Tuesday 24 April 2018

Las Vegas Legends: Sinatra, Ali, Presley… Conor McGregor

Thousands of Irish will travel to Las Vegas in December hoping to see Irish MMA star Conor McGregor become a bona fide Las Vegas legend. To set the mood here are some of the best portrayals of Sin City in song, in print and on the silver screen.

Las Vegas is one of the most iconic cities in the world - a neon adult wonderland blooming out of the arid Nevada sandscape. It’s a paean to excess, a place where dreams burn brightly and fade to black just as quickly.

The city came to prominence in the 1930s through the building of the nearby Hoover Dam and the subsequent entertainment industry which quickly grew to gratify the male workers who flooded the area.

Gambling was legalised in 1931 and by the mid-40s powerful organised crime figures, notably Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, had moved in to replace the local family gangsters. This golden period saw the rise of fabled casinos such as the Flamingo, the Sands, Binion’s Horseshoe & The Riviera and the first wave of culturally significant activity to be captured on in song, screen and in print.


Frank Sinatra towers over mid-to-late century Las Vegas, legitimising the glitz and glamour of the nascent city and fuelling the aspirations of the post-war generation of dreamers from his Sands Hotel base.

The Sands is no longer with us, nor the Sahara where he, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford made classic heist movie Ocean’s Eleven but you can still eat at the Golden Steer Steakhouse and sit at the table where Ol’ Blue Eyes and the rest of the Rat Pack often enjoyed a post-show party.

Sinatra moved his performances to Caesars Palace in the 1960s and no trip to Vegas for a fight fan would be complete without a visit to the spiritual home of pugilists such as Muhammed Ali, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Larry Holmes, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

Daredevil fans can also check out Caesars Palace fountain where Evel Knievel crashed attempting a death-defying 43 meter leap in 1967, famously filmed by his then wife and future Dynasty star Linda ‘Krystal Carrington’ Evans.

Another global music icon synonymous with the Strip is Elvis Presley. He first played there in 1958 but it was his 1964 movie Viva Las Vegas that thrust his association with the city into the public consciousness.

In the movie he married Ann-Margret in the Little Church of the West which is still the oldest chapel on the Strip located between Mandalay Bay Hotel and the instantly recognisable Welcome to Las Vegas sign at the south end of the main drag.

The King is currently the subject of a comprehensive Graceland-curated exhibition at the Westgate Resort and Casino, the site of the former International Hotel/Las Vegas Hilton where the Mississippi-born musician successfully re-launched his career between in 1969 with 58 consecutive sold out shows.

Here visitors can see a selection of Elvis’ memorabilia spanning his Memphis, army, Graceland, Hollywood and comeback years including cars, stage costumes, jewellery and thousands of personal items.


The Hilton Hotel/Westgate Resort building is also infamous as the Whyte House from the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever and made an appearance in Indecent Proposal where Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson lost their savings on an ill-fated gambling spree aimed at kick starting a property venture.

Movies in particular lend themselves to the drama and colour of Las Vegas.

Everyone has their favourite but if you’re looking for a larger than life feast for the senses Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! are must-sees.

At the grittier end of things The Gambler, The Cooler, Hard Eight and Leaving Las Vegas are classics capturing something of the quiet despair and melancholy never far from the heart of the city.

If comedy is your thing best avoid Paul Blart: Mall Cop II and revisit The Hangover which features the fabulous lobby in Caesars Palace, the 2001 reboot of classic crime caper Ocean’s Eleven featuring messers Clooney, Pitt and Damon or Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery with its swinging lounge music soundtrack.

Bugsy is a fine Academy Award-winning historic crime drama focusing on the wild west Las Vegas years of Jewish gangster Benjamin Siegel and the Flamingo and, of course, no-one really needs a reason to re-watch The Godfather and The Godfather II which saw some scenes filmed at the still-in-business Tropicana (known in the film as the Tropigala) and on Las Vegas Boulevard.


Las Vegas-related literature is usually peppered with outlandish characters committing colourful crimes or gunning for that one great gamble that will solve all of their problems.

Conor McGregor will be in Dublin next week
Conor McGregor will be in Dublin next week

Top of the fiction pile is Hunter S. Thompson’s psychedelic masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that takes the tried and tested template of excess and turbo-charges it with a truly dizzying array of psychoactive drugs.

But fact really is stranger than fiction when it comes to Vegas and a wealth of biographies, memoirs and social histories tell the multi-faceted tale of this wacky wonderland.

Poker fans should check out Nolan Dalla’s definitive biography of probably the most naturally gifted card player ever to have lived. One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar is the exhilarating but tragic tale of a poker savant and a mind which raced faster than Ungar could control it.

In Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People the titular Texan road gambler and World Series of Poker legend brings the reader on a jaunty (if somewhat self-aggrandising) romp through his catalogue of bizarre proposition bets against the likes of Willie Nelson, Minnesota Fats, Evel Knievel, & Larry Flynt. Pablo Escobar even makes an appearance.

Equally thrilling is Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything by Kevin Cook. Thompson was another fearless road gambler and the inspiration for Damon Runyan’s character Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. They really don’t make them like this anymore. In Vegas or anywhere else for that matter.

Perhaps Las Vegas’ greatest ever gambling tale has yet to make it either into print or onto celluloid but you can read all about it online at sextonscorner.com.

Sit back and gaze in awe as Tom Sexton chronicles how Archie ‘The Greek’ Karas came to Las Vegas with $50 in his pocket won over $40 million in a couple of years playing dice, poker and pool… and what happened next.

And who knows maybe, just maybe, out of the thousands of fight fans travelling to Las Vegas from the depths of an Irish winter to see Conor McGregor (hopefully!) secure his place in history someone might follow in the footsteps of ‘The Greek’, Ali, Sinatra, Presley or Slim and create a legend of their own.

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