LAS VEGAS — Buzz is a funny thing.
Boxing isn’t often at the forefront of modern sports culture and, even with the occasional exception (largely including Floyd Mayweather) in recent years, prominent fights often fall into the niche of die-hard fans and Saturday night thrill-seekers. The Nov. 2 fight between Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev was no different, with some level of anticipation in the sporting consciousness but far from prominent placement on standard, wide-ranging sports media platforms.
In Las Vegas, though, things are just different and, on Saturday, that theme was magnified.
For two-plus decades, I’ve been a closet boxing fan. Would I consider myself a full-blown die-hard that can discuss the nuances of every weight class and legitimate contender? No, but dating back to the early-to-mid 1990’s, I’ve found a way to take in a lot of action in the ring. My dad is likely to blame for this, with early exposure to HBO’s Boxing After Dark when it felt “cool” to stay up late and an occasionally magical cable box that would illuminate pay-per-view matches, albeit with squiggly lines permeating the view on a semi-regular basis.
As an adult, that quiet boxing admiration only grew, organizing match-watching parties in high school and college to lower costs of the PPV buys. Still, the full fight experience eluded me, with close traveling misses keeping me away from Las Vegas, MSG and other marquee venues when top-tier fights rolled through. In fact, I had never attended a boxing match of any magnitude, despite watching hundreds in my three-plus decades of life on Earth. Then, Nov. 2 happened.
With the backdrop of only passing interest for most sports fans across the country, Las Vegas brings an entirely different atmosphere on a fight weekend. For reference, I had experienced similar, but not identical, pre-fight experiences for the UFC in the desert, with fans of particular fighters simply overtaking full blocks of Las Vegas Boulevard on fight night. This time around, the MGM Grand Garden Arena was the site of Canelo-Kovalev and, well, the scene didn’t disappoint.
Candidly, there wasn’t the city-wide feel of fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao (at least from what I could gather) but, around the MGM, the fever pitch began early. Patrons had trouble moving through the concourses, stopping in clumps around celebrities like boxing star Daniel Jacobs and generally congregating in the way that people do before a massive event. Was this that different from a big game in another sport? Not so much, but the elements make the scene more poignant, from jam-packed blackjack tables to every restaurant under the sun. Oh, and there are plenty of people not headed to the fight that are just taking in the typical sights and sounds of a Saturday night in what Michael Buffer refers to as the “entertainment capital of the world.”
Once inside, the undercard got things going, with Seniesa Estrada facing off with Marlen Esparza in a memorable fight for the vacant WBA interim women’s flyweight title. In on-brand boxing fashion, that match was draped in the controversy of an accidental head-butt, though the next match had no such uncertainty, with Ryan Garcia annihilating Romero Duno in a first-round knockout. There was an extended break between the women’s flyweight match and the Garcia match but that was nothing compared to what would happen next, when an otherwise “typical” night of boxing in Sin City became anything but that.
With the Garcia match ending briskly, patrons were on track for an “on time” ringing of the bell for the main event but DAZN had other ideas. There was a lengthy break in the action and, while that was nothing terribly out of ordinary, it kept building… and building. Then, word slowly matriculated that DAZN planned to (inexplicably) hold the start of the fight until the end of the UFC 244 main event between Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz, taking place a full country away at Madison Square Garden. ESPN’s Dan Rafael reported that “with DAZN unwilling to start Canelo-Kovalev until the conclusion of UFC 244, MGM executives asked ESPN if it could show the main event on the big screens inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena,” with ESPN agreeing and the in-arena jumbotrons flipping to UFC coverage.
This was bizarre in any context, from the decision of DAZN to hold the fight — one that hadn’t yet started — to the combined decision to broadcast a UFC event from inside a highly-priced boxing match. In the end, the UFC main event ended relatively quickly with a doctor stoppage following the third round but “relatively quickly” needs context in this instance, with boxing fans treated to a seemingly endless break between the “co-man” event and the actual centerpiece.
In fact, fans weren’t the only ones put on hold, with various shots of both Canelo and Kovalev having to alter their pre-match routines for the absurdly long hiatus.
— *HalfLife* 2.0 (@HalfLife905) November 3, 2019
In fairness, some fans likely enjoyed the atmosphere and, if nothing else, it was a one-of-a-kind setting. There is natural crossover between boxing enthusiasts and MMA fans, leading to legitimate crowd pops when Nate Diaz was introduced — again, on a television screen — and when The Rock made his way to the ring at MSG. Still, the MGM Grand Garden Arena transforming into the world’s largest sports bar (with an exorbitant cover charge) was something that no one could have rationally seen coming in advance.
Once the boxing match started, it was, by all accounts, a relatively typical atmosphere despite the 98-minute (!) break between actual boxing action. It was an exceptionally pro-Canelo crowd, to the tune of 95 percent or more, though the 10:15 pm local start (1:15 am ET) likely made things a little less crazy. There was a stark contrast in the swift brawling nature of the MMA fight with the start of the boxing match, with the usual feeling-out process underway but, once things settled in, Canelo and Kovalev delivered the show that fans were promised, culminating in an Alvarez win in knockout fashion at the 2:15 mark of the 11th round.
It is something that can be sensed on television, to be sure, but there is another level to being in the building for the “ooo” and “ahh” portion of a boxing match. Even in exchanges that simply didn’t land, the energy was palpable, particularly on Alvarez’s side, and that made for a juiced-up atmosphere, albeit deep into the night.
In some ways, it a shame that a quality, high-profile boxing match was, at least tangentially, overshadowed by the circus element. Boxing isn’t always known for sound decision making but, in short, DAZN and company willingly elected to cede to the MMA on a night when boxing was putting on one of its five biggest fights of the year. That choice will be litigated for some time but, in the building, it made for a one-of-a-kind scene that may not be replicated at any point in the near future.
Was Canelo-Kovalev the greatest boxing match in history? Absolutely not. Was it entertaining for a casual observer? Certainly. Was the scene itself crazier than the fight turned out to be? Yup. Did I love every minute? Yes, yes I did.
Boxing isn’t a No. 1 viewing option for the large majority of American sports fans and, to an extent, that theme was granted in full by what DAZN chose to do in holding the opening bell. After taking in the sights and sounds at a famous venue on a Saturday night in early November, though, I can tell you that it is something that should be experienced, even if your interest in boxing is far more fleeting than that of a self-described closet boxing fan.
Just don’t go in expecting to see what I saw because, while the word unique is violently overused, it certainly applies in this case.