Maybe just the beginning for Macau

MACAU -- We had no real idea where we were. We had taken advantage of some down time to take an afternoon off from reporting on fight week, and had hopped in a cab outside the Venetian Macao. We had some rough ideas about where we wanted to go, but not a single word of Cantonese -- or even Portuguese -- between the four of us. When our taxi driver pulled up to what he clearly considered to be our destination, we got out, looked around and thought, Huh.

It is all too easy, and all too common, to spend fight week within the confines of the host hotel, especially when that host hotel is a casino like the MGM Grand in Las Vegas -- or, in this case, the Venetian Macao -- where everything, from rooms to food to media center to arena, is under one roof. Indeed, on many levels, being at the Venetian in Macau was a largely indistinguishable experience from being in the one in Sin City or in any of the Strip's casinos. But it took an awful lot longer to fly to Macau than to Vegas, and there was no way we were going to miss an opportunity to explore beyond the casino walls at least a little. So now here we were. Wherever "here" was.

It was, in fact, Hac Sa Beach, on the southern end of the island of Coloane, one of three in the Macau archipelago. We wandered around awhile, until we came upon a place with the welcoming sign: Restaurant and Pub. It was all but empty, except for the owner, who saw the credential that HBO photographer Will Hart wore round his neck, and who came up to us beaming, "Hey! Manny Pacquiao."

Just like that, we had made a friend, who kindly directed us to some choice destinations, called a cab to take us to the first one, showed us photos he had taken with Brandon Rios when Rios had been in town for the Zou Shiming-headlined card earlier in the year, and who said hello when he showed up at the CotaiArena for Rios' fight with Pacquiao on Sunday morning.

There was no shortage of similar encounters for others in the traveling press corps or conversations with locals who broke through the language barrier to talk Pacquiao, Zou or even the Wednesday morning contretemps between Freddie Roach and Alex Ariza. On a purely circumstantial basis, staging the Pacquiao-Rios fight in Macau was a clear success, in that it not only attracted the usual international attention but clearly motivated and energized a local fan base.

For much of the week, there was no certainty of that proving to be the case. There was, to be sure, an abundance of attention in the casino being paid to the fight: giant video screens blanketed the walls, and an exhibit of Zou-themed art, including the lovingly displayed pages of a graphic novel about the life of the "king of boxing," occupied a prominent place in a passageway near the arena. But the weigh-in on Saturday morning was an underwhelming and sparsely attended event; although reports were that ticket sales were brisk, would the crowd be similarly unenthused for the fight itself, particularly given that the card started at 8 a.m. local time on Sunday?

In any event, there was nothing to worry about. Fans flocked to the arena early; a long line snaked outside, comprising people -- well, let's be honest, men -- waiting to have their photo taken with Jen Mateo and the other Top Rank girls. And well before the start of the pay-per-view broadcast, the arena was at least half full (something Vegas casinos can never claim) of spectators who responded to each fight with unbridled enthusiasm.

In fact, it was one of the most lively fight crowds I've ever experienced. They cheered heartily for Petchsamuthr Duanaaymukdahan -- the determined opponent of Felix Verdejo -- even as they applauded the skill of the young Puerto Rican. They were rapturous over the improved performance of Zou. And, of course, they bathed Pacquiao in adoration and ululated over his winning performance.

The length of the journey deterred a lot of American writers, and most of us who did make the trip struggled all week to adapt to the time zone difference, not least because events were staged at a time of greatest convenience to U.S. viewers: late-night news conferences, early-morning weigh-ins. But having made the trip, we made a point of escaping the casino confines because -- well, who knew when any of us might have the opportunity to return here? The answer, actually, is possibly quite soon.

It will take some time to count the cash and total up the pay-per-view figures, of course, and if the latter are on the low side, then the calculus will need to include the impact of staging the fight so far from the U.S. media market. But all week, Top Rank's Bob Arum was bullish about returning to the region. And as I look out my hotel window on a Monday morning, the cranes that dot the skyline are evidence that the casinos already in place along the Cotai Strip (which is land reclaimed between two of Macau's three islands for the express purpose of creating an Asian Vegas) are but the vanguard. If this proves to have been a one-off, it will be a trip to remember. But it is hard not to escape the feeling that it will be the first of several.