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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

(continued from page 1)

Lang hesitated for a beat and viewed the other side of the prognosticator's equation: "But he does have the equalizer. And there is a lot of suspicion about Lewis's jaw." Suddenly, he seemed ready to reconsider. "Look, if the price goes up it may tempt me to take a little piece."

During a fight weekend at the Mandalay, it was difficult to resist the urge to lay at least a modest bet on the impending bout. The coolest-looking guys in the casino were the ones who swaggered around with jackets and shirts and gym bags that sported the name of one fighter or the other. Enormous banners with images of the boxers hung from the ceiling of the South Pacific-themed casino. Above the Strip, computerized marquees with moving images hyped the bout. All around town there was the buzz, the energy, the anticipation and the talk that made it clear that any heavyweight championship fight is always the hottest ticket of its weekend.

Boxing and the betting that it attracts are so much a part of the Vegas firmament that it's easy to imagine big fights and bigger bets being as old as the casinos themselves. But that is not the case. Although the first documented fight in Las Vegas took place in 1920, it wasn't until 1963 that the first heavyweight championship bout was fought there. Until then, the biggest fights were held in legendary venues like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium.

It was Caesars Palace that launched the Vegas Fight as spectacle in 1980 when Muhammad Ali squared off against Larry Holmes in the casino's outdoor arena. (Holmes scored a KO in the 11th.) Even then, casinos took none of the fight action. "You had these little mom-and-pop sawdust bookie joints, and all the action went there," recalled Lang. "There was a 10 percent tax on sport wagers, but no serious bettors paid it; [the joints] had ways of hiding it for regulars. When the tax went down to 0.25 percent, the casinos decided that they had to put in sports books. That was in [1983], the year that the hotels started to glamorize sports betting."

One guy who required no enticements to bet on boxing is Herb "Herbie Hoops" Lambeck. Raised in Newark, New Jersey, and relocated to Vegas, Lambeck has been betting on boxing since 1952, back when boxers like Kid Gavilan and Sugar Ray Robinson were drawing the smart money. These days, the 69-year-old sports-book denizen is considered one of the most astute boxing bettors in Las Vegas -- so much so that Las Vegas Sports Consultants, masters of setting the Las Vegas lines [see Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1995], uses his opinions to help set lines for all the big fights.

A short, bullet-headed guy, Lambeck wears Banlon-looking pants and a pink button-down shirt under a black satin jacket that had been rescued from the soon-to-be-demolished Desert Inn (it hypes an old Julio Caesar Chavez bout there). One day before the Tua-Lewis fight, he was eating French toast in the Mandalay Bay coffee shop and brimming with opinions.

"Tua hasn't had a meaningful fight in two years, not since he became the No. 1 challenger," said Lambeck. "However, I'm also not thrilled with Lewis. He's never fought with intensity. But, then again, I bet against him a couple of fights ago and took a bath with Michael Grant."

There was also the weight issue. At the pre-fight weigh-in, Tua tipped the scales at 245 pounds. Lambeck viewed that as being too heavy for a guy whose height is officially listed at 5 feet, 10 inches. "He was asked about the weight and he shrugged it off, saying that he's a heavyweight," Lambeck said, shaking his head, wondering how that can explain it all. "In my opinion he's showing a lack of commitment."

So, Herb, where's the smart money going? "Yesterday I made my bet. I wanted to wait for the weigh-in, to see what Tua would come in at. If he wasn't heavy I probably wouldn't have made any bet at all. I bet that Lewis would win by knockout for even money. If he wins by decision, I lose."

While Lambeck is regarded as one of the smartest boxing bettors in town, he acknowledged that the past few fights had not gone well for him. They were all losers. "It's depressing to be on such a cold streak," he groaned. "It should make you bet less, but you don't -- though I didn't bet much on this fight, only $1,000. This is not a fight to go crazy on."

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