Rodney (The Assassin) Tappin is not what you would call a polished fighter. A sturdy welterweight, Tappin has an abundance of potential, but he cleaves the air with wildly errant punches and has a habit of leading with his face. Yet on Feb. 21, Tappin fought on a card held at the Miccosukee Indian resort and casino, in the swamplands outside Miami, that was broadcast live nationally on ESPN2. Was he awed by the bright lights? "Nah," Tappin said after winning a unanimous decision, raising his record to 5-0. "It's not like I hadn't been on TV before."
For all its ills, boxing has received a boost lately thanks to a one-two combination: the proliferation of casinos and the proliferation of cable channels. From Mashantucket, Conn., to Temecula, Calif., scores of new casinos—most of them on Indian reservations or riverboats—are paying promoters between $50,000 and $150,000 for the right to host a card. Like the 99-cent Coke that draws you to the grocery store, the boxing is often just a loss leader, aimed at getting you onto the property to gamble. "But still, it's really helped the sport," says Tom Brown, a matchmaker for Goossen Tutor Promotions, which put on the Miccosukee card. "The casinos have become the minor leagues of boxing. If 100 casinos do a few cards a year, that's a lot of boxing."
Likewise, the sport is being televised more frequently than ever. The broadcast hours are erratic, the production quality is sometimes lacking and the fighters are often of Tappin's caliber. But it's on. ESPN2's Friday Night Fights televises close to 50 cards a year, Fox Sports Net will air 18 cards and various regional outlets have also taken a shine to the sport. Boxing will even return to network television this summer, as NBC plans to broadcast a series of mid-level fights on Saturday afternoons. "Two guys whacking each other," says Rob Beiner, the producer for Friday Night Fights. "Who doesn't like to watch that?"
Television exposure is usually a reliable indicator of a sport's health, but in boxing's case, the tale of the tape, as it were, can be misleading. While HBO and Showtime pay top dollar to air a big-time fight, the rights fees doled out by the other cable networks are negligible. Fox pays $40,000 for the right to air a card—a pittance for two hours of programming that's often reaired repeatedly. What's more, sources say that NBC is paying nothing for its upcoming fights. "It's good that boxing is out there, but a lot of times it's just filler," says Lou DiBella, a promoter and former HBO executive.
A promoter who makes, say, $50,000 from TV and $75,000 from the casino has little left to pay the fighters. For the Miccosukee show the undercard fighters made from $500 to $3,000. The headliner, WBC cruiserweight champ Wayne Braithwaite, made roughly $30,000 for a title defense—a fraction of what Clifford Etienne made for lasting 49 seconds against Mike Tyson the next night in Memphis.
There were plenty of other reminders that Miccosukee was miles from the big time. The ring announcer (a former Playboy model wearing a dress aerosoled onto her body) pronounced Braithwaite's name three different ways. His dramatic ring entrance was undermined when he nearly collided with a forklift. His "dressing room" was a mobile home parked outside the arena on the lip of a swamp. Still, after knocking out challenger Ravea Springs to retain his belt, the champ was philosophical. "You'd rather be fighting for millions," he said. "But this is a lot better than nothing."