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On the night of the title fight, video bites on pay-per-view had Tyson declaring that he'd like to make dinner out of Lewis' children. He also said, "I don't care how I fight Lewis. It'd be fine with me if it was a no-holds-barred brawl and we just went for it."
The fighter later admitted to reporters, after he'd been shut up in the eighth round by a right cross to the chin, that his trash talk was marketing 101, bravado he'd created to sell tickets. Of course he wouldn't really fight a no-holds-barred match.
What, you think he's crazy?
What's crazy is the heat. Driving from the East Bay into Central California in the high summer, the endless miles of flat valley floor are dry and yellow, and the landscape looks like it's ready to go up in flames at any moment. Just past the massive Harris Ranch slaughterhouse on I-5, the musky stench of raw meat and guts streams straight through the car's air vents and up into the nostrils.
The Palace Casino in Lemoore rises from the horizon like a cruise ship plopped down on the desert floor. No signs warn of its arrival, and there's no need for them: The square, pink behemoth is visible from miles away. Locals point to it when they're giving directions.
At 7 p.m., it's still ninety degrees out, and an outdoor arena has been thrown together in a dry grass field near the casino parking lot. White plastic chairs circle the empty cage, as though anticipating a wedding, and behind them, a ring of metal bleacher seats. The black steel cage is pentagonal, with colored floodlights pointed down onto the mat from above. Pre-fight, it looks like a baited animal trap. In a way it is: As many as a thousand people will soon cram into this field, shelling out $20 a pop for a chance to see what happens inside this metal enclosure.
The lines are already long, and as the crowd begins to filter in, it's pretty easy to distinguish the sports fans from the blood fans. A portion of the crowd consists of fighters and their families and friends who travel the circuit, bopping from show to show. These fans carry themselves with an easy assurance, having witnessed it all before. The trainers and fighters who came from as far as San Diego and Olympia, Washington, may as well be doing their taxes tonight.
The blood fans, by contrast, are anxious and stirred, already high on the whiff of violence. A group of Harley riders takes its seats near the front, and one drunk biker tumbles out of line, wiping out a few chairs like dominoes. "Man down!" his friend shouts, before joining him on the ground for a play fight. Other dudes show up from Bakersfield and Fresno wearing attitude-on-a-sleeve-clothing: No Fear, Bad Boy, and a fighter-tailored brand called Pain Inc. They stroll around the hot evening with wraparound sunglasses clipped above the bills of their baseball caps. They wear shorts and flip-flops that crunch on the dry grass, and arrive with girlfriends who have trouble maneuvering the terrain in high heels. They carry red plastic cups filled with cold Budweiser.
Sellout. The show is running thirty minutes late, and the crowd is impatient for entertainment. The sudden sound of tires screeching from the parallel road surprises everyone into silence. The screech ends in a loud crunch. For an instant, more silence, then wild cheers. "Yeah," yells a dude, raising his beer. "Arrest him!" Paramedics, who've already propped up one gurney next to the cage -- for efficiency, not for show -- hustle to the scene, which turns out to be an SUV fender-bender.
The crowd stands for the national anthem, which concludes with fireworks blasting off like guns. The show is on! A line of bikini girls struts down the ten-yard catwalk to sounds of blaring rap-metal music -- "Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor!" The young women circle the cage and return behind the black curtain from which they'd emerged.
The moment the first fighter appears from behind the curtain the crowd rises to its feet and cheers him down the catwalk. This fighter, nicknamed "The Hammer," is a local boy from Lemoore. He is 185 pounds, most of it chest and arms, and his last name is tattooed across his back in old English-style lettering. He wears black shorts, and his face looks like he'll settle for nothing less than murder.
His challenger plods down the runway and makes his entrance. This guy was clearly trained in a barroom and took up the challenge on some sort of bet. And while the rival's female entourage cheers loudly, his attempts to stare down the Hammer are ineffective. The ref has them touch gloves, and the crowd lets out a collective yell of relief: finally, some action. With every second drenched in anticipation -- and every moment mounting on top of the last -- the fight feels like it goes on for an hour. In reality it lasts exactly one minute, one second.