Wagering on the sweet science is still an inexact one
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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."
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 , 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."
Reflecting on his own win-loss record, Lambeck acknowledged that there are worse things than taking a financial beating: "I don't like to lose, but I would rather lose than not bet at all. If I'm out of action, I am dead. For a gambler that is the worst thing. Just horrible."
As fight time approached, I found myself back in the Mandalay sports book, looking up at the big board and seeing that Tua was still the underdog, this time at 3-1. Before laying down my $100 bet, I recounted what the guys had told me. Smart local money seemed to be going to Lewis -- even though it meant giving up a lot with the odds. Tourists seemed drawn to Tua, the same way they're drawn to the casinos' money-sucking Let It Ride tables, maybe hoping for some kind of a miracle and a decent payoff. What everybody seemed to agree on was that Tua could win only by knockout. You got slightly better odds with that bet.
Unable to bring myself to risk $100 so that I could win $33 (even typing this sentence feels kind of bush league and embarrassing), I followed the squares and suckers and went for Tua as a knockout. Yes, it was a long shot, but I had visions of Holyfield's surprise victory over Tyson in my head, and everybody knows that when it comes to boxing in Vegas, anything is possible (even for a guy to get his ear bitten off). As the counter man handed me my slip, I recalled something that Lambeck, a guy who ought to have things figured out after his lifetime of betting, told me: "There are no sure things. If there were, it wouldn't be gambling." Strangely, I found that to be reassuring.
Ninety minutes before the preliminary bouts began, the Mandalay sports book was SRO. An enormous TV screen was split in four, showing college football and horse racing from around the country. The odds on Tua winning dipped to 2-1, as a lot of bets rolled in on the underdog. That would have been the time for Lewis fans to slam the betting windows with their wagers. The afternoon games raged on, betting slips littered the red-and-green carpet, and cocktail waitresses in skimpy outfits tested their strength with trays full of drinks. A hungry-looking dude in a satin Yankees jacket trolled for information -- "Who do ya like? Who do ya like?" he asked the wisest-looking sport bettors -- and an adjacent bar was a sea of black Tua T-shirts. They raised their glasses and toasted their man.
Inside the arena, the final preliminary fight was a good one, with Clifford "The Black Rhino" Etienne workhorsing a win over his opponent, Lawrence Clay-Bey, with a unanimous decision. As the main event neared, actor Chuck Zito sat ringside in his Hell's Angels jacket. "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini was in attendance, along with George Clooney and boxer Shane Mosley. But they weren't half as compelling to check out as the guys in war paint and sarongs who cleared Tua's path to the ring. Not to be outdone, warriors in armor led Lewis in. There were fireworks above the ring and Michael Buffer asked the crowd if it was "ready to rrrrrrumble?"
Unfortunately, after all this pageantry, the fight itself was a bit of a letdown. Tua never really got a chance to show off what Arne Lang likes to call the equalizer. Up in the stands, fans were screaming for him to fight harder, to go for broke, to shift into his wild man mode, which allowed him to reach this point in the first place. But that never happened. If Tua had a plan to get in close enough to unload on Lewis, he never put it into action. His strategy seemed to be to make like a boxing kangaroo, simultaneously jumping as he threw his punches. The show would be hilarious if it wasn't costing me 100 bucks. In the end, Lewis retained his heavyweight titles with a 12-round unanimous decision.
Five months later, this past April, Lewis found himself matched against an opponent who promised to be even easier to beat than Tua had been: Baltimore-based upstart Hasim Rahman. The Stardust opened its line with Lewis as a 20-1 favorite and Rahman at plus-14. Prior to the fight, Rahman, reveling in the depth of his underdog status (and the big payoff he believed it would provide for anybody with the faith to bet on him), told the United Kingdom's Boxing Monthly, "When I knock Lewis out I don't want to hear about a lucky punch or a lucky anything. Lewis can blame what's gonna happen to him on Herb Lambeck, the Las Vegas oddsmaker who made him a 20-1 favorite to beat me. Keep it up, Herb Lambeck. I want you to do that for all my fights."
A couple weeks after Rahman's stunning fifth-round knockout of Lewis -- which would have slaughtered the bookies if the fight had not been so low-profile, so much of a mismatch, that betting was minimal -- Lambeck tries to justify his opinion. "I thought Rahman looked lousy," he admits, acknowledging that he didn't bother betting on this bout because the fighter that he saw as the likeliest winner would have provided such a diluted payoff. "Rahman almost got knocked out against the South African fighter Corrie Sanders. He got off the floor to win that one but he looked shaky."
In the wake of Rahman's big win, Lambeck acknowledges that the freshly crowned WBC and IBF champ took the fight far more seriously than his opponent did. While Lewis was in Las Vegas, working on his cameo in the remake of the Rat Pack film Oceans Eleven, Rahman was in South Africa, working out and getting acclimated. "Lewis showed up the week before the match," recounts Lambeck. "He thought he had an easy fight. But there is no such thing." What does Lambeck see for the future of Rahman? "If he fights Mike Tyson or Lennox Lewis, Rahman's a 3-1 underdog now. But who knows? A lot of underdogs have been winning lately." Lambeck shakes his head and softly adds, "Lots of dogs."
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.
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