"I need tickets, I need tickets," they whispered outside the arena, in low desperate voices.
"Hey, fire hazard," a man called out to a woman who looked like an extra in an En Vogue video. "Where's the after party?"
Saturday night seemed like an unlikely time to ponder the moral opposition of Mike Tyson's return to boxing after serving three years in prison for rape. Hollywood stars tumbled out of stretch limousines. Larry Holmes handed his purse around and swept through the metal detectors into the arena. Half of the Chicago Bulls ate trendy pizzas by Wolfgang Puck at a cafe in the casino. The portal into the MGM Grand looked like a mosaic of sunglasses, flashbulbs, bronze tans, collagen lips and suctioned hips.
Still, against this backdrop, there was a small voice of dissent.
Prior to Tyson's fight against Peter McNeeley, members of the Southern Nevada chapter of the National Organization for Women demonstrated outside the MGM Grand Hotel. Protesters held up signs that read "Rape is not a sport" and "Women are not punching bags."
Chapter president Anne Golonka said the protest was organized to call attention toward powerful men in sports who abuse women and suffer little or no damage to their careers.
"We are not anti-Mike Tyson," Golonka said. "We just want to make the point that our society seems to welcome offenders such as Tailhook and Ted Kennedy and Mike Tyson. There is no public opinion that holds these people back from bad behavior."
Earlier in the week, Golonka sent Tyson a prototype poster she hoped the fighter would endorse. Under Tyson's photograph, the poster read, "Take ten and think! Don't hurt a woman." She also requested that Tyson donate $1-million of his estimated $25-million in earnings from the fight to begin a foundation to end violence against women.
Golonka got no reply.
The voices of the NOW protesters and their picket signs were dwarfed and out-spangled by the sheer magnitude of the Tyson event.
One woman who eagerly paid $39.95 to stay home and watch the bout on pay-per-view was Katherine Dunn, who has written about boxing for Esquire and other publications.
"It is a brutal and beautiful art form that expresses the human heart," Dunn said from her home in Portland, Ore. "Tyson is far and away the most charismatic figure in boxing. And there is a mythic power in a heavyweight champion. It is part of the American identity."
Can a dynamic fighter with a rape conviction serve as a worthy emblem of American identity?
"He's been through a scarring experience," said Dunn, author of the novel Geek Love. "He still maintains his innocence. I don't think he was well represented (in his rape case) by Don King's tax attorney. Clarence Thomas got off. William Kennedy Smith got off. Mike Tyson did not get off. He was not a federal judge. He was not a Kennedy. He was a brutal thug from Brooklyn."
Still, the 29-year-old Tyson returned to boxing Saturday as a multimillion-dollar commodity, with a huge ripple effect outside the ring.
According to Bill Doak, director of publicity for the MGM Grand, no other event brings in more high-rollers than boxing. The casinos gave complimentary hotel rooms, meals, drinks and ringside seats to VIP customers this weekend. These are the players behind velvet ropes who play blackjack for $5,000 a hand, leaving the table only to wolf down the smoked salmon that is wheeled in on silver carts.
"Those people don't look like money, but you never know who owns a chain of lube shops and has a million-dollar line of credit with the casino," said Bill Simmons, a boxing fan from Mission Viejo, Calif., and a manufacturer of baby bottles.
Not only did the Tyson fight attract the high-rollers, but all those who wanted a piece of the "moment."
While NOW protested outside the MGM Grand, there were hundreds of other women inside who wore microscopic Lycra dresses and 4-inch heels, with beepers attached to the straps of their purses. "The silver lame ladies," as Dunn describes them, "working people who go where the money is."
"Money is their lure," said Las Vegas Police Capt. Charles Davidaitis.
The Tyson fight weekend also forged a strange coalition of gangsters and gangstas. Old guys named Joey wore gold chains and young guys named Antoine wore gold teeth. They all worked the pay phones like telemarketers or walked around with cellular phones pressed to their ears.
"Eight hundred," said a man in a raspy voice. "It's the best I can do."
But for all the characters, the Tyson fight also lured the purists, such as Dunn, who pointed that archaeologists have unearthed 6,000-year-old vases from the Mesopotamia period with drawings of young men, their hands wrapped in leather and their fists raised in the classic boxing stance.
"Someone like Peter McNeeley could never redeem Mike Tyson," Dunn said. "All McNeeley could be was the first step in a long road. That's why Saturday night was such a big deal."