Friday, March 7, 2008
Bullfighting ring provides unique setting for title fight
CANCUN, Mexico -- The matadors are getting the night off, yet there are plenty of fearless deeds still to be done at the Plaza de Toros on Saturday.
Samuel Peter is planning to claim the WBC heavyweight title, and Oleg Maskaev will endeavor to keep his belt away from his younger, hungry opponent. Meanwhile, dozens of local organizers and television crew members and promoters are attempting their own daunting feat: staging Mexico's first heavyweight championship bout in a rustic bullfighting ring.
At least the injury-plagued Maskaev traveled to Cancun armed with the stiff jab and sneaky power that will give him a chance against the bullish challenger who's favored to take his crown. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg and promoter Don King had little more than a few electrical outlets available when their crews began constructing a suitable setting for a high-definition evening of prizefighting.
At times, it must have seemed easier to both Maskaev and Greenburg to wave a white flag instead of a red cape, but they're stepping in the ring anyway.
"He's a beatable man," said Maskaev, who has won 12 straight fights, but just one in the last 19 months since winning the title with a stirring knockout of Hasim Rahman. "Everybody thought that he's not beatable. He's a beatable man, like everybody. I'm prepared for this fight."
Maskaev (34-5, 26 KOs), who labored through 13 years and five knockout losses before taking advantage of his first title shot, is an unassuming champion who inspires admiration in some boxing fans. Yet his detractors see nothing special about the Russian-American going against Peter (29-1, 22 KOs) in a fight postponed from October, when Maskaev dropped out with an injury.
Though Peter has accused the 39-year-old champion of ducking him, Maskaev said he injured his back when he stepped on a rock during a training jog, forcing the delay that also resulted in a venue change from Madison Square Garden to sunny Cancun.
"I always want to fight," Maskaev said. "It's the first time this happened in my career, that I had a back injury. That was legitimate. I had that MRI test. Everything happened to me. But right now, physically, I feel great. ... [Peter] is just trying to work on my mind. It's not going to happen."
Fighting seems simple in comparison to the difficulties of putting on a major production in such a remote venue.
Plaza de Toros is a roofed, 7,000-seat bullfighting ring normally used for a weekly Wednesday show. It's in downtown Cancun, well away from the coastal tourist area, and except for some electrical capacity, it has almost none of the infrastructure needed to stage a major prizefight.
"It does present quite a bit of difficulty, and require quite a bit of setup," said Greenburg, the mastermind behind much of HBO's award-winning boxing programming. "But they love this kind of challenge. It's like the days of Jack Dempsey or Johnson-Jeffries, when they had to build a 20,000-seat stadium and hoist up Thomas Edison's new film cameras."
HBO embraced these circumstances when it agreed to televise King's foray into this Mexican resort town eager to show off its continued revitalization after Hurricane Wilma, which devastated its beaches and hotels in October 2005. Though Cancun still labors against beach erosion and its hedonistic spring-break image, civic officials hope the bout boosts the city's aspirations to be a more sophisticated vacation destination.
"A hurricane is an act of God, but man brought Cancun back," King said. "The most important thing about this fight is that the hospitality and graciousness of Cancun will be seen around the world."
After years of staging outdoor fights at similarly spare venues such as the Orange Bowl or the Caesars Palace backlots or another bull ring in Tijuana, the HBO crew knows what it needs -- but getting that equipment to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula was another difficulty.
Driving everything around the Gulf of Mexico from Texas would be both time-consuming and possibly dangerous, so HBO loaded it all -- including the satellite trucks -- onto a cargo ship that sailed straight to Cancun, arriving last week.
Workers have been putting up the canvas and ropes while also assembling hundreds of up-close ringside seats, since bull rings understandably don't have chairs on the edge of the action. Everything from the lighting trusses to the camera platforms must be built and secured, only to be torn down Saturday night.
Greenburg and director Marc Payton met Friday to go over contingency plans for everything from high winds to any stray animals that might have been left behind.
"Nobody should wear a red shirt," Greenburg said with a laugh. "We have to make sure that they don't let the bulls run."