THE CROWD AT McSorley's, an "authentic" Irish pub in a corner of the Venetian Resort and Casino, is throwing back Carlsberg and shots of Jack at a ghastly hour: 7:30 on a Sunday morning. The Stones' "Brown Sugar" blares on the stereo. The air is heavy with testosterone and anticipation. In a few hours, two of boxing's most scintillating fighters will face off in the Venetian's Cotai Arena: Manny Pacquiao (54-5-2, 38 KOs) vs. Brandon Rios (31-1-1, 23 KOs). Pacquiao, winner of titles in eight weight divisions, hopes to resuscitate his career after two consecutive losses. The iron-chinned, heavy-handed Rios, from Oxnard, Calif., intends to punch his way from HBO crowd-pleaser to PPV rainmaker.
Why the Sunday-morning party? Because this isn't Vegas -- it's Macau, an 11-square-mile peninsula surrounded by China's Guangdong province and a 55-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong. Technically a port city, it had for nearly five centuries been under the control of Portugal and known throughout Asia for its seedy casinos, brothels and triad gang violence. The People's Republic reclaimed Macau in 1999, but like Hong Kong when it was handed over by the British, the province was named an SAR -- Special Administrative Region -- meaning it would retain its own currency, immigration policies and judicial system. That's when local officials cracked down on the triads, reducing the sleaze factor and lifting the gambling monopoly. And that's when American casino moguls Sheldon Adelson (Las Vegas Sands) and Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts) swooped in.
They built a "new" Macau. In 2006, Macau eclipsed the Strip in casino revenue. Last year? The peninsula's 35 casinos raked in $45.1 billion, seven times that of Sin City, reinforcing Macau's moniker as "Las Vegas on steroids." No one made out better than Adelson, the ninth-richest man on earth. In 2013, he took home an average of $32 million a day, 90 percent of which he derived from his Asia gaming properties.
Now the Macau honchos are looking beyond chip counts. With bottomless pockets, they're coming after the entertainment that has long been the cultural bedrock and draw of Las Vegas. Justin Bieber, Rihanna and the Stones, David Beckham (he recently signed a promotional partnership with the Las Vegas Sands) and the DreamWorks gang (Shrek and Kung Fu Panda on Ice!). And now boxing.
Historically, boxing has always followed the money. Macau today has the game-changing cash, and Asia, with a population of 4.3 billion, has the potential audience. So this morning's PPV bout, live in the States on Saturday night, isn't simply a fight. It's the fight. The fight for the future of boxing. A litmus test in blood.
ALTHOUGH THE VENETIAN'S Cotai Arena is on the same level as McSorley's, I cannot find it. Not a shock. Nothing exemplifies the "new" Macau like the Venetian, the world's biggest casino: 10½ million square feet, 3,000 suites, more than 800 table games, hundreds of high-end retail stores, three indoor canals and replicas of Venice landmarks St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace. To navigate the Venetian, even after a week in Macau, I need a GPS.
When I finally find the arena, few of the 13,101 spectators have arrived, but I notice one in particular sitting ringside. It is Top Rank CEO and founder Bob Arum, the man responsible for this fight. Brooklyn-born and Harvard Law-educated, the 82-year-old worked for Bobby Kennedy, investigated Roy Cohn, promoted Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr., survived a plane crash and even traded punches with Don King. These days he wears a tan and a permanent Mona Lisa smile, knowing he is almost always the sharpest guy in the room. "Oscar said -- he's not very smart -- that I was going to China because I couldn't compete in the U.S. anymore," growls Arum. "Well, that's ridiculous. I went because of the market. It's that good."
China hadn't been on Arum's radar until early 2013, when he received two phone calls. The first was from Las Vegas Sands VP Robert Goldstein, who asked Arum if he'd do a show in Macau. The second came from Chinese fight manager Sheng Li, who wondered whether Arum might be interested in signing a fighter named Zou Shiming. When Arum discovered that Shiming had won Olympic gold for China in 2008 and 2012 and that he was positioned to build the cultural following in Asia of Yao Ming, the octogenarian saw the future: a new frontier, a billion potential PPV buyers.
So Top Rank put on a pair of milk runs in April and July -- Fists of Gold and Fists of Gold II -- both headlined by Shiming and broadcast in the States, albeit taped, on HBO. "They were a huge success," Arum says. "Fans loved it." As did the casino. A normal weekend at the Venetian brings in $65 million. The Fists of Gold weekends brought in $117 million and $148 million, respectively, according to Arum. "Now I had a business," Arum says. So he went all-in, bringing Pacquiao, the prize of his stable, to Macau.
