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Inside a Las Vegas fight week

Las Vegas
While Las Vegas won't be having a May super-fight this year, Matt Christie reflects on past Fight Weeks to reveal exactly what it’s like to be a boxing reporter in Sin City

IF you’ve been to Las Vegas, you’ll know the drill. Step off the plane. Walk through the long airport corridors decorated with promises that the greatest time of your life is nigh. Emerge in the huge waiting room where the queues to get through the gates bend back on themselves like one of those plastic multi-jointed snakes you had as a kid. If you’re lucky, the queue moves fast and your passport is checked with a smile and friendly conversation. If you’re not, the wait drags for hours and hours, dehydration crawls from your throat to your brain before you’re greeted with a customs officer who treats your entry into the United States of America like a prison guard welcomes a mass murderer to their life sentence. “Take off your glasses,” they bark, fighting the urge to close the sentence with “asshole”. Fingerprints checked, passport stamped and you’re on your way. Grab luggage, hand over US entry document, walk through the small and unimpressive arrivals hall, step outside through two sets of automatic sliding doors and into the raging heat, remove that extra layer of clothing and apply sunglasses. Get into a taxi. Make it clear you’ve been before and know The Strip is a mile away just in case the driver is tempted to take you the scenic route in the hope of stealing a bigger fare. Once out of the spaghetti roads that are attached to the airport the Las Vegas horizon opens up in front of you. Hotels of all shapes and sizes jut out of the desert like playground rides in a park. Those promises about the greatest time of your life suddenly gather pace.

It’s frankly impossible, no matter how many times you’ve visited or how tired you might be, to resist a smile as the cab cruises past the MGM Grand where the fighters you’re there to see stare back at you from a towering 80-metre high fight poster on the outside of the famous hotel and casino.

The queue to check into your hotel, which more often than not if you’re visiting on a Boxing News budget is not a luxury hotel, can be worse than what you were faced with at the airport. But at least the surroundings are more entertaining. Whichever way you look, whatever time of day it might be, people wander around with buckets of radioactive liquid strapped to their heads that they suck back through straws. There’s the fancy-dressed and the over-dressed and those who can barely claim to be dressed at all. The noise from the casino sounds like a child playing on their first keyboard, relentlessly plinking and plunking and trying out all the different sound effects they can lay their little hands on. The conditioned air humbly fights the tobacco smoke and the alcohol fumes and the sweat and the fast food residue to create that unmistakeable Sin City stench.

By the time you get to your room, decided which bed you’re going to sleep in and put your suitcase on the other, you should be exhausted. But there’s new energy inside and a desire to explore. With that second wind in your sails you head out of the hotel, over to the MGM Grand, walk past the small replica boxing ring in reception and glance at the boxing t-shirts in the gift shop. As you leave the last of the natural light behind you hum along to Don’t Stop Believin’ that’s inevitably playing in one of the bars and – if you’re a boxing reporter – you instinctively head for the back, wade through the waitresses and drunks and gamblers and gangsters that trudge over the beaten carpeted floors, go past the food court on your right and the memorabilia shop on your left and land right outside the media centre.

The promised land. Behind those huge double doors there could be a world heavyweight champion. Or even a few of them holding court on the stage at the front. Perhaps Bob Arum, surrounded by eager journos, is chucking out soundbites and facts that might not be entirely factual with the kind of enthusiasm that makes one wonder what keeps the old dinosaur going. Roy Jones Jnr might be leaning on a table, wearing his favourite tracksuit, telling people he could be a world champion again if he wanted to be but it just so happens being a world champion doesn’t interest him anymore.

At the very least, there will be free coffee.

To get in there, though, you need a media pass. So you carry on, past the entrance doors to the Garden Arena where in five days fans will gather in their thousands for the weigh-in, travel underneath the ladders atop which the last of the fight posters are being glued to the walls and step onto the escalators that take you down by the VIP ground floor entrance and out to the tiny window that is the media credential desk. You hand over your passport or driving licence and – presuming there’s no hitch or confusion – you’re given a temporary media credential that will gain you access to the fight week events but, as it states in bold capitals, ‘THIS IS NOT VALID FOR THE FIGHT’.

And so it begins. Las Vegas Fight week.

What events occur during Fight Week?

The details and exact schedule vary from fight to fight but the events that take place, nine times out of 10, are the same. Interesting to note that in the UK, and elsewhere in the USA, the schedule and types of events differ greatly. If a British fighter is involved, British journalists are usually given time with them on the Monday evening. The written press get their collective slot and then the YouTubers get theirs with the likes of Sky Sports/BT Sport and the BBC catered for separately.

