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Boxing Bounces Back 

Fights today bring big bucks to Native American casinos and Southern Arizona

There's enough adrenaline and testosterone in the room to power a fleet of vehicles.

This isn't an audience, like one you'd find at a theater, that arrives to appreciate the smell of paint and make a polite contribution to "the roar of the crowd." Boxing crowds manufacture their own olfactory ambience and spike new decibel records each time a powerful punch finds its mark.

"Impose your will!" shouts one fight fan. "Jab all night!" advises another.

Everyone sitting around the ringed combatants is an expert, it seems.

"Keep your hands up!"

"Get off the ropes!"

"Hit him again, and he'll be looking for the floor!"

These are not gentle suggestions, but commands made even more forceful by the intensity of their delivery. And why not? If you pay up to $100 just to get a seat to watch two fighters duke it out, you should get to shout as often and as loud as you want. Professional boxing isn't a business for the timid, and that includes everyone from the fighters to their frenzied fans.

Once nearly defunct in Southern Arizona, boxing has bounced back, thanks to a partnership with Native American-owned casinos. "We used to get perhaps 500 fans at a fight card downtown at the Tucson Community Center, but the place didn't have any atmosphere," says Bobby Ferrara, referee at more than 40 title fights. "If Indian casinos hadn't come along and incorporated boxing as part of their venue, the sport would have died here. Now, fight cards at Desert Diamond and other casinos continually result in sold-out seating, with respected promoters and name fighters providing icing to that cake."

Teddy Atlas, the well-known voice of ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, says that wherever casinos go, boxing is never far behind.

"Anywhere there's a casino, and people have a reason to gather for fun and frivolity, boxing is a viable--and valuable--addition. Well-promoted professional fight cards at casinos are a knockout punch for all concerned."

Both men made their comments a few weeks ago, just before TV viewers tuned in to ESPN2 to watch a main-event title fight before another sold-out crowd at Desert Diamond Casino.

"We take great pride in the success we've had and the role we've played in the resurrection of boxing in Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico," says Treena Parvello, marketing director of the Tohono O'odham Gaming Enterprise. "We're in the business of entertainment, and this is top-flight entertainment."

It's also big business. The 22 Indian casinos throughout Arizona generated $1.5 billion in gaming in the last fiscal year, with a growing portion of that bottom line likely coming from boxing. Not only are promoters, boxers and fans happy to see more fights being scheduled and bigger crowds turning out; the Arizona Indian Gaming Association says casino coffers and state revenues are also increasing.

Casino officials closely guard revenue reports, but boxing obviously has been very good for them. Depending on seating arrangements, Desert Diamond can fill between 1,800 to 2,200 seats on fight night. "Quality boxing has had a positive impact on casino revenue," is all the marketing folks will admit to. "We don't give out details on revenue dollars," Parvello acknowledges, "but I can say that boxing is not a small-potatoes operation for us."

Food, beer and casino-gambling revenue also increase during boxing events, although Parvello won't divulge specifics about that, either. "There's a positive impact across the board on fight nights," she says.

Boxing can increasingly be found in Arizona casinos in Phoenix and Yuma, as well as at the outdoor ring at Tucson's Casino del Sol, owned by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. However, the brightest spotlights and largest crowds are reserved for the 185,000-square-foot Desert Diamond Casino, near Green Valley, home to more than a dozen title fights in the last three years.

When six-time world champion and Olympic Gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard promoted his series of fights in Tucson in 2003-2004, he told local reporters, "It's our goal to bring exciting, competitive and evenly matched fights to fans, the TV audience and venue partners like Desert Diamond."

That path has also been followed by Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, which is now in its second year-long contract. De La Hoya, also a six-time world champion, strives to meet high standards as a way to mitigate some of the negative stigma associated with the fight business.

"Boxing is not at the level it should be," he says. "It doesn't get the recognition it deserves. Our name identity in boxing and our high ethical standards will be the blueprint against which the fight-promotion business will be measured in the 21st century."

From its first fight card in the fall of 2002, Desert Diamond Casino officials have gone out of their way to emphasize the concept of quality. Fight fans have been entertained by names such as super-featherweight Jorge "The Clown Prince of Boxing" Paez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., brought into the ring by his internationally known father, Julio Cesar Chavez. Other big names are expected in the remaining five cards on Golden Boy's current contract.

"In the beginning, we did some promotions with Main Event and Top Rank," says Parvello. "This past year, we decided to continue with De La Hoya and have chosen not to contract with other promoters."

The reputation of the fight promoters and the quality of the boxers they bring to the ring is paying off. "Boxing drops more money than any other sport or concert," says John Montano, of the Arizona State Boxing Commission. "Gamblers show up to watch the fights, and fight fans stop to gamble both before and after the bouts. Every time there's a big fight in Vegas, the draw is a sellout, and that's happening in Tucson, too."

Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, a partner in Golden Boy Promotions, says Tucson has a lot going for it.

"With the quality of fights taking place here and the proximity to other boxing hot spots like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Tucson has an opportunity to be an extended arm to what the other two towns already offer fight fans," says Hopkins, a partner in Golden Boy Promotions. Hopkins is a man who knows boxing: five titles, 52 fights with 46 wins, 32 of them by way of knockout. "Casino gambling is the steady gravy, but boxing--the sweet science--adds another level of sweetness to that meal."

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