LAS VEGAS — I didn’t sneak in much gambling Wednesday, only because I was presented with the opportunity to play “Serious Journalist” for the day.
It’s not difficult to look like a real reporter — you simply need to strut around like you’re important, gain 50-75 pounds, mess your own hair up and look like you haven’t showered in two weeks (as for the scraggly beard that looks like it might have some crumbs from last week, that’s optional). Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my sportswriter costume to Vegas, but the good people at Mandalay Bay still provided me with credentials.
Why am I mentioning this? Because Mandalay offered a “Media Day” (of sorts) Wednesday for Rahman-Lewis II, so I spent some time rubbing shoulders with the rest of the media corps and watching Lewis, Rahman and the inimitable Don King in action. I’m guessing there were four goals for this Media Day …
1. Drum up interest in the fight.
2. Make sure everyone has enough material and quotes.
3. Bore people to death.
4. Remind everyone that Don King can be unbearable, insane, delusional, crafty, perversely entertaining and completely horrifying, sometimes all at once.
… and if that was the case, they succeeded on all fronts.
Here’s how the day unfolded:
Time for the Media Brunch, held inside the actual Mandalay stadium! Woo-hoo! Free food! Nothing puts a smile on the faces of sportswriters quite like free food — they descend on those buffet tables like seagulls finding the remains of a dead shark.
I ended up grabbing a breakfast croissant (rating: 2 out of 10) and joining a table filled with members of ESPN’s boxing crew, namely, Brian Kenny, Al Bernstein, Max Kellerman and their two producers. I’ve known Brian for years — we used to spar together at Emanuel Steward’s Kronk Gym in Detroit. Actually, I just made that up. But I know Brian well enough that everyone allowed me to sit in on their meeting.
The best part was the complete nonrecognition on everyone’s face when Brian introduced me to the group. I might as well have been the Mandalay Bay cabana boy. Anyway, Team Kenny was scheduled for extensive airtime on ESPNEWS, starting at 12:07, leading into the final press conference (which was tentatively scheduled for 1) and wrapping up with a live spot on the 6 p.m. ET SportsCenter. That meant everyone was already dressed up in their “I’m on TV!” outfits, wearing makeup and preparing for the nitty-gritty details of their show.
Here’s why I’m telling you this: More brainpower and planning go into these remote segments than you might think. Before Wednesday, I watched those on-location segments on SportsCenter (like “Baseball Tonight” during the World Series) and mistakenly believed that they ad-libbed the whole thing. Nope. The announcers and producers map out their segments from the opening “Hellos.” Maybe it’s not scripted, but it’s pretty close — like giving a speech with flash cards that you can’t see. They even have corresponding video ready for certain points, with the announcers knowing that they have to keep speaking for X amount of seconds while the video plays.
|The best part was the complete nonrecognition on everyone’s face when Brian Kenny introduced me to the group. I might as well have been the Mandalay Bay cabana boy.|
It’s incredibly complicated for the host, almost like playing quarterback — you’re keeping track of 10 different things at once, calling audibles, reading the defenses, remembering the plays and trying to execute as smoothly and professionally as possible. Play-by-play offers more ad-libbing; even the on-the-spot highlight shows feature some scripted material. But these remote segments are a different animal — it’s basically orchestrated ad-libbing, if that makes sense. You can’t run long, you can’t drift and you have to somehow seem natural, all at the same time. Hard to pull off.
One more thing: Listening to the give-and-take between Kenny, Kellerman and Bernstein convinced me of two things:
1. It’s impossible to pull off an effective studio show and/or remote segment without genuine chemistry among the people involved. Even in Wednesday’s meeting, as they were supposed to organize a master plan for their segment, the boys ended up having a lively discussion about the fight, replete with jokes, arguments, obscure references and just about everything else you can imagine. You can’t fake this stuff. Either it’s there or it’s not.
2. I’m really excited about this fight. Everyone at the ESPN table believed that Lewis and Rahman genuinely disliked one another, which rarely happens in boxing anymore. And even though the consensus was that Lewis will win — and he’s a 3-to-1 favorite — Rahman showed enough spunk and confidence last April and this week that you can’t underestimate him. Should be a great fight. I’m glad I’m here.
