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‘Fight Town’ knockout novel

Oct 5, 2004 1:04 PM

The only trouble with the fight book of the year is that it’s too darn big to read in the john.

"Fight Town," subtitled "Las Vegas — the Boxing Capital of the World," is not your usual coffee table tome. There is not only text to go along with the spectacular pictures, but brilliant text supplied by longtime Vegas resident and Associated Press boxing writer Tim Dahlberg.

But it’s hard to handle on the throne. Yet, any reduction in size would be unfair to the collection of pictures and fight posters that alone make the $34 price a bargain. There is the right hand by Lennox Lewis that turned Hasim Rahman’s face almost inside out. How about Oscar de la Hoya’s smile or Muhammad Ali squaring off with Elvis Presley, Joe Louis with Floyd Patterson before Sonny Liston knocked Floyd out the second time. Hey, don’t reduce a hair of Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard, or any of Marvelous Marvin Hagler bald pate.

But when you get a chance, read the words. Dahlberg has been one of America’s best boxing scribes for years. He was tutored by his legendary AP predecessor "Fast Eddie" Schuyler, but Dahlberg is no mere protégé. He is a winner of the Nat Fleischer Award, as voted by previous winners of the prize for "excellence in boxing journalism."
And it’s just not the prose that makes Dahlberg so good. Rare is the boxing book where the information surprises a jaded veteran like me. But Dahlberg has been around the fights in Vegas since Sonny Liston ran out of gas against Leotis Martin in 1963 and he knows everyone in town. He got frequent visitor George Foreman to write the forward. He knows where Caesars Palace keeps its pictures, when it keeps its secrets.

"Fight Town" was where I heard first about how Bob Arum lost his bid to promote the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight by staying at the Desert Inn, where he was spotted by Howard Hughes’s reputed mob buddy, Moe Dalitz. When Dalitz was told of Arum’s plans to petition the Nevada State Athletic Commission to license Ali, he went berserk, screaming how there was no way that "no-good, draft-dodging SOB" would be allowed in Vegas.

Dahlberg also mentions the time Bob Halloran, then the Caesars Palace fight director, was silently rooting for Gerry Cooney to upset Larry Holmes. Not that Halloran, now working for the MGM, was taking sides in the fight. But he had had secret negotiations with Cuban officials in Mexico and had gotten an agreement that legendary Olympic champion Teo Stevenson would be allowed one pro fight (1) if it were for the title against Cooney. But, no, the Cubans said if Holmes won, forget it. Stevenson would stay in Cuba.

There are detailed replays of Dahlberg’s 10 best Vegas fights, pieces on everything from the late great Johnny Tocco’s gym to the late great gin mill, The Flame, which was "the" joint for the boxing crowd. It includes the classic picture (on Fast Eddie’s 50th birthday party) of the boxing kangaroo, complete with gloves, at the bar with Schuyler, Dahlberg and yours truly. Bobby Goodman was hovering in the background. Dahlberg and I had hair then. Schuyler still does. I’m not sure about Goodman.

The book traces the history of the most important fight town in the world. Yes, even this native New Yorker acknowledged that when he moved to Vegas a couple of years ago. Vegas is linked from Doc Kearns and Jack Dempsey all the way to Mike Tyson and Oscar de la Hoya.

There’s the surprising statement by Marc Ratner, still the Nevada commission’s fine executive director, that he questioned his decision to let the Tyson rematch with Evander Holyfield go to a second bite.

"What if Tyson had won?" Ratner told Dahlberg.

All the controversy and color are here, from Richard Steele stopping Meldrick Taylor’s apparent victory over Julio Cesar Chavez to Oliver McCall’s nervous breakdown against Lennox Lewis. There’s the racist overtones from the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney bout, to Jack Nicholson and Pamela Anderson in the audience (not together).

There are no action fights coming up this week. But here’s a best bet: Save your money and start your holiday shopping. What fight fan wouldn’t want to read about Sonny Liston and Dick Tiger and Benny (Kid) Paret and the Hagler-Hearns thriller? Don’t forget to do yourself a favor and get a copy for your house. Just don’t attempt to take it into the john. "Fight Town" goes on sale this week. It is published by Stephens Press, telephone (702) 387 5260, fax (702) 387 2997.