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The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

Kingdom Comes Back to Vegas in Time of Need

November 17, 2001|J.A. Adande

LAS VEGAS — Welcome to a make-or-break weekend in Vegas, where the computer geeks are clearing out for the boxing freaks and a building-sized Britney Spears watches over you, and a current, not former, heavyweight champion greets you at the hotel, and if someone offers you odds on the total sightings of Don King and/or any Maloof brother, bet the over.

The cab pulls up to Mandalay Bay, site of the Lennox Lewis-Hasim Rahman fight.

The guy sitting outside wearing the Hasim Rahman T-shirt looks familiar. Wait a minute, that is Hasim Rahman. Just chilling with a mini-entourage, 1 hour and 45 minutes before Thursday's weigh-in. Rahman's waiting for a car to take him to the barbershop. He signs a couple of autographs, poses for pictures. Completely at ease, savoring the attention.

Lewis, in stark contrast, has been holed up in his room like Howard Hughes. He broke out of Wednesday's news conference before the traditional stare-down and photo session, and insisted on a barrier between him and Rahman for Thursday's weigh-in. He fired his manager last week. He's buggin' out.

"Man, I don't know what's going on with that guy," Rahman says.

"He's gone," says a boxing insider.

Rahman is deep inside Lewis' head, somewhere next to the cortex. It has been that way since Rahman said on a radio show that Lewis was acting "gay," then pushed him over a table when they scuffled at a taping of ESPN's "Up Close" in August. And in the ensuing war of words, it has been Rahman by TKO.

The outbursts during the PR tour have helped to build interest in what previously had been a lukewarm attraction. Still, it's the first big fight to come to Vegas in the economic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. For Las Vegans, the outcome of the fight isn't as important as the interest in it.

The city's hurting. The whole town has the feel of someone who just got cleaned out at the blackjack table. Gaming tables sit empty, there's no waiting for taxis.

This week's Comdex computer technology trade show wrapped up Friday. It always filled rooms, even if the techheads didn't drop a lot of cash in the casinos. But attendance was down 40-50% this year.

In Las Vegas, they're hoping the fight can bring some celebrity wattage, besides the usual amount of sleaze that only boxing can attract. Through Thursday, 10,000 tickets had been sold to the 11,400-seat Mandalay Bay Events center, and a hotel official said, "We fully expect it will be sold out."

The hotel was close to sold out for tonight.

"For Las Vegas, it's a very, very big fight," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada athletic commission. "It's going to be one of the biggest weekends in the city's history."

Across the street at the MGM Grand tonight, Britney Spears will hold a concert televised by HBO. (Her giant image has covered one side of the hotel all week). U2 plays the Thomas & Mack Center Sunday night.

The buzz Thursday night was for the grand opening of the Palms hotel. It's owned by the Maloof family, which also owns the Sacramento Kings. Of course, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard were on hand. But the Maloofs did more than fly in some of their basketball players. Pamela Anderson, Samuel L. Jackson and Cuba Gooding Jr. were among the celebrities who strolled down the gigantic red carpet.

Inside, you couldn't take two steps without bumping into a Maloof. There was Gavin in the lobby. There was George doing a TV interview on the 55th-floor balcony. I thought one Maloofy-looking guy was Joe, but he said his name was Phil. I didn't even know there was a Phil Maloof.

Of course, there's only one Don King. He just manages to be everywhere, all the time. News conferences. Television interviews. A quick photo opportunity with former football coach Jimmy Johnson, who stopped by the weigh-in. (It was a moment for the Hair Hall of Fame: King with his famous frizz next to Johnson and his perfectly coiffed 'do).

King had dropped by The Times on Monday to meet with sports editors and writers and somehow managed to include references to Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Moammar Kadafi, George Bush, Mao Tse-tung, Chiang Kai-shek, John Quincy Adams, Oscar Wilde, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Spiro Agnew and Bill Clinton during our lunch. My head's still spinning.

King's head was the one that took a beating after he left L.A. for Vegas. His private jet encountered severe turbulence that tossed people around the cabin, and King hit his head on the ceiling. A CT scan later showed he was fine, even if he did have remnants of five pellets in the back of his head from a 1959 shooting.

I was reading the newspaper account of that in a restaurant when King walked up. The paper said it was five bullets in his head and King, never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, was happy to let the myth grow.

"I must be a bad ... if I'm walking around with five bullets in my head," he said.

Well, he is a bad ... (shut your mouth), running the heavyweight division again.

With a briefcase full of cash, he snatched Rahman away from Cedric Kushner this summer. And Lewis, who once vowed he'd never work with King, has talked about joining him as well.

Bottom line is, King's No. 1 at making money, even if some people--such as Mike Tyson--have accused him of keeping too much of it.

'I feel Don is the best promoter," Rahman told USA Today. "He steals; all of them steal. All of the promoters take money. They try to get as much as they can. I think every promoter out there is a crook, so if I'm going to get crooked, I'd rather be with the best."

Predictions for the fight are torn between Lewis' superior skills and his shaky mental state and suspect chin.

"You know who the winner will be?" one veteran boxing writer asked. "Don King."

And maybe Las Vegas as well.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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