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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 2)

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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