On my way to the bathroom, I heard the familiar sound of Don King’s voice and realized that I was inadvertently missing Rahman’s press conference with the print media. Headlining a small conference room loaded with writers, Rahman was wearing a U.S. flag bandanna and a fancy warmup suit, while King was wearing his ominpresent tuxedo. King’s hair was disappointing in person (doesn’t stick up that much), but one thing was for sure: You don’t forget the first time you’re standing in a room with Don King.
First of all, the man is loud. It sounds like he hooked Bose speakers up to his lungs. In person, he comes off like even more of a sitcom character — all clichés, grandiose statements and posturing, with the added bonus that he’s standing 15 feet in front of you. An indelible experience. For the first few minutes, I was mesmerized and actually felt myself enjoying his performance, the same way it’s entertaining to watch a dog hump somebody’s leg. But you tire of King pretty quickly. Believe me. Within 20 minutes, I was tuning his voice out like it was a car alarm.
As for Rahman, he totally won me over. I’m not quite sure why he hasn’t gotten over (to borrow a wrestling term) with the American public yet; the Rock possesses enough charisma, he’s eloquent enough, he has a cool nickname, he’s a good guy and he can be quite funny at times.
For instance, after King hogged the first 20 minutes of the press conference, Rahman was finally answering his first question when King inexplicably handed him a box containing a gold Rolex (a good luck present for the fight, plus Rahman had his Rolex broke in that “Up Close” scuffle with Lewis). So Rahman stops talking, takes the watch, examines it quickly, nods, says, “Thank you, Don,” and goes right on talking. Highest of high comedy. You could tell that Rahman is smart enough not to take King too seriously.
Three other highlights:
An older black reporter mistakenly believed that the mostly white press corps was incapable of understanding the word “trash-talk,” so he gave everyone a lecture about the significance of trash-talking in the African-American community, carrying on for about 20 seconds, until King finally deadpanned, “Trash-talking … in a sophisticated language, it’s the vernicular of the geh-tooooh.”
(Yes, Don King actually made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t believe it.)
(And, of course, the answer to Rahman’s question is “Zero.” Ummmm … not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I’m telling you, the Rock is a funny dude. I’m rooting for him.
Lewis and his entourage waited until Team Rahman left before entering the same room at 12:30 (King remained, still wielding his omnipresent American flag).
Mandalay has diligently attempted to keep the entourages apart for most of the week, although things were complicated Monday when Rahman’s camp arrived and learned Lewis’ camp had been assigned to the 62nd floor at Mandalay (the penthouse level, one floor higher than Rahman). After much fussing and pouting, Rahman and his people were finally moved to the 62nd floor … and everyone has been bracing for the inevitable 62nd Floor Brawl. Too bad it can’t be televised.
Team Rahman didn’t help the cause Monday night, when the two men finished a joint live TV interview from different rooms (allegedly at Lewis’s request because he didn’t want to be in the same room as Rahman). After the interview, Rahman and his people taunted Lewis as they walked by his suite, a scenario vaguely reminscent of when Morris Day and the Time derisively sang “Let’s Go Crazy” outside of Prince’s dressing room near the end of “Purple Rain.”
(I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: There is some legitimate bad blood here. Spend the $49.95 on the pay-per-view. Just trust me.)
As for Lewis’ interview, he displayed about as much charisma as a plain bagel. Wearing a black ski cap and sunglasses, Lennox looked a little on edge (not nearly as relaxed as Rahman). Watching him in person, it’s easy to understand why he never caught on with the public: He’s just a difficult guy to like. Maybe it’s the English accent, maybe it’s the total absence of a sense of humor, maybe it’s the fact that he comes off as condescending (especially toward a guy who knocked him on his butt seven months ago). It was a pretty boring 30 minutes — people actually ran out of questions near the end, leaving Lennox holding the microphone and asking the crowd, “Any more questions?”
(No thanks. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.)
Two highlights from this interview:
(That reminds me, I couldn’t believe how dumb some of the questions were yesterday. Really, really stupid stuff. My favorite was the guy who asked Rahman about his experiences as a Muslim in this country after Sept. 11, like Rahman — an African-American from Baltimore — was being discriminated against or something. After hearing these inane questions for an hour, I kept fighting off the urge to pull a Stuttering John and ask something outrageous like, “Don, could you tell us about that guy you stomped to death back in Cleveland in the ’60s?” Maybe next time.)
