There was a moment of time when Atlantic City evoked images of Tyson and Gatti as much as tables and gamblers.
Donald Trump and Don King dominated the fight game as much as any heavyweight contenders. And when the next pay-per-view blockbuster bout was up for bid, AC always had a seat at the table.
“When I came up, Atlantic City was almost the Vegas of the East,” former four-division champion Roy Jones Jr. said. “It was the only place that had casinos, and the only place that had the casino feel. When you got to Atlantic City to fight, you feel like you pretty much made it. I got here my second fight, and I dished out a lot of punishment along this boardwalk.”
As casinos withered in the middle of the decade, so did interest in hosting boxing cards.
Boxing went bust and new players — like Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — emerged as destination sites for championship fights.
But Saturday night, promoters and fighters hope for a revival on the boardwalk. Sergey Kovalev defends his share of the light heavyweight championship against Eleider Alvarez in the main event of a card televised on HBO from the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
Kovalev defeated Bernard Hopkins in a championship bout on the last major card in Atlantic City on Nov. 8, 2014.
The resort town that Trump helped launch into a boxing mecca on the East Coast had gone into a lengthy lull. The gambling resort sputtered as five of 12 casinos shut down over the last few years, notably the spectacular flop of Revel.
Boxing took a backseat as Atlantic City tried to regain its footing. But with the city more stabilized, both Hard Rock and the upscale Ocean Resort Casino are set to host cards this month.
Top Rank, promoting its first AC card since 2013, has Philadelphia fighters Bryant Jennings and Jesse Hart on an Aug. 18 show at Ocean Resort.
It’s not quite the Mike Tyson heyday or a slate packed with fights reminiscent of the Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward classics.
But it’s a nice start for a city that wants to compete with Barclays and Madison Square Garden for the premier events on the coast.
Main Event CEO Kathy Duva said the card — which also includes Dmitry Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba in another light heavyweight title fight — is close to sold out at the 5,550-seat Etess Arena.
Larry Hazzard, head of the state’s Athletic Control Board, has seen the glory days and the valleys since he came to the city as a referee in 1978. He knows more than just a great fight will put the state back on the boxing scene.
“This could be the event to springboard New Jersey back into the big-time world of boxing,” he said. “Legalized gambling, that’s just the big plus to go along with it. We’re in a very good place right now.”
Just as casino gambling led to boxing’s boon period in AC, the advent of legalized sports betting could propel interest in boxing. Bernie Dillon, the entertainment director at the Hard Rock, said it will take more than wagers to win over boxing fans.
“I think boxing is going to make it on its own,” he said. “We can’t depend on gambling. We still have tickets to sell. We have casino customers to bring in.”
Trump was successful in the 1980s and ’90s in persuading gaming executives to shell out millions of dollars to draw major fights away from Las Vegas and attract free-spending bettors to the gaming tables. A 1988 AP story ahead of the Tyson fight against Larry Holmes said, “The phone was ringing off the hook in Donald Trump’s office this week as movie stars, authors, sports figures, singers and models sought tickets to the title fight.” The story noted Trump flew many of the celebrities to Atlantic City in his private helicopters.
“Keeping it out of the political arena, he made boxing big here in New Jersey,” Hazzard said. “I would go as far as saying that I don’t know if it would have been as big without him. He was the point man for all the major bouts. He was the guy. Thank God for his ego. I think he got a big kick out of outbidding those guys in Vegas. It was like East Coast vs. West Coast and he felt like he was ‘The Guy’ on the East Coast. It worked to our benefit.”
T-Mobile in Las Vegas and MSG now host the biggest cards and Barclays is perhaps the busiest boxing venue for elite shows.
AC isn’t keeping its best bouts inside ring ropes.
UFC returned in April to Boardwalk Hall for its first card in Atlantic City since July 2014, and more events could be on the way. UFC’s fight card is full for the rest of the year but the push is on to bring it back in 2019. Dillon said he’s made calls to UFC about booking a show at Hard Rock.
Hazzard said he would love to see a heavyweight fight the magnitude of Deontay Wilder vs. Anthony Joshua in AC next year. But making the right deals in the sport depends as much on promoters’ partnerships with arenas than buzz and location.
“If the casinos in town get together, we could do a big show at Boardwalk Hall again,” Dillon said. “The city needs to work together, and I think that would be good for everybody.”
A more modest card proposal in 2019 could include a potential unification bout between Kovalev and Bivol.
Either way, boxing is off the canvas and open for business on the boardwalk.