The Associated Press
Sunday, April 12, 2015 | 2 a.m.
A language barrier as firm as ropes enclosing a boxing ring separated Henry Gluck from his taxi driver in Bologna, Italy, in the late 1980s.
Gluck made out just enough of the broken English to realize the stranger was inquiring about Gluck’s occupation. The then-CEO and chairman of Caesars World responded with one word that hit like a right cross of recognition.
“Caesars,” Gluck told him.
The cabbie immediately turned around and lifted his fists to mimic a fighter.
“That’s how people identified Caesars,” Gluck said. “That was the first time I ever realized the international significance of hundreds of millions of people seeing our fights on closed circuit around the world.”
With boxing’s latest Las Vegas megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao a few weeks away, many are looking back on earlier bouts to contextualize the stature of the event. The majority of fights being discussed took place from 1980 to 1996 in the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace.
The space on the southwest side of the property became one of boxing’s most revered venues. The more than 150 bouts contested at the arena cemented Las Vegas as the fighting capital of the world.
“There was something great about those events, something tremendously exciting that can never be duplicated,” said Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank and a legendary promoter who has Pacquiao on his roster. “I remember the huge flag being unfurled in the Caesars towers, the firework displays and how wonderful it was to watch all these great events unfold in open air. It was absolutely breathtaking.”
Gluck and Arum collaborated to host many of the major cards at Caesars Palace, but the origins date back further. The CEO and chairman before Gluck, Cliff Perlman, brought boxing to Caesars in the mid-1970s, mostly with makeshift setups.
Perlman knew Caesars needed something bigger for Muhammad Ali’s 1980 comeback fight against Larry Holmes, so he promised promoter Don King the property would erect a temporary 25,000-seat stadium. Construction cost $1 million to complete in 30 days, making the move a massive risk for Caesars.
But it was a risk that paid off as Holmes’ 10th-round technical-decision victory attracted a then-record gate of $6 million and created a fight-night atmosphere that would regenerate for years to come.
“You’d go through the hotel, and it was just packed,” recalled Hall of Fame referee Richard Steele, who officiated more fights at Caesars than he can remember. “Then you’d get outside, see the swimming pool and everyone was excited. You’d get into the arena, and you could just feel it in the air. The air was thick. Everyone was there waiting for a great fight, and it felt like it always reached that goal.”
Holmes’ third fight at the arena, a 13th-round knockout of Gerry Cooney in 1982, prompted Caesars to expand the seating. The fight set a still-standing state record with 29,214 spectators.
But by the time Gluck arrived and Arum started staging fights at Caesars, a more permanent structure was needed.
Arum’s first promotion at Caesars, a unanimous-decision victory for Marvin Hagler over Roberto Duran in 1983, came about the time the roughly 15,000-capacity arena became a fixture. It also was the start of an unofficial round robin at Caesars Palace among legendary middleweights Hagler, Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard.
The four dominant fighters captivated audiences around the world. Steele remembers his nerves ramping up going into a fight featuring any of the four because he recognized almost everyone ringside.
Hollywood celebrities, music superstars and casino executives had prime seating. The most star-studded event was the 1985 “War” between Hagler and Hearns, still considered the most action-packed three rounds in boxing history.
“After the first round, Joan Rivers looked at me with astonishment and said, ‘Are all the fights like this?’ ” Arum recalled. “I said, ‘No, Joan, you’re watching something special.’ ”
Hearns opened a cut on Hagler’s forehead that forced Steele to stop the fight for a medical evaluation early in the third round. Steele remembers Hagler telling him, “I’m not going to let you stop this fight on a cut.” Sure enough, Hagler knocked out Hearns before the end of the round.
“When I saw Thomas Hearns vs. Marvin Hagler, I thought to myself, there would never be a bigger fight, ever,” said Mayweather, who was 8 years old at the time.
Mayweather contends his bout with Pacquiao will be the first to surpass Hagler vs. Hearns, but others reference Hagler’s 1987 matchup with Leonard at Caesars. It was a battle so close, no one was certain who would get the nod until the announcer read the scores declaring Leonard a split-decision winner.
Steele was the closest to the action again, giving him the distinction of refereeing the two biggest fights of the era.
“That’s what made my career,” Steele said. “When I got an assignment at Caesars Palace, I knew it was going to be a great fight.”
Caesars Palace’s reign in the boxing world extended into the 1990s and included the “Fan Man fight,” when James Miller interrupted a heavyweight unification between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield by parachuting into the ring. The final generational talent to fight at Caesars was Oscar De La Hoya, who knocked out Julio Cesar Chavez in a 1996 light welterweight showdown.
It would go down as the final bout in the outdoor arena — though Caesars hosted a handful of smaller events at a different outdoor venue in the early 2000s — as the resort’s new owners, ITT Corporation, wanted the area to build new hotel towers. The Octavius and Augustus towers, as well as part of the pool complex, take up the space of the arena today.
“It’s unfortunate that Caesars, which had the leg-up on these events, let it fritter away and abandoned the facility to put up a few more rooms,” Arum said. “As a result, I think Caesars lost its position around the world as the major casino brand.”
Gluck harbors less resentment over the decision. He stressed that ITT acted in a way it believed was best for the resort. It just differed from his strategy.
“That didn’t happen during my watch,” Gluck said. “I would have never torn it down. It was very, very special. There was some magic to the fights in those days.”