IN a long week of illusions, delusions, fake weight, Cajun rice, blood, guts and thunder, the city of Las Vegas regained a crown. The boxing crown.
It was heavyweight, make no mistake.
For two days Mike Tyson was in a booth taking cash for a quick picture and people waited in line for their spin with the old king. I caught Lennox Lewis late on Thursday night measuring the ring, an anonymous lump of a fighting man, in the belly of the boxing beast surrounded by hard-hat workers. He was looking at the ring with just a bit too much longing for my liking. Big men playing a small part in a Las Vegas revival.
“I would always come down the night before,” Lewis told me. “I wanted to check the ring, check the ropes, make sure everything was good. I always made sure it was checked on the night.”
In his brawl with Ray Mercer the ropes on the ring at Madison Square Garden had been loosened. “Nah, man. They are not doing that to me. I got that changed.” It was all part of what Lennox fondly called boxing’s “politricks”.
There was a refreshing absence of skullduggery during the week, odd when you take into consideration the amount of lawyers, suits and those in shades that follow our boxing caravan. And this fight certainly had contrasting extremes and existing hostile relationships between the carnival of interested parties behind the two fighters. Two low-key, stable, cool sets of trainers helped keep it civil when it most certainly was not: Messrs Lee, Steward, Deas and Breland are good guys and being in their company was one of the privileges.
I first wrote about Andy Lee when he was a skinny boy at Repton boxing in the schoolboy championships. Andy and his brother Ned, gentlemen both. Ned was first to greet me after the fight in Tyson’s dressing room. It was Andy who ushered in Tommy Hearns for a Kronk reunion, a beautiful moment in that room of pure joy. That was a privilege to witness. A lot of big men had something in their eyes for that one.
And then the new champion in his underpants talking to Mike Costello, not 30 minutes after the win; Fury beaming and going back over history. “I told you all for years and years.”
Standing to attention as he talked, wearing nothing but his kecks. The new champion totally at home. That was a privilege.
I sat for a bit before leaving the MGM Garden that night. It was perhaps midnight, over two hours since the last punch was thrown, when I was basically thrown out. I never wanted it to end. It had been a privilege.
On the flight out I made a few notes: ‘Liston and other Las Vegas dead. Where is Robert Wangila buried?’ That was the Sunday before the fight, on the Sunday after the fight I grabbed a coffee with Gene Kilroy at the Avenue in the MGM. It’s a ritual.
Gene asked our waitress where she was from and how long she had been in Las Vegas. “I’m from Kenya, I came to Las Vegas 31 years ago with my first husband,” she told us. She floated away, came back with the coffee jug. “Why did you come to Las Vegas?” Gene asked. “We came here for my husband’s work, he was a boxer,” she replied.
“Robert Wangila?” I asked.
“You knew my husband?” she said, shocked and pulling out her identity card to show me. “I kept his name.” The name tag read: Grace Wangila.
“He was with Bob Arum. But not at the end.” The end was his last fight, a main event at the old Aladdin in 1994; Wangila was stopped in round nine, collapsed in the dressing room and died two days later with Grace at his side. He was just 26, had won 22 of his 27 fights, had lost his way a bit, but had he won that night he would have fought for the title the next year. Those are the lonely final numbers for Wangila, the first African to win an Olympic boxing gold medal. He did it when he was just 20.
I did know her husband and I also know Kevin Sanders, the man in his corner that night at the Aladdin. I knew the fight still lived inside his head. Lurking, dangerous and dark, a memory that will never shift.
Two years after that fight Sanders pulled Nigel Benn out against Steve Collins in their rematch because he regretted not sparing Wangila the ninth round, the last 72 seconds of his fighting life. It is likely that the damage was done and it would not have made any difference; Wangila was not left out cold on the canvas, Sanders carries no blame. There was a lot of unpleasant talk at the time about just how hard and desperate his gym life in Las Vegas had been. It is often too easy to forget the torrid life most fighters have in the city, a harsh life far from the palatial homes of the few.
I never did ask Grace where her beloved husband is buried – it seemed trivial. Talking to her was another privilege in a week of wonders.