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Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

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  • Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

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    By Arne K. Lang

    Twenty-six years have elapsed since the first boxing card at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The inaugural show took place on Jan. 29, 1994, the eve of Super Bowl XXVII.

    A little background: The MGM Grand opened on Dec. 17, 1993. With its 5,005 rooms, it was the largest hotel in the world. The MGM Grand Garden arena, effectively the municipal auditorium of the self-styled “City of Entertainment,” was christened on New Years Eve with a concert by Barbara Streisand. Twenty-nine days later, the bill of fare was an 11-fight boxing card promoted by Don King.

    Looking back, seven of the participants – boxers Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, and Christy Martin and referees Richard Steele and Joe Cortez – would go on to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

    Hearns, who was nearing the end of his career, having grown into a cruiserweight, was matched soft, as was Christy Martin who was making her Las Vegas debut and was then looked upon as a sideshow novelty act. Two other notables, heavyweight Razor Ruddock and welterweight Meldrick Taylor, were likewise deployed in stay-busy fights. The undercards of Don King’s major promotions typically took this tack – big names in little fights.

    Topping the bill were three world title fights. WBC 154-pound title-holder Simon Brown opposed Troy Waters. Trinidad defended his IBF welterweight title against Camacho. And in the grand finale, the great Chavez, who held a junior welterweight title, was matched against Frankie Randall.

    Simon Brown had a more difficult time than expected against Troy Waters, a teak-tough Australian, but prevailed on a majority decision. Trinidad, at age 21 the younger man by 10 years, chased Camacho all over the ring en route to winning a unanimous decision. And Chavez….

    The MGM Grand Garden was scaled to hold 15,200, but there were a lot of empty seats; the announced attendance was 12,777. One would have expected a sellout as Las Vegas is invariably chock-full of revelers on Super Bowl weekend, but there was an extenuating circumstance.

    Twelve days before the fight, at 4:30 am on Jan. 17, Southern California was struck by an earthquake. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge Earthquake damaged buildings as far as 85 miles away. It buckled portions of some heavily-traveled freeways, forcing their closure and repairs were hindered by a scattered series of aftershocks that lasted the better part of two weeks.

    Visitors from Southern California are the backbone of the Las Vegas tourism industry. Most arrive by car. The earthquake had the effect of reducing hotel occupancy as many Southern Californians cancelled their reservations, and that assuredly spilled over into the fight, hurting attendance. But those that were there witnessed a memorable main event.

    Frankie Randall, nicknamed the Surgeon, hailed from Morristown, Tennessee. He had an excellent record (48-2-1, 39 KOs), but Julio Cesar Chavez, who owned the most eye-catching record in boxing (officially 89-0-1), was so highly regarded that he was listed as a 17/1 favorite in the MGM sports book.

    Randall started strong, an indication that he would be a hard nut to crack. But the middle rounds belonged to Chavez with his patented body attack. In round seven, one of those body punches strayed too low and Richard Steele deducted a point.

    In round 11, Steele deducted another point for the same infraction and, worse for Chavez, he was knocked down for the first time in his career. It was a straight right hand that did the damage, a clean punch, and although Chavez was up at the count of “three,” it was a 10-8 round for Randall.

    During the early rounds, shouts of “May-hee-co, May-hee-co” reverberated through the arena. Late in the fight, when one could sense that an upset was brewing, shouts of “USA, USA” punctuated the din.

    The 11th round proved decisive. When the scores were read, the Mexican judge favored Chavez 114-113, but he was overruled by the Puerto Rican judge (114-113) and the Las Vegas judge (116-111). If not for those two points deducted by referee Richard Steele – the same referee who had controversially stopped Chavez’s fight with Meldrick Taylor with one second remaining on the clock in the final round – Julio Cesar Chavez would have retained his title -- and his undefeated record -- on a split decision.

    Chavez did not take losing very well. He bellyached that he was robbed, an opinion that found few sympathizers. A fast rematch was arranged which took place at the MGM Grand on Cinco de Mayo weekend. In this fight, an accidental clash of heads late in round eight left Chavez with a bad gash on his forehead and the fight was stopped. By rule, it went to the scorecards where Chavez emerged the winner by split decision, a very controversial denouement (and a story for another day). There would be a rubber match in Mexico City when both gladiators were in their 40’s, a dull 10-round affair scored in favor of Chavez.

    By the way, on the day following the debut of boxing at the MGM Grand, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 30-13 at Atlanta. As Super Bowls go, this one didn’t attract all that much buzz. The same teams had met in the Super Bowl the previous year and Dallas had won by “35.”

    By all indications, the forthcoming Super Bowl will be a doozy. Enjoy the game.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    Most everyone forgets about the predecessor MGM Hotel that sustained a deadly fire in 1980 that killed 85 people,Seventy-five people died from smoke inhalation.
    My late sister-in-law worked at the Humana Hospital and said it was overflowing with bodies. A horrible disaster.