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Interview: Jimmy Vaccaro

Jimmy Vaccaro is one of the best line-makers in the sports betting industry. He’s a longtime Las Vegas race and sports book director at the Barbary Coast, MGM, the Golden Nugget and the Mirage. In 1990, the heavyweight title fight between Evander Holyfield and Buster Douglas was held at the Mirage where he was running the sports book. Gambling Online Magazine recently spoke with him about that memorable week.

Sports history is littered with athletes who streak across the sky like a meteor, only to flame out in the blink of an eye. The career of boxer James “Buster” Douglas was one such meteor. Douglas stunned the sports world on February 10, 1990 when he toppled the seemingly unbeatable Mike Tyson in Tokyo as a 42-to-1 underdog. Jimmy Vaccaro was the one who set that number while at the Mirage.

VACCARO: “I was the only one who posted odds on that fight. Everybody who booked the Tyson fights at that time would just have a round proposition, over or under a certain amount of rounds. And I thought that was phony, because you can make the odds high enough to get two-way action. That’s what line-making and bookmaking is all about.”

GOM: “Right.”

VACCARO: “I figured if there’s a fight there has to be a number on it. I opened the Buster Douglas/Tyson fight at 27-to-1 and people jumped on Tyson. The first bet I took was for $81,000 to win $3,000. I moved it to 32-to-1 and the next guy bet something like $93,000 to win $3,000. And since we were the only place offering odds, everybody had to come to the Mirage if they wanted to bet.”

GOM: “So you’re not only getting action, but great publicity.”

VACCARO: “That’s right. So, eventually it got up to 42-to-1 and by adjusting numbers to get two-way action, we were in a spot where if Tyson lost we could win $104,000 and if Tyson won we would gain $3,000. So we had no risk in the outcome and great publicity with every news outlet in the world coming to the Mirage. And after Tyson lost, we were the only place that could talk about it because we were the only ones who had odds on the fight.”

In the world of Las Vegas sports wagering, there’s no such thing as a “sure thing.” Never was that old adage truer than on that February night when the 42-to-1 long shot shocked the world by knocking out Tyson in the tenth round to become the new heavyweight champion. One bettor had placed $1,500 on Douglas at 38-to-1 for a $57,000 payday.

It was one of the biggest stories of the year and eight months later Douglas (30-4-1) put his first (and only) title defense on the line in a battle with Evander Holyfield (24-0). Holyfield was a minus-150 favorite when the bell sounded, a scheduled 12-round battle held at the Mirage, October 25, 1990.

VACCARO: “I remember being on the jet that had Douglas and his entourage heading to San Francisco for a news conference. (Mirage owner) Steve Wynn had everything first-class on the trip, which is the way he is with everything. They’re wheeling out carts of lobster, shrimp, roast beef, sweets, all this great stuff and everyone’s gorging themselves – including Buster Douglas.

“Six weeks leading up to the fight, Douglas stayed at the Mirage. They had a training center at the hotel for him and I used to go over and watch the workouts. And I noticed that Douglas never, ever, ever took his sweatshirt off.”

GOM: “Why was that?”

VACCARO: “When I asked his trainer and manager, Johnny Johnson, why he wouldn’t take his shirt off, he said, ‘Well, Buster just wants to train with his sweatshirt on, that’s all.’ And jokingly I said, ‘He’s not hiding something under that shirt, is he?’ No, no, no, of course not….”

Upsetting Tyson was like winning the lottery for Douglas, a 30-year old journeyman boxer and he enjoyed his unexpected thrust into the limelight. Douglas refereed a pro wrestling match, appeared on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ and was embroiled in a promotional contract lawsuit that summer with Don King. It was not obvious to most, but he was not as focused on his craft as he should have been. The day before the fight, Holyfield and Douglas appeared before the media during the weigh-in.

VACCARO: “This is where the fun starts. This fight is generating all kinds of publicity and business. We go to the weigh-in and Holyfield gets on the scale and he’s 208 pounds. Everybody applauds and so on. Buster Douglas takes his shirt off and he looks a little on the pudgy side, but it doesn’t look that bad. He gets on the scale and the boxing official calls out the weight….‘246 pounds!’”

GOM: “His stomach had more interest in the fight than his head.”

VACCARO: “Lou Duva, who was Holyfield’s trainer, asks to do the weigh-in again, because he doesn’t believe it. Douglas gets back on the scale – sure enough, 246 pounds. That’s twenty pounds more than he’d ever been in any fight. Immediately my thinking is, ‘I’ve got to hurry up and adjust these odds because this guy looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy!’

When it sunk in that Douglas really did weigh 246 pounds, Holyfield’s trainer was heard to exclaim, “We’re home! We’re home!” It was revealed later that Holyfield’s weight had dropped because he was battling strep throat for two weeks. The joke going around was that whatever weight Holyfield lost Douglas more than made up for.

A fireworks display preceding the bout lasted longer than the fight. It was over early in the third round when Holyfield’s right fist felled the bloated Douglas, who never came close to getting up. Veteran trainer Eddie Futch remarked, “To throw one punch in three rounds as heavyweight champion of the world is a disgrace.”

VACCARO: “Right after the weigh-in, some newspaper guy asks me what I think, so it takes me a few minutes to get back to my office. When I sit down at the computer to adjust the odds in favor of Holyfield because the other guy’s too damn heavy, I was told someone just placed a big bet. A big bettor I knew, who was also at the weigh-in, came in and put $500,000 on Holyfield.

“Here’s a guy who saw the same thing I saw. We didn’t know who was going to win the fight, of course, but we both knew that the right side after the weigh-in was Holyfield. He beats me to the window by about five seconds before I could adjust the odds and he ends up winning close to a half-a-million dollars when Holyfield knocks out Douglas in the third round.

“We still made money on the fight, but the point is when it comes to betting, whether you’re playing or booking, you have to constantly be on your toes and a part of things to stay one step ahead.”

Jimmy Vaccaro lives in Las Vegas.
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