SAHUARITA, Ariz. - ''Where casinos are, boxing isn't far behind,'' said Teddy Atlas, the voice of ESPN's Friday Night Fights. ''Anywhere there's a casino where people gather to have fun, boxing is a viable - and valuable - addition. When Indian casinos and professional boxing team up for well-promoted, professional fights, it's a proven knockout punch for both of them.''
''Indian casinos and pro boxing are a perfect match - a hand-in-glove relationship - and the pun is intentional,'' said Bobby Ferrara, a referee who has officiated more than 40 world title fights. ''If Indian casinos hadn't come along and incorporated boxing as part of their venue, the sport would have continued to wither away. Now that pugilistics have been added to games of chance and stage entertainment, that's a combination that will make the sport of boxing grow in popularity.''
Both men made their comments before 90 million TV viewers tuned in to ESPN2 to watch a title fight before a sold-out crowd at Desert Diamond Casino in Tucson. Increasingly, American Indian casinos are turning themselves into well-promoted fight venues with bouts regulated by state commissions or tribal boxing commissions.
In the East, traditional arenas in places such as Atlantic City are actually losing matches to tribal promotions, while once-rare fight cards in some states are starting to become regular offerings. In the West, increasing interest in the sweet science at California casinos has West Coast boxing literally exploding; and farther inland, one of the clearest illustrations of how successful the casino boxing concept can be is shown at Indian-owned property in Arizona.
''We take pride in the role we've played and the success we've had in the resurrection of boxing in southern Arizona and northern Mexico,'' said Treena Parvello, marketing director of Tohono O'odham Gaming Enterprise.
''Desert Diamond Casino continues to up the ante by offering top-quality fighters from around the world in partnership with well-known promoters to make our area a staple in quality boxing worldwide. We're in the business of entertainment - and this is top-flight entertainment.''
The 22 Indian casinos throughout Arizona generate roughly $1.5 billion in gaming each fiscal year with a growing portion of that bottom line coming from fight cards. Not only are promoters, boxers and fans happy to see more events being scheduled and bigger crowds turning out, the Arizona Indian Gaming Association said casino coffers and state revenues are also increasing, with tribes that have gaming now paying about $20 million to $25 million to the state of Arizona each quarter.
Casino officials closely guard revenue specifics, but boxing obviously has been very good for them. Desert Diamond can fill up to 2,200 seats on a fight night at prices between $25 and $100 per seat. ''Boxing has had a positive impact on casino revenue'' is all the marketing folks will admit. ''We don't give out specifics,'' Parvello acknowledged, ''but boxing is not a small potatoes operation for us.'' As far as increased sales numbers for food, beer and casino gaming during boxing events: ''There's a positive impact across the board on fight nights,'' she said, noting that Double D has packed the house with more than a dozen title fights in the last three years.
''The casino does it right,'' said Ferrara, former middleweight boxer turned referee. He credited good casino management and partnering with respected fighters-turned-promoters, such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar ''Golden Boy'' de la Hoya. ''Big-name fighters in a casino ring add excitement and put icing on the pugilistic cake,'' he said.
With Sugar Ray and Golden Boy as star power, HBO, HBO Latino, Telefutura, ESPN and Showtime have brought live TV coverage to town. When Golden Boy recently signed a third year-long contract, Parvello said, ''Fans can be assured that exciting nonstop boxing action will continue.'' Added De la Hoya: ''Our partnership has produced nothing but success. We're looking forward to larger, more explosive events this year.''
''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 of what the other two towns already offer,'' said five-time title-holder Bernard Hopkins of Golden Boy Promotions. ''Casino gambling is the steady gravy, but boxing adds sweetness to the meal.''
The gaming/boxing combination brings together diverse interests and backgrounds. Sponsored by and conducted at American Indian-owned facilities just 30 miles from the Mexican border, the sport is increasingly popular with the Southwest's heavy Hispanic population. Six-time world champion De la Hoya formed his company with the aim of mitigating some of the negative stigma associated with the sport.
''Boxing is not at the level it should be,'' he said. ''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 twenty-first century.''
New ideas are also under consideration.
''We try to combine the capabilities of our events center with what the community wants,'' Parvello said. ''We're always trying to improve on our success so it doesn't turn out to be same-old, same-old. We recently added 'Rage in the Cage' fights, and those events are also selling out.'' She laughed when asked about adding wrestling, but quickly added, ''If there's a market for pro wrestling here ... you never know.''