Friday, April 19, 2002

Regionalism and the Ring

How Dyersburg money saved the big fight.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 19, 2002 at 4:00 AM

It may not be exactly what politicians and the chamber of commerce had in mind, but the Tyson-Lewis fight at The Pyramid shapes up as a prime example of four very different Mid-South cities joining forces for a common cause in a unique case of regionalism.

Memphis will host the fight and get most of the ink and a big boost to its hotels and restaurants. But it couldn't happen without some influential neighbors in Nashville, Tunica, and, of all places, Dyersburg.

Tunica casinos will be the training camps for the fighters and entertain thousands of visitors and media. Fitzgeralds Casino announced this week that Mike Tyson will stay there. Lennox Lewis will set up camp at Sam's Town.

Fight promoter Brian Young of Prize Fight Boxing is based in Nashville.

And now Dyersburg, the town 90 miles north of Memphis that was once known as "Little Chicago" for its wide-open ways, has gotten into the game. When First Tennessee Bank declined to issue a letter of credit for the $12.5 million site fee last month because of concerns about Tyson's image, it was widely reported that another unnamed bank stepped in to take its place. Other reports referred only to unnamed West Tennessee investors.

The Flyer has learned from sources that the letter of credit for the site fee is being issued by an investment vehicle arranged by businessmen in Dyersburg, Memphis, and Tunica. The group includes highway contractor John Ford of Ford Construction in Dyersburg as well as others.

Ford is on First Tennessee's advisory board in Dyersburg, according to a bank spokesman. Ford Construction has political connections to Nashville. Retiring state Rep. Ronnie Cole (D-Dyersburg), who has served in the General Assembly for 10 years, is vice president of the company. Contacted this week by the Flyer, Cole said he had heard "street talk" about Dyersburg businessmen backing the letter of credit, but he would not comment further.

Efforts to speak to Ford Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The fight financiers have tried to remain anonymous, and promoters have tried to protect them. Russ Young, brother of Brian Young of Prize Fight Boxing, said the letter of credit is "controversial" and the identity of the people behind it "is really nobody's business." Privacy is something the highway industry also takes seriously. In 1996, the Tennessee Roadbuilders Association got Cole to introduce legislation that would have restricted public access to financial records that contractors file with the state. Governor Sundquist vetoed it.

But controversy is no excuse for secrecy in this case, and it's surprising that the media have played along for three weeks. After being spurned by Las Vegas, New York, Atlanta, and Nashville, Mike Tyson wound up in the arms of Memphis, thanks to promoters and Mayor Willie Herenton. There were no public hearings of any kind. The fight was a rumor one day, a done deal a few weeks later. In contrast, that other controversial local sports story, the new NBA arena, has been publicly vetted for a year.

For better or worse, Memphis will be the center of the sports world on June 8th. The fight will tie up downtown for the better part of a weekend, require the city to deploy hundreds of police officers and spend an untold amount of money on preparations and security, and, in the minds of many citizens, subject Memphis to international scorn and ridicule.

It could not have happened without the promoters and casinos, who stand to make millions. The promotion could not have happened without the issuers of the letter of credit, who also stand to make a handsome return on their bet. The letter of credit is controversial enough that Ralph Horn, the CEO of First Tennessee Bank, took considerable pains to publicly explain the bank's decision not to issue it.

If that isn't public business, then what is?

Because big-time prizefights are unusual in this part of the world, the term "site fee" is sometimes misunderstood. It is not paid either by or for the benefit of Memphis or The Pyramid. Alan Freeman, general manager of The Pyramid, likened it to a talent guarantee in the concert-promotion business.

"The investor makes a guarantee to the promoters of X amount of moneys to come from the live site, The Pyramid," said Freeman. "What he gets for making that is a portion of the excess, if any."

The Pyramid's contract is with Prize Fight Boxing even though it is not the investor. Declining to discuss specifics, Freeman said Prize Fight Boxing may have a joint venture with the investors.

The Dyersburg connection highlights the extent to which Memphis is either a lucky or unlucky host of the high-stakes, controversial fight due to the machinations of outsiders. Even with the efforts of Herenton and Freeman, Memphis couldn't have done it alone.

Tunica provides an additional 5,000 hotel rooms, gambling, and glitz.

Nashville's unheralded Prize Fight Boxing has proven to be an able promoter, delivering a fight that many writers in the national media still think will be postponed or turn into a fiasco.

And Dyersburg came up with the money when Memphis, home to three major independent banks, did not.

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