Knockout memories at Caesars
November 1, 2005
Saturday’s boxing card looks like it could be one of the best Caesars Tahoe has had, and that’s saying a lot, considering the casino’s rich history.
Hopefully, the tradition will continue with new casino owner Columbia Sussex.
When I started at the Tribune as a sportswriter in 1992, I was given the boxing beat. Despite a switch over to the news side, I’ve pretty much remained the paper’s boxing writer, and there have been plenty of memorable moments.
Perhaps the most infamous appearance by a boxer was that of world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. He was a real heavyweight. Bowe didn’t fight here. Instead, he, like so many others have, trained at Tahoe because of the high altitude. Casinos like to put up fighters because they attract crowds for public workouts.
Bowe was fresh off his upset win over Evander Holyfield. He came to town phat. He left fatter.
The late Eddie Futch, who trained many heavyweight champions, told me Bowe had the potential to be the best of them all. Bowe hit sparring partner Everett “Bigfoot” Martin so hard that manager Rock Newman cringed. Bigfoot was basically a professional punching bag. His boxing record was 20-39. After his sparring session with Bowe, he methodically took off his headgear and muttered, “Brother’s gonna kill somebody.”
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Another sparring partner gave me a quote that summed up the champ’s stay at Tahoe. He was describing Bowe eating a meal: “Oh my lord, that man can put it away!”
Bowe also would go through the motions of training at Time Out Fitness Center, and I remember my friend Harry Scallo trying to get Bowe to run up to Angora Ridge with him. Bowe wanted to go, but his personal trainer wouldn’t let him. Hard to understand why. Holyfield regained his title when he beat the out-of-shape Bowe in the rematch.
There was another time when there was a big card at Caesars and a lot of fighters were in town to train, many of them heavyweights who had sparred with the other champion, Lennox Lewis. To my surprise, every one of them picked little-known Oliver McCall to upset Lewis in their upcoming Vegas fight. The line down there had Lewis as a 7-1 favorite, but there was no line up here and I was unable to use this inside knowledge at the sports book. Instead I wrote a column with the headline, “There will be a new heavyweight champion on Saturday.” Sure enough, McCall knocked out Lewis.
Of course there was a rematch and I was eager to put $100 on McCall, who was again the underdog. But McCall didn’t fight back this time. Instead, he kept his arms at his sides and cried. Referee Mills Lane finally stopped it.
My lesson from this was to never bet on a fight promoted by Don King.
The most suspicious fight at Caesars, and the most memorable, was Lewis’ title defense against Henry Akinwande. I was of the opinion that if a big guy with power would slug it out with the huge champion, he could knock him out. That’s what McCall had done in the first fight. So I put another $100 down (down the drain), hoping for an upset. Besides, I had met them both and Akinwande was a nice guy while Lewis was arrogant.
Akinwande wanted no part of Lewis. He hugged and clinched him for several rounds, receiving admonishments and warnings from referee Mills “Let’s get it on” Lane. Akinwande finally did take a swing, and it sent Lewis to his knee for an instant. Of course Lane, who had a remarkable streak of ending fights with disqualifications, was too busy watching and yelling at Akinwande to notice Lewis had been knocked down. Lane ended the fight on a disqualification minutes later.
At the press conference I remember Lewis arrogantly telling me he didn’t remember any knockdown, Akinwande appearing to be fighting back tears and Lane making a brief statement admitting he’d missed the knockdown. The crowd, which in theory consisted of press members, shouted words of encouragement to the popular referee, drowning out questions from real reporters. Lane bolted for the door, and Jay Heater of the Contra Costa Times and myself followed. As we yelled out to Lane, he broke into a sprint and was gone.
I wanted to ask him if he thought people were paying to see the boxers or the referee.
Those press conferences were often absurd. The biggest crowd for a press conference was for Fernando Vargas. When a reporter tried to ask Vargas a tough question, the crowd booed, swore at and threatened the reporter. I asked the public relations agent why all those people had been let in. “They are his family,” she said.
But big crowds in the showroom are a good thing, and all 1,500 seats were filled for a 1994 world title defense for junior flyweight champion Chiquita Gonzalez of Mexico. When he entered the ring to the music of a live Mariachi band, the place was electric. It was the most raucous crowd I’ve seen for a fight at Caesars.
Other exciting moments happened when South Lake Tahoe fighters were on the card. Hector Torrez, Eric Majors and Simon Ruvalcaba all made it to the professional boxing level. But the best local fighter was Juan Torrez, who got into the game late after winning several kickboxing titles.
When Torrez entered the ring as a kickboxer, he had the eyes of a killer and he usually made quick work of his opponents. But he only went on to have a modest, short-lived boxing career. After winning a 10-round unanimous decision, he told me, “The only way I could have knocked that guy out was by kicking him.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the greatest piece of boxing history at Stateline. Across the street in 1972 at the Sahara (now the Horizon), the greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, faced light heavyweight champion Bob Foster. Ali sustained a cut for the first time in his career in that fight, and the sight of his own blood inspired him to knock out Foster an instant later.
The ring was moved over to Caesars 20 years later and was used there for more than a decade.
Saturday should provide more memorable moments while the world watches on pay-per-view as Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy takes on Scott “Sandman” Pemberton.
Will the boxing tradition at the casino continue when Caesars changes over to Mount Bleu?
Here’s my $50 prediction (I don’t make $100 bets anymore): Yes. Stateline will remain a boxing hotbed. Furthermore, the area will produce another pro boxer, and Sacramento’s Tony “The Tiger” Lopez will return as a trainer or manager, and finally, Riddick Bowe will come back – to eat at the casino’s French restaurant.