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Thu, May 30, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Memphis banking on Tyson fight

The Tennessee city is on the ropes but hopes to come back swinging by hosting a controversial match-up


A view of The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight will be held on June 8.


The biggest boxing bout of Willie "Duke" Herenton's career is one he's not even lacing up for. He amassed a 60-3 record in his seven years as an amateur boxer by learning to take punches and wear his foes down.

Now the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, he is taking lumps over his decision to host the June 8 heavyweight fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. Herenton sees the event as a chance to lift Memphis' image and give the local economy a boost -- estimated at US$50 million for area businesses by the city visitors' bureau.

Memphis knows about negative publicity. On April 4, 1968, the city was changed when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was slain on a motel balcony. Now, with an unpredictable boxer, an unproven host, and the world as witness, Memphis risks watching its reputation be sullied again.

"I'm praying that we have a great fight and we can pull this off without any embarrassment to anyone," said Herenton, the city's first black mayor, in an interview. "It has a lot of upside, but if we don't execute well, it has downside, too."

Herenton isn't worried about Tyson, who was originally scheduled to fight Lewis in Las Vegas in April. The fight was called off when the Nevada State Athletic Commission voted not to license Tyson, citing his brawl with Lewis at a news conference.

What does concern him is living up to promises he made to win the right to host the fight, including providing adequate security and transportation routes.

Memphis has struggled to keep its citizens employed and the city government financially sound as the economy was hobbled by recession.

Unemployment in the metropolitan area, with 1.14 million people, rose to 5.6 percent in January, the highest since June 1995. About 22 percent more Memphians filed for bankruptcy protection in the 12 months that ended March 31 compared with the prior year.

Now comes the fight, which has already led to a record US$23.9 million in gross ticket sales at the 19,000-seat Pyramid arena.

That translates into US$1.8 million in sales tax revenue alone.

An estimated 40,000 people will visit the city, the Memphis Convention and Visitors' Bureau estimates, spending as much as US$50 million on blues music, barbecue and trips to Graceland, the home of rock 'n' roll legend Elvis Presley.

Herenton uses such figures in his defense. "This fight is bigger than Mike Tyson," he said. "It's about a sporting attraction that's going to yield great economic returns."

It's that kind of thinking that led the 10 casino owners of Tunica, Mississippi, 30 miles to the south, to join forces with Herenton, who said he couldn't have pulled off the fight without their support.

In a series of March meetings, the casino owners agreed that they would offer up their hotel rooms and grounds for training, and buy up blocks of tickets to the fight.

As the general manager of Fitzgeralds Casino, Domenic Mezzetta is less worried about hosting the Tyson camp than about the rising waters of the Mississippi River, which are threatening to flood the lower deck of one of his parking lots.

Fitzgeralds agreed to purchase US$500,000 worth of tickets, to block out 160 rooms for Tyson's camp and various media, and to provide transportation for fight-goers. Mezzetta expects to recoup the costs by selling travel packages from US$1,800 to US$7,000 per couple, but he's focused more on the bout's lasting impact.

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