Time for the “Final press conference.” We filed back into the “media buffet” section of the stadium and planted ourselves at various tables … and if you think some of the media guys didn’t head back to the buffet table for seconds, you’re crazy.
(I can’t stress this enough to those budding sportswriters out there: Anyone can become a journalist. Believe me on this one. I’m not saying yesterday’s press conference resembled the bar scene from “Star Wars,” but I think I saw Chewbacca sitting next to Wally Matthews.)
Facing us was a giant stage, decorated with chairs, tables and podiums, with King occupying the center podium and everyone involved with Saturday’s show (boxers, trainers, managers promoters, executives) sitting along three rows of tables. Team Lewis and Team Rahman were situated on separate ends of the stage, separated by two podiums, a barrier and two strategically placed security guards.
When you hear the word “Press conference,” you think of the principals answering questions from the media, right? Not in this case. As the guy sitting next to me so beautifully described it, “This is an exercise in group masturbation for the people onstage.” Not good times. Bad times.
|Then King added, “Like me or dislike me, my longevity is unquestionable.” Of course, you could say the same about VD.|
King started off the proceedings babbling for about 15 solid minutes. I wish I were kidding. He might have been talking about Sept. 11, but I couldn’t hear him anymore because of the blood pouring from my ears. Maybe the low moment came when King paid tribute to the late brother of someone who worked at Mandalay, rambled on incoherently about the guy, then asked for a moment of silence … which couldn’t happen because King wouldn’t stop talking.
After that opening diatribe mercifully ended, King started introducing the various principals of the fight, some of whom ended up getting podium time and giving speeches loaded with nuggets like “On Saturday, I’m going to win” and “I’d like to thank everyone at Mandalay.” Apparently everyone got to speak — boxers, cutmen, husbands, posse members. Why was this happening? When would it end? Nobody knew. We weren’t even writing anything down; we were glancing at each other in disbelief. I mean, when you discuss the list of “People who shouldn’t be allowed to speak extemperaneously under any circumstances,” boxers, boxing trainers and Don King have to place somewhere in the top five, right?
Still, there were some highlights. None of them redeemed what was happening, but they at least prevented me from jamming a pen into my own jugular vein. And, of course, all of them involved one man:
But the wheels came off near the end. Please remember, this press conference had passed the hour mark and nothing of significance had happened, other than WBC president Jose Sulaiman rambling on for 10 minutes and wrapping things up with the segue, “To finish my boring statements …” Thanks for wasting our time, Jose. We heard little bantering or trash-talking from the principals, save for one of Rahman’s trainers predicting a knockout and Lewis’ trainer insinuating that Rahman had gotten in a lucky punch last April. So we were anxiously awaiting Rahman, who surely would take a couple of swipes at his British buddy.
Of course, before introducing Rahman (we’re at the 65-minute mark now), King took time to drop Muhammad Ali’s name for the 1,500th time during that day, thanking the champ for giving him his start in 1974 by allowing King to promote the “Rumble in the Jungle” (for the first time in my life, I actually found myself hating Ali because of this). Then King added, “Like me or dislike me, my longevity is unquestionable.” Of course, you could say the same about VD.
The loathsome promoter then proceeded to talk for another 15 minutes before finally introducing Rahman. At this point, my head was starting to hurt. King was like a screaming baby on an airplane — you couldn’t get away from him. Was this his goal? Was he trying to drive us insane? Rock stepped to the podium and took a few veiled shots at Lennox, who listened from the other end of the stage and desperately tried to seem disgusted. Rock wound the speech up by predicting he “would knock Lewis out again,” adding, “I can say that (because) I knocked Lennox Lewis OUT!”
Everyone applauded and started racing for the exits, most notably Lewis and his entourage, who wanted no part of King’s plan for a Rahman-King-Lewis photo opportunity (the lesson, as always: Lennox Lewis is a wuss). When I was leaving the press conference, I could hear Rahman calling out Lewis (“Come on! What are you afraid of? Why are you running?”), as Lennox scurried away and King cackled in the background. Even after I exited the stadium and made my way through the casino’s basement toward the escalators, somehow I could still hear Don King cackling away.
And that’s when I started running.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. Another edition of “Postcards from Vegas” will appear on Friday.