11/19/2001 1:00AM

Big bettors emptied their wallets on Lewis


The rich get richer.

Lennox Lewis was the biggest winner in Las Vegas last weekend, reclaiming his heavyweight title belts with a fourth-round knockout of Hasim Rahman, walking off with a $10 million purse, and setting up a potential $25 million payday vs. Mike Tyson.

In the Mandalay Bay Events Center and before a worldwide pay-per-view audience, Lewis dominated from the start. He won each round on all three judges' scorecards by landing jabs throughout the first three rounds. In the fourth round, Lewis threw a left hook to Rahman's head. It didn't really connect, but it caught Rahman by surprise enough that he never saw the sweeping right hook that knocked him off his feet. There was an awestruck "oooooooh" as the KO punch also caught the crowd of 10,500 by surprise. It was so quiet you could hear Rahman's career drop.

Rahman landed flat on his back with a thud that could be heard clearly on press row four stories above the action. And then the crowd went wild as Rahman struggled to beat the 10-count, stumbled to his feet, and then fell again. Referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight and Lewis strutted around the ring, thumping his chest.

At the post-fight press conference, Lewis said he was changing his opponent's name to Has-been Rahman and called him the "Buster Douglas of the 21st century."

Despite his loss, Rahman also took home $10 million and the promoters were smiling, as they foresee a megafight vs. Tyson. A tentative date of April 4 is already being discussed, though that will only happen if Tyson beats Ray Mercer in a January bout and if he stays out of jail. Neither is a given.

The casinos were counting their winnings as the vast majority of bettors backed the underdog Rahman. At the Mandalay Bay sports book, Lewis opened as a -400 (bet $4 to win $1) favorite, with Rahman at +320 (bet $1 to win $3.20), when the fight was announced this summer. There was a steady stream of underdog money that continually dropped the odds as the fight approached.

By 5 p.m. Saturday, Lewis was down to -240 with Rahman at +230. Twice in the next two hours, the odds dropped to -230/+190 and were quickly bet back up.

What was happening, at Mandalay and other books around town, was the professional gamblers were seeing tremendous value on Lewis and betting with both fists. A lot of high rollers in town were doing the same thing. So, while most books report writing between three and 10 times as many tickets on Rahman as Lewis, the big bettors ended up being the ones cashing in. To repeat, the rich get richer.

The "won't go seven full rounds" bet opened as a -130 favorite at Mandalay Bay with the "will go" at even-money. The public expected a longer fight and bet "will go" to a -160 favorite (many other books in town had the round prop at over/under 8 or 10 rounds, so bettors thought there was value in better over 7 rounds at Mandalay), so the house cleaned up there, too.

The "Lewis by KO" prop was popular with bettors, opening at even-money and closing at 10-11, but the house kept all money bet on "Rahman by KO" (a big loser for bettors as it was bet down from 9-2 to 5-2), either fighter by decision (3-1 for Lewis, 8-1 for Rahman) or a draw (20-1). The round-by-round prop is always a winner for the house. Lewis' fourth-round KO was worth 10-1 to those bettors, but the house keeps bets on all other rounds by both fighters.

Other winners included:

* The sport of boxing. Lewis is a legitimate champion, and he finally has a positive defining moment in his career (as opposed to the one of him being knocked out). That's good for the heavyweight division, and that usually has a trickle-down effect on the sport and its public perception.

* The Nevada State Athletic Commission. Executive director Marc Ratner is always in the spotlight when things go wrong, whether he's fining boxers, revoking licenses, or defending his judges for controversial decisions He was glad he wasn't needed at the press conference.

* Las Vegas, in general: With the tourism industry still struggling to bounce back and with terrorism fears still on everyone's minds, it was reassuring to have such a big event go off without a hitch.

Football not forgotten

Football betting was strong over the weekend, obviously helped by all the high rollers in town. Even more important for the books was that the increased money was on the wrong sides more often than not.

It would have been a banner Saturday for the books if they hadn't lost three major decisions late (Maryland rallying against North Carolina State, Utah covering against BYU, and Florida blowing out Florida State). Otherwise, the bookmakers were winning all day long.

On Sunday, the dogs were barking again in the NFL. Favorites only went 5-9 against the spread, and that usually spells doom for bettors. The Patriots, an 8 1/2-point underdog, covering in a 24-17 loss to the Rams on Sunday night helped the books lock up a lot of profits on parlay cards.

Early football line moves

An exciting sports weekend ended with the Stardust putting up the opening numbers Sunday night for the cornucopia of football games scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend.

Two Miamis were involved in the biggest line moves. No. 1 Miami-Fla. was bet from a 23- to a 25 1/2-point favorite over Washington, while Miami-Ohio was bet from an 8 1/2-point favorite over Kent down to 6.

With fewer college games to choose from, "lottery" players turned to the pros as nine of the 10 posted games (five games were off the board due to injuries or teams playing Sunday or Monday night) took early action.

Last week, college line moves were 13-7 (65 percent) against the Stardust's opening numbers, and are now 110-87 (56 percent) for the season. In the NFL, line moves were 1-1 with the Vikings going Monday night. For the season, NFL early line moves are 27-19 (59 percent).