "People are playing blackjack with $500 chips," observed Stash, the 98 Rock deejay who came for the fight, among the few from Baltimore. "There's a $1,000-minimum table and people are just chuckin' it down. It's crazy. ... I saw Cuba Gooding Jr. in there."

The march to the Event Center, connected to the hotel but a long walk from its ornate lobby, started about two hours before Rahman-Lewis II, with hotel security setting up barricades on one of the large concourses of polished black stone leading to the arena.

This created the effect of an opening-night runway, with lines of gawkers on both sides getting an eye feast: Loads of bleach-blond women with L'il Kim and Britney Spears hairstyles and cleavage exposure, women in mink halters, ostrich boas, leather slacks, tight dresses with Hong Kong slits, and at least two in black see-through lace things barely the size of a chapel veil. Among the males: A cream-colored suit with matching derby; a retro-'70s outfit with Super Fly lid; an electric-blue, silk crepe zoot suit; and a frat-brat reunion in tuxedos and armed with large cigars.

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