Given that the access is shared among a select few, it can be difficult to conduct a truly worthwhile interview because each journalist understandably has their own stories in mind. Consequently, the conversation can be disjointed and limited but at this stage it’s often the last chance you’ll get to converse with them away from the hoopla of fight week.

Grand Arrivals takes place at lunchtime on Tuesday when the fighters walk into the MGM Grand reception hall (presuming the fight is taking place at the hotel or the nearby T-Mobile Arena), fans behind roped barriers eagerly gather with their camera phones placed high in the air. The boxers generally emerge separately, say a few largely uninteresting words to the designated broadcaster, wave to fans, pose for the odd photograph then disappear. If lucky, you might be able to grab a word with the fighters but it’s in passing and not exactly the kind of content to shake up the world. However, this whole circus does allow you to get an early feel for the anticipation of the contest purely from the amount of fans that turn up and the atmosphere they create.

Wednesday morning (though this can vary) is when the trainers of the main event fighters are the the subject of round table interviews in the media centre (where they sit down at a table surrounded by journalists armed with dictaphones, cameras and phones). Some journalists will get there early and talk to the trainers before the chaotic huddle begins. Trainers, by in large, are accessible throughout the week. You will see them several times and exclusive interview opportunities are not hard to get.

Later, in the afternoon, is when we get the final main event press conference. This used to be on a Thursday but has been moved forward to give the fighters a less cluttered build-up and the marketeers an extra day to sell the fight. This will take place in one of the theatres in the MGM – often David Copperfield – and can be long and drawn out with minimal input from the fighters as the promoters, particularly if exclusively from America, spend a long time thanking sponsors and the like. Again, there are media huddles at the end.

The entertainment value often depends on who the promoter is, the fighters’ willingness to get involved in pantomime style fun and games, and how well tickets are selling. Expect more ‘fun’ if sales have been a little slow. The Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao presser, for example, was about as interesting as watching a cactus grow. Needless to say, tickets for the event had long gone by the time the final press conference took place.

Open workouts in Las Vegas that involve the main event stars are increasingly rare. But fans merrily watch the undercard fighters go through the motions in a makeshift ring and then answer undemanding questions – these often occur on a Thursday afternoon, after the undercard press conference on the same day.

The highlight of fight week build-up is the weigh-in. It’s not unusual – the recent Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder rematch is the perfect example – for fans to roll up in the early hours of Friday to guarantee a good position in the arena to watch the boxers remove their tracksuits and stand on a set of scales 12 hours later. The media have a reserved area on the ground floor. For a writer, this event – though the build-up to it is smeared in nauseating razzmatazz – can provide the final clues to what may happen the following day. Does a fighter look weak at the weight? Are they relaxed? How heavy are the heavyweights? Ultimately, it can be guesswork (the boxers, after all, are not here to give away clues) but when making a final prediction the evidence gathered here, particularly if added to your own investigations, is worthwhile.

It’s astonishing how frequently fight week can change your perception of the contest ahead. Generally, that instinct you have for what’s going to happen on the eve of the fight is far more accurate than it was the week before.

Las Vegas

What is the mood like in the media centre – is there a camaraderie among journalists or is it dog eat dog?

Given that anyone can walk into the media centre at any time, it’s tempting to want to stay in there for 12 hours a day so you don’t miss a thing. However, from experience, you realise that even if you’re the first to spot Floyd Mayweather stroll in and you get the first interview, by the time you’ve transcribed it or uploaded your video, he’s spoken to countless others. This is where the notion of ‘exclusivity’ becomes a little blurred and the saturation of content in fight week becomes a problem to a journalist eager to provide something different.

There is an element of camaraderie but dog eat dog is more accurate. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been conducting an interview only to bang my head on someone’s camera that is suddenly recording it over my shoulder. And once one camera is in position, others will quickly follow.

Similarly, after setting up an interview with a well-known British fighter, a well-known journalist strolled over to the table where the fighter and I were sat, placed their dictaphone between us, pressed record then walked off without saying a word. Unamused, I turned his dictaphone off.

The more educated will always find worthy interview subjects, however. Often you will see the fight officials, governors, doctors and drug testers – not always recognisable to all – or long-retired fighters who make great copy. The secret to a successful fight week is to do your homework, spread your wings away from the media centre, set up interviews beforehand and, if budgets allow, get there early and stay a little later. Make difficult choices, too. Are you willing to miss the press conference – that the world and his dog will be reporting on – so you can nab an interview with someone nobody else is talking to?

Who is entitled to media passes?

Having a YouTube channel with 11 subscribers is not enough. Applying for accreditation is easy but gaining access a different matter altogether.

Whether the credentials are managed by the promoter or an agency, great care goes into deciding who actually gets in. International and national newspapers and broadcasters generally have no problem getting a credential and a ringside seat. Respected writers and renowned media brands, likewise.

