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August 29, 2014

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The biggest fights at the Thomas & Mack Center and how they got there

From Bowe vs. Holyfield to Liddell vs. Couture, venue has rich history in combat sports

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Kevork Djansezian / AP

Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar de la Hoya, left, exchange punches during their World Boxing Council Welterweight Championship bout at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Friday, Sept. 18, 1998.

Top Thomas & Mack Fights

Challenger Hector Camacho gets down low in the corner while trying to avoid the relentless charge of champion Julioi Cesar Chavez during the third round of their WBC super lightweight title fight in Las Vegas, Nev., Sept 12, 1992. Launch slideshow »

Every once in a while, Marc Ratner thumbs through the loads of memorabilia he’s acquired through decades of playing an integral role in the local fight scene.

The current UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs and former Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director recently came across a piece that made him pause. It was a ticket from the September 12, 1992, light welterweight championship bout between Julio Cesar Chavez and Hector Camacho.

“One of the most passionate crowds I’ve ever heard,” Ratner said.

Chavez’s unanimous-decision victory went down in history for more than being one of the finest hours of perhaps Mexico’s all-time most popular boxer. It was also the second fight to ever headline at the Thomas & Mack Center, the iconic local venue that turns 30 years old today.

Because of the building’s reputation for holding events across such a wide spectrum of categories, many tend to gloss over its fight history. To others, however, the bouts have more than secured their place in the Thomas & Mack’s lore.

“Every single fight means something different to me, something wonderful,” said Daren Libonati, who spent nearly 20 years working at the venue, including 12 as the executive director.

Libonati can also understand why the Thomas & Mack isn’t instantly recognized as one of the Fight Capital of the World’s hubs. For the first couple of years, after all, that was the point.

Libonati, then baby-faced and fresh out of college at UNLV where he was the football team’s kicker, sold the Strip resorts on the idea of holding fights at the Mack in the early 1990s with a unique pitch. No one nationally needed to know the exact location where the fight was taking place, he said at the time.

Aerial shots on the broadcast could show the host hotel, not the arena. In the case of Chavez vs. Camacho, that was the Las Vegas Hilton. Then, as soon as the cameras cut into the building for the fight, the resort’s logo would be plastered everywhere from the ring to the hallway outside the locker room.

“The selling point was that you’re putting the money up for the hotel to be a partner,” Libonati explained. “There’s no reason to lose that. The live gate people are the only ones who need to know if we’re at the Thomas & Mack.”

Boxing promoters — Don King brought Chavez vs. Camacho after Bob Arum booked the first fight at the Thomas & Mack in April 1992 with George Foreman vs. Alex Stewart — loved the arena because its capacity of more than 19,000 was the biggest in town. Strip executives warmed up to the Thomas & Mack because it was better assembled for the fights than whatever temporary setup they could muster on site.

A month after Chavez vs. Camacho, Libonati and the Thomas & Mack partnered with Steve Wynn and the Mirage to host the Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield fight. It was a smashing success, breaking boxing’s gate record at the time with a $6 million gross.

Oh, and Bowe’s unanimous-decision victory turned out quite memorable too.

Bowe vs. Holyfield Round 10

“It had one of the best rounds in the history of heavyweight boxing,” Ratner gushed. “The 10th round was one you don’t forget.”

The event set the course for the Thomas & Mack to host a fight periodically for years to come. In 1999, Holyfield beat his own Thomas & Mack gate record when his rematch with Lennox Lewis grossed $18,124,200.

Like several moments in the history of boxing, Lewis’ unanimous-decision victory polarized fans. Opinions of which fighter won were split, and the Sun even scored it a draw.

“I thought Lennox won the fight,” Ratner said.

“Holyfield probably deserved to get that one,” Libonati countered.

The Thomas & Mack’s fight ledger isn’t limited to boxing. Libonati and his staff were also ahead of the curve with mixed martial arts. The arena hosted the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championship’s first foray into America on October 21, 2006, with MMA’s recognized pound-for-pound best fighter at the time, Fedor Emelianenko, submitting Mark Coleman with an armbar.

Three years before that, it held the UFC’s sixth-ever card in Las Vegas. UFC 43 turned into a legendary event when the sport grew more mainstream, as it featured the first of three fights between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell with the former pulling off a stunning third-round TKO upset.

But it underwhelmed at the time, drawing a paid attendance of just 5,517 for a $645,000 gate.

“Compare that with last Saturday when we had more than 14,000 and a gate of $5.7 million (at MGM),” Ratner said. “That tells you something.”

No matter, Libonati continues to look back fondly on the night, which also featured wins from current UFC stars Vitor Belfort and Frank Mir.

“That night was great for the sport but, unfortunately, that was it for us,” Libonati said. “I think we were a little too big for them at that point.”

The Thomas & Mack recently entered its third decade of staging fights. A 2012 bout that saw Sergio Martinez defeat Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., by unanimous decision felt particularly generational.

The thrilling bout came 20 years after Chavez Jr.’s father had enlivened the same building on the same Mexican Independence weekend.

“It’s hard to believe it’s 30 years old,” Ratner said. “It doesn’t get the lion’s share of big fights, but it’s certainly had some good ones.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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