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Betting On the Ring

Wagering on the sweet science is still an inexact one
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

Fight fans recall November 9, 1996, as the night Mike Tyson lost his title to Evander Holyfield. It was an ugly battle at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, during which Holyfield and his patented jackhammer punches systematically took apart Iron Mike. Tyson was knocked down in the sixth round, but he has no recollection of it. The beating was so complete that Tyson later said he forgot everything that came after the third bell. No doubt, the Las Vegas bookmakers wish they could forget the rest of that night as well. By the 11th round, when the referee stopped the fight, awarding Holyfield a TKO victory, the only ones who felt more beaten than Tyson were the Vegas bookies.

It should have been a rout. Tyson was the clear favorite, so much so that Pay Per View charged its customers by the round instead of the fight. Oddsmakers initially figured Holyfield to be an 18-1 long shot, meaning that for every $100 bet you'd win $1,800 if Holyfield won the fight -- and bets poured in for the underdog. Such a huge payoff was just too tempting to pass up. Managers at the casino sports books scratched their heads and dropped the odds, hoping to make Tyson more attractive. During the weeks preceding the heavyweight fight, the odds plummeted in a desperate bid to drum up action for Tyson. In the end, about 60 percent of the money bet was placed on Holyfield, although at least one casino, the Las Vegas Hilton, reportedly put the figure at 90 percent.

This represented one of the biggest odds swings in the brief history of casinos taking boxing action. As the fight's outcome became increasingly apparent, the sports books resigned themselves to having to pay off a slew of bettors. "That fight had a very bad opening line based on the fact that there were a lot of rumors about Holyfield's heart," recalls Joe Lupo, manager of the sports book at the Stardust Hotel and Casino. "He'd come off of a couple different wars, but obviously Tyson was too big a favorite."

The casinos admitted losing "several million dollars" that night -- but logic suggests the true figure was a lot higher. While it can be argued that a fight weekend in Vegas is such a moneymaking bonanza that even a seven-figure beating is not so crippling, sports book bosses did not see it that way.

"We take a loss like that personally," says Lupo. "It's not our money, but we book each fight as if it is. That's what our success is based on. And that is why this loss was so devastating. Tyson seemed like he should have been a big favorite. So we didn't think much of opening the fight where we did. Then we saw all the money coming in on Holyfield. We were locked into a large liability."

The fight turned into a windfall for bettors, but such situations come up less frequently than fans of the sweet science would like. More often than not, the odds are far tighter and the casino liability is far less.

Such was the case during the days leading up to a heavyweight championship bout last November between David Tua (37 wins, 1 loss) and then-World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation champ Lennox Lewis (37-1 and 1 draw). Tua's short, stocky, and built like the trunk of an oak tree. Lewis is tall, lean, and blessed with reach, smarts, and a height advantage of seven inches.

However, the smart bettors were also looking at Tua's one very potent weapon. "He has his equalizer: a left hook," said Arne Lang, sitting in the sports book of Mandalay Bay, where the fight was slated to take place in less than 48 hours. Lang, a boxing historian and frequent bettor on college football, still has the rumpled air of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas sociology professor he had once been. He glanced up at the big diode-lit board that displayed point spreads for a weekend's worth of football and basketball.

Down the center of the board were the odds for the Tua-Lewis fight: 3.3-1. This meant that you would need to bet $330 to win $100 (minus the casino's cut on each wager) if you wanted to put your money on the favored Lewis. "The casual, recreational bettor will not lay $330 to win $100," said Lang. "He wants a better return on his investment. The square will take the underdog or he will not bet on this."

Did he think the squares would stand a chance on Saturday night? "The left hook, like no other punch, can reverse the tide of a fight with a single hit. Theoretically, Tua could be losing every round before the left hook knocks out Lewis. What's highly improbable is that Tua will win by decision." So the best Tua bet would be for a knockout? "I lean toward Tua, but I'm not betting on this fight. He figures to eat a lot of leather and can't win a decision."


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