Other things must be considered because practically every major boxing event gets far more applications than they can serve. Social media followings, online audience levels and the amount of times a journalist or publication has covered these types of events before are also examined. So too the type of content they produce and how many times it’s read or viewed and the narrative and effect it may have. Highly esteemed writers have been refused entry if their copy has been deemed damaging to the promotion.

Consideration is also given to the nationality of the fighters – a small but established Irish newspaper, for example, may have struggled to get into Mayweather-Pacquiao but their application for Mayweather-Conor McGregor likely looked upon more favourably.

The rise of YouTubers and podcasters has certainly increased the competition for places but, given that you’re not allowed to record or photograph from the press area, they’re rarely given a ringside seat and often watch on screens in the media centre.

How good are the seats you get on fight night?

You don’t know where your seat will be until Saturday when you exchange your fight week credentials for your fight ticket. Where you’re positioned can vary wildly, particularly if you’re Boxing News. We have been placed up in the Gods on rare occasion. The first Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin contest, where I was in the top floor balcony above the cheapest seats, springs to mind as the worst position I’ve ever had. However, though I was about 100 metres away from the action – it was like watching two ants fight over a wine gum – I had my own screen and got a sense of the atmosphere like never before. I could see how the crowd reacted to the action, how they went from pro-Canelo to pro-GGG, and my view of the screen (with replays etc) and comfortable desk made reporting the blow-by-blow a stress-free experience.

The reason for being placed in the balcony was never really explained (I did wonder if it was because I wrote a detailed online piece beforehand stating the possibility for controversy and corruption was rife) and I feared the worst for the rematch, particularly after writing at length about Canelo failing a drug test, only to find I was four rows from the ring. Generally, Boxing News is treated exceptionally well and I’m always very grateful for that.

Being so close can have its disadvantages. People stand up in front of you, the workspace is cramped, and there’s often no view of a screen to check replays at the end of rounds. Hard to stress how different the experience of working a fight is to kicking back and watching it either as a punter or at home. We’re all in a highly privileged position, one the vast majority cherish and appreciate, but until you’ve had to file or upload an 800-word report within 20 minutes of the fight’s conclusion – after spending the whole afternoon and evening writing a live blog and delivering live social media updates – the intense pressure is hard to accurately describe.

What happens after a fight?

The dry mouth and fatigue and thumping headache, by the time the press conference is eventually over, is 10 times worse than when you stepped off the plane six days before. It’s also when the hard work really begins.

At Boxing News we realise that the most valuable content we provide is after the fight. The desire for analysis is at its highest within 12 hours of the contest ending: What comes next for the winners and losers, post-fight interviews, any controversies investigated and opinion pieces are all written and posted on our website during the night by the reporter on site. Then, on Sunday morning, the colour fight report for the next magazine – often between two and three thousand words – is written and ideally finished before the flight home later that day.

British boxers, particularly if they win, will conduct a private meeting with the press on Sunday resulting in journalists taking their suitcases along and heading straight to the airport afterwards.

Do you get to enjoy Las Vegas while there covering a fight?

“So you’re working in Las Vegas for the week? Poor you!” my friends often say to much guffaw. Few things annoy me more than the presumption that covering a big fight in Vegas means spending the whole week supping cocktails by the pool before rolling into the arena to enjoy the fight on Saturday night.

It’s a beyond gruelling experience. Working days are rarely less than 10 hours long and fight day can stretch to 20. Most of those hours are spent without seeing any natural light, let alone feeling the sunshine on your skin. But just because it’s hard work doesn’t mean it’s not the best job in the world or we’re not the luckiest people in the world, because it really is and we really are. Particularly in Las Vegas.
The atmosphere builds and builds during the week and you’re right in the thick of it. You bump into all sorts of people from the boxing world. Talking to the boxers and their teams so close to a fight is a fascinating experience, even if they’re not in the mood for conversation – and the closer it gets to a fight the less they want to talk (understandably so).

But to observe these brave fighters, who take time to fulfil their media obligations so close to going into battle, is truly the stuff that dreams are made of. When the fight delivers at the end of it all, all the better.

For someone like me, who grew up lost in boxing history books and magazines, it’s beautiful to think that I’m now in a position to attend the kind of fights I grew up reading about and now play my own tiny part in that history. And yes, of course you find time to enjoy Las Vegas. Finding the balance is crucial. One crazy night in the middle of the week can ruin it all and – so they tell me – there’s nothing worse than a Las Vegas hangover. Work is always the priority and it takes up 90 per cent of your time. If you can find a few hours to enjoy what the city has to offer when your day is done, then enjoy it you should.

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