Arum knew the risks of staging big fights outside the Las Vegas comfort zone. He'd put on shows in 22 countries over nearly 50 years. Some were legendary, like the 1975 Thrilla in Manila. Others were nightmares: The 1998 Erik Morales-Junior Jones show in Tijuana, where local promoters locked up the production staff until Arum coughed up a $25,000 "fee"; the 1994 Herbie Hide-Tommy Morrison bout in Hong Kong that Arum had to cancel the night before when $2 million in guaranteed financing failed to materialize; the 2010 Yankee Stadium bout headlined by Miguel Cotto and Yuri Foreman, when the unions bilked Top Rank for every imaginable dollar, Arum says.
For boxing aficionados, the initial announcement of a Pacquiao PPV in Macau brought to mind two words: total disaster. China (and its outer provinces) had never hosted a major fight. Then there were the inevitable production costs, red tape and language barrier, not to mention the corruption among Chinese officials, rumored to rival the unscrupulousness in Sochi, Russia. But in the three months of preparation, complications turned out to be minimal. Top Rank, ironically, didn't have to deal with the Chinese. "We worked exclusively with the people at the Venetian in Macau," says Brad Jacobs, Top Rank's executive event producer. Not only are many of the Macau Venetian's execs American, but Sands China CEO Edward Tracy gained years of boxing know-how while running Donald Trump's Atlantic City casino. "So we weren't dealing with local promoters," Jacobs continues. "Or a bunch of people who didn't speak English. No one was asking us for a big bag of money."
By the time American Idol's Jessica Sanchez sings the U.S. national anthem, the arena is standing room only. American Top Rank girls flaunt their lack of tan lines in skimpy turquoise numbers. Analysts Max Kellerman and Larry Merchant perform for the live television audience. VIPs Dave Chappelle, Beckham and Paris Hilton park themselves ringside. If I weren't 7,300 miles away, I could have sworn I was in Vegas.
AROUND 1 O'CLOCK on Sunday afternoon in Macau, the final bell of the Clash in Cotai rings. The undercards, featuring fighters from Russia, Puerto Rico, Australia, the United States, Mexico and Thailand, and three Chinese nationals, including Shiming, were riveting. The main event, however, was a disappointment. Pacquiao, sharp, potent and looking like the fighter of old, overwhelmed the mediocre Rios (120-108, 119-109, 118-110). But the Chinese crowd (with a sizable Filipino contingency) didn't mind. In fact, the fans were more enthusiastic and intuitive than Western audiences. They constantly shouted "Jai you!" (which literally means "more gas" but is the general cheer of encouragement). They clapped when a fighter threw a skilled combination and booed when there was any whiff of poor sportsmanship (like hitting off a break). China's first PPV proved not only disaster-free but entertaining.
As for Americans in the audience? Other than the VIPs, there weren't enough to fill a football roster. This is understandable. Flights are too long, and the cost is prohibitive. And in truth, the Chinese haven't embraced the long-standing Las Vegas tradition of nightlife. Take, for example, the Venetian's Bellini Lounge, Macau's most revered "hot spot." A couple of nights before the fight, I joined a group there that included former world champion Miguel Cotto. The busy lounge, three-quarters full, featured the following patrons: 1) members of Rios' and Pacquiao's camps; 2) packs of Chinese men getting their drink on; and 3) prostitutes. "Singles scene?" says Ron Rizzo, an executive at DiBella Entertainment, one of boxing's premier promotional companies. "It's nonexistent in Macau. Nobody comes here to go out. They all just gamble and shop. No matter what people tell you, it's not like Vegas."
Yet neither Arum nor the executives behind the new Macau are interested in luring Western revelers. They need Western boxers in order to stage marquee fights -- all the while developing local talent. Back in the States, the Pacquiao-Rios bout will generate approximately 500,000 PPV buys, a mediocre number compared with the 1.15 million for Pacquiao's previous bout. No matter: Arum knew the fight went out to an estimated 300 million Chinese homes. Pay-per-view hasn't yet taken hold in these parts, but with time, Arum envisions a $5 to $6 PPV fee. That's paltry stateside, but 20 million buys (less than 2 percent of the Chinese population) would mean $100 million in revenue. "My goal now in Macau is a series of fights, one per quarter," Arum says. "We have to establish a fan base around Zou. Then hopefully bring Manny back next year. I'm committed to China now as well as Vegas."
So is Las Vegas' future as the fight capital of the world in real jeopardy? "It's difficult to gauge China's precise appetite for boxing," says Kellerman. "But there's no question there's an untapped market and a real, growing consumer interest." Not to mention staggering financial figures. Analysts predict that by 2017, Macau's casino revenues will reach upward of $77 billion. "Could I see Americans like Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Tim Bradley fighting in Macau? Absolutely," Kellerman says. "Stack the money high enough and it will be too much for anyone to turn down."