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Boxing Brings Big Bucks to Indian Casinos

Indian-owned casinos have long recognized the fan-fighter magnetism translates to dollars.

Punch-Drunk, And Proud of It: Casinos count on boxing to bring in the high rollers, and the ring action ropes them in

On fight night, there’s enough adrenaline and testosterone in the room to power a fleet of SUVs. This isn’t like the theater, in which patrons come to appreciate “the roar of the greasepaint” and make a polite contribution to “the smell of the crowd.” Boxing fans manufacture their own olfactory ambiance and set new decibel records each time a powerful punch finds its mark and the impact of the blow throws beads of sweat into ringside seats.

“Impose your will!” shouts one fight fan. “Jab all night!” advises another. By the number and vehemence of comments like these, it would appear that everyone observing the ringed combatants is an expert. “Keep your hands up!” “Get off the ropes!” “Hit him again, and he’ll be looking for the floor!”

If you pay big bucks to get a seat to watch two gloved gladiators duke it out, you should get to shout as often and as loud as you want. Boxing isn’t a business for the timid and that includes everyone from the fighters to their frenzied fans. “Every boxing fan should see a fight in person at least once,” says fight fan Gus Petropulos on his website, “Watching a fight on pay-per-view is second-rate to actually being there. From the crowds in the stands to the action of the fighters in the ring, there is nothing like it.”

Indian-owned casinos have long recognized that the magnetism of live boxing translates to dollars. Teddy Atlas, boxer-promoter and a voice of ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights, concurs. “Anywhere there’s a casino, boxing is a viable—and valuable—addition, [and] well-promoted professional fight cards are a knockout punch for all concerned.”

Google “boxing venues” and you’ll find more than 50 readily recognized sites from California to Connecticut—many casino-connected—names like the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe’s Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut; the Mohegan Tribe’s Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut; the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ property, the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in Highland, California; the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians’ Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California; and the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment, based in the Arizona cities of Sahuarita and Tucson. Other tribal nations with a big commitment to boxing include Florida’s Seminoles and Southern California’s Sycuans.

Ropes and squared rings started showing up on Indian properties in 1992 when Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Tribe added a boxing option to traditional bingo with a 10-round Top Rank bout televised on ESPN.

Just 15 years later, Foxwoods Resort Casino was celebrating its 100th fight card. Already running one of the largest resort casinos in the world, tribal decision-makers had a 4,000-seat arena constructed for concerts and premier sporting and special events at Foxwoods’s MGM Grand that can be reconfigured for boxing matches. The tribe’s commitment to the sweet science is further evidenced in its sponsorship of USA Boxing, its partnership in the Native American Sports Council, and its role as the host site for Olympic Team box-offs, which determine which fighters will qualify for the Olympic Games.

Mohegan Sun has three entertainment venues, one of which is a 10,000-seat arena that hosts major boxing events when not in use by the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. Fight cards have been promoted there since 1996. “Boxing continues to be a big draw,” says spokesman Justin Leslie. “We also promote Bellator mixed martial arts and North American Grappling Association Reality Fighting—and a lot of fans are devoted to this kind of action.”

In fact, mixed-martial arts (MMA) is packing the bigger punch at the box-office. “Martial-arts events have overtaken boxing as our number-one draw,” says Tom Cantone, Mohegan’s vice president of sports. “It’s a pop-culture world, a younger crowd, there are less rules and more-frequent fight cards, and MMA offers more action-packed excitement that the audience is looking for.”

The popularity of fisticuffs in Eastern casinos spurred a move westward, where the Fight Night banner went up in March 1999 at California’s Pechanga Resort & Casino, the largest casino in the state. Its inaugural WBC bantamweight title fight was so successful that more than 50 other cards have been held here. “We do regularly scheduled televised championship boxing,” says Robert Bledsoe, spokesman for the Temecula facility. “While we offer a variety of types of entertainment—everything from concerts to ballroom dancing—boxing is one of our most popular attractions. We schedule a fight night every few months.”

Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation Desert Diamond Casino jumped into the ring with its first fight card at the end of 2002, very quickly adding nationally televised fights promoted by boxing champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. “We’re in the business of entertainment, and this is top-flight entertainment,” says Treena Parvello, who works in the tribe’s Gaming Enterprise unit. She says the casino is now scheduling Rage in the Cage Ultimate Fighting events.
“Ring action drops more money than any other sport or concert,” says John Montaño of the Arizona State Boxing Commission. “Gamblers show up at a casino to watch fights and stop to gamble both before and after the bout.” At one Desert Diamond weigh-in event, Bernard “the Executioner” Hopkins, who has held five titles, said: “Casino gambling may be the main meal on the table—the steady gravy—but boxing adds a level of sweetness to that meal.”

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Cabazon, California owns one of the state’s largest casinos and have offered boxing events since 2005. They have been joined in that strategy by their neighbors, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, who have also hosted several King of the Cage fights involving up-and-coming MMA fighters and former UFC champions. These matches, which started in southern California a decade or so ago, feature a wide range of combat fighting techniques—everything from jiujitsu, wrestling, judo, karate, kickboxing, Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do. Each MMA fighter often pits various martial-arts styles against their opponent.

The most exotic form of pugilism on display at a casino is also one of the oldest, and most controversial. Bare-knuckle boxing, last sanctioned in the U.S. in 1889—when the fighters squared off for 75 rounds—over two hours—returned recently to Arizona’s Yavapai Nation Fort McDowell Casino, overseen not by the state boxing commission, but by the tribe itself. The 37-year-old scrapper who won that bout told the website in 2001: “It ain’t back-alley or barroom brawling.”

The national Association of Boxing Commissions felt differently, calling it “abhorrent, barbaric, egregious, in contravention of a multitude of boxing laws and regulations and, perhaps, criminal…violating just about every rule in the book.”
But no matter the final form for future fisticuffs, rest assured that Indian casinos have reached out to fight fans and found them receptive. As long as ring attractions continue to bring in the crowds, pugilists will still lace ’em up and let ’em fly.