Tyson Fury joins a long list of boxing greats to descend on Las Vegas. Barney Henderson gets a ringside preview
Las Vegas shouldn’t really exist. It makes no logical sense. It springs up out of nowhere in the middle of the scorching, inhospitable Nevada desert – a shining, gaudy, neon oasis showcasing the very extremes of human excess.
It’s crowded, hot, noisy and expensive. But it’s also fun beyond imagination – a playground for all age groups – and utterly unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s the place where fortunes are made and squandered, taboos broken, inhibitions lost – and boxing world champions crowned.
Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, had victories and defeats here during his glorious career. Sugar Ray Leonard and Evander Holyfield both had career-defining fights in Vegas, while Mike Tyson pummeled Frank Bruno in a fight that revived the sport in Britain.
More recently, Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao broke records and brought in millions in their “Battle for Greatness” – that was anything but a great fight.
This year has witnessed the beginning of Tyson Fury’s “Vegas takeover”. Britain’s polemic lineal champion of the world (he is undefeated but lost his titles because he had some time out from the sport) took Vegas by storm in June.
“I said to my wife, ‘I think we’ve made it’,” he explained before his bout with Tom Schwarz. “She said why, and I said, ‘We’re headlining the MGM Grand.’"
Fury certainly put on a show for the thousands of travelling British fans – and the American audience he’s trying to woo. The build-up to fight night is just as fun as the boxing itself. Vegas is buzzing: the roads around the MGM Grand are gridlocked, A-list celebrities arrive in limousines, the casino is doing a roaring trade and the Irish sports bars are packed as punters attempt to tackle the blazing heat.
“I came here once before for the Hatton-Mayweather fight in 2007 and it was mayhem,” says Sam McGill, 46, from Birmingham, as he enjoys the build-up at the Beerhaus pub.
“Vegas is the absolute soul of boxing – it’s like Lord’s for cricket or Twickenham for rugby. All the great champions have to prove themselves here.”
Rachel Wright, 42, from London, adds: “It just doesn’t get any bigger or better than fight night in Vegas – it feels like you’re in a movie."
The atmosphere inside the arena is an assault on the senses, with pumping music, light shows, American concession options galore and all the razzmatazz you can imagine. The anticipation builds as the undercard fights increase in importance.
Gordon Ramsay, Alex Rodriguez and Shaquille O’Neal take selfies with each other ringside and scantily-clad models parade sponsors’ signs.
The palpable tension hits a peak with the ring-walks – Fury the showman delighting the arena as he strides in to James Brown’s Living in America, replete with Apollo Creed-style robe and shorts and topped off with an Uncle Sam hat.
The fight itself is totally absorbing, even though it’s no classic. The steam rises off the boxers’ bodies, sweat flies – and you can’t help but wince when the punches land.
Despite a capacity of just under 17,000, the MGM Grand is an intimate cauldron of noise – and Fury soon has the crowd on their feet.
He clearly has the beating of his German opponent, dancing around him, swerving his punches and striking blows at will.
Within two rounds, Schwarz is on the canvas, before Fury sees him off with a show of force. A perfect balance between entertainment and prowess.
Fury’s win in his first Vegas outing perfectly sets up a string of US fights over the next couple of years. The “Gypsy King” will return to the Vegas ring in the early hours of tomorrow morning – with potential bouts against Deontay Wilder and/or Anthony Joshua on the horizon in 2020.
Just as the adrenalin from the big fight starts to subside, more thrills are around every corner in Vegas. The Dream Racing experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a chance to continue the sports theme, put yourself at the heart of the action and fulfil that fantasy of driving the world’s fastest supercars. It caters for all and the coaching and on-track instruction is superb.
The involuntary whooping and grinning when you open up a Ferrari for the first time is testament to just how much fun this is.
Escaping the city and getting a taste of the dramatic Mojave Desert is a must on any trip to Vegas. A jeep tour around Red Rock Canyon is a pleasant way to see desert wildlife and rock formations. Or, for one of those bucket-list ticks, take a helicopter trip to the nearby, peerless Grand Canyon.
The tour loops around the engineering marvel that is the Hoover Dam, holding back the now worryingly low waters of Lake Mead. Then, in an instant, the ground falls away and you swoop down into the stunning, vast Grand Canyon. The rock formations and canyon walls are as beautiful as any cathedral. A champagne breakfast inside the canyon, close to the Colorado River, provides a welcome moment of peace.
Vegas’s famous slogan, “what happens here, stays here”, has felt outdated in recent years – but the city is reinventing itself.
In culinary terms, too, Vegas is constantly evolving. The NoMad Restaurant at the new NoMad hotel offers modern twists on American classics. The Red Plate at The Cosmopolitan is a high-end Chinese perfect for a special occasion. Scotch 80 Prime at the Palms is a steak restaurant on the pricey side, but offers a superb menu.
Brunch at the Bellagio, meanwhile, is a more classically Vegas experience, with echoes of the time when the mob ran this town, and where you rub shoulders with high-rollers. For something entirely different, head to Fremont Street, where, no matter what time it is, there is a Mardi Gras-style party going on.
Attempt a burger, if you dare, at the Heart Attack Grill, get launched across the huge indoor concourse from the SlotZilla Zip Line, gamble in the downmarket casinos that open out on to the street, ponder the city’s darker history at the Mob Museum, or explore the kitsch design treasures at the Neon Museum.
In Vegas you can get anything you want, wherever you want, at any time of the day. Walking past people gambling, drinking and smoking while you’re on your way to breakfast can be slightly discombobulating – and if you stay here too long, you could well lose your mind.
Indulge, explore, be exhilarated, but, as with the gambling, know when to quit.
Basing your visit around a major sporting event gives your trip a real focus – and there’s no bigger or better show than a major Vegas fight night.
The Fury circus is back in town this weekend, with the Gypsy King odds-on for another victorious Vegas payday. In the New Year, though, he could have a shot at the real jackpot, reclaim his heavyweight belts – and maybe even become the undisputed champion of the world.
Tyson Fury v Otto Wallin takes place in the early hours of tomorrow morning (UK time) and is being screened on BT Box Office for £19.95.
Barney Henderson travelled as a guest of Visit Las Vegas. British Airways (ba.com) flies direct from Gatwick and Heathrow; Virgin Atlantic flies from Manchester and Heathrow.
What to do
Sundance Helicopters (sundancehelicopters.com) offers 12-15min Las Vegas City Lights tours from $84pp. Dream Racing (dreamracing.com) offers five laps of the Las Vegas racetrack from $179. Admission to The Mob Museum (themobmuseum.org) costs $26.95. Admission to the Neon Museum (neonmuseum.org) costs $22.
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