ATLANTIC CITY — When the fog rolls in off the ocean and blankets the Boardwalk, it can be awfully tough to see more than a few feet ahead.
Boxing in Atlantic City has been smothered in a similar haze for years. After struggling for more than a decade, however, promoters, casino officials and others are cautiously optimistic the fog is finally lifting.
“I really believe we’re starting to turn the corner,” said Larry Hazzard, commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board. “I’m very enthusiastic about the possibility that we’re about to see a resurgence in boxing in Atlantic City.”
Hazzard’s optimism is understandable. Two of boxing’s top promoters, Main Events and Top Rank, are staging shows in town this month.
Boxing and mixed martial arts fans will have plenty of opportunities to take in their favori…
The biggest fight to hit Atlantic City in four years takes place Saturday night at the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. World Boxing Organization light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs), who is promoted by Main Events, will defend his title against unbeaten Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs) at Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena.
A capacity crowd of 6,000 is expected for the fight, which will also be broadcast on HBO Championship Boxing. It’s the most-anticipated bout to come to town since Kovalev’s victory over the legendary Bernard Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall on Nov. 8, 2014.
Later this month, Las Vegas-based Top Rank will have an ESPN-televised card at Ocean Resort Casino on Aug. 18. Philadelphia heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings (23-2, 13 KOs) will face Alexander Dimitrenko (41-3, 26 KOs) in the main event.
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“Having both cards in Atlantic City is really a step in the right direction,” Hard Rock Vice President of Entertainment Bernie Dillon said. “We certainly have high hopes for our show. Ticket sales are strong, and our customer response has been strong. I think we’ll get a nice bang out of it.”
Atlantic City was once one of boxing’s heavyweights, trading punches with Las Vegas for the title of Boxing Capital of the World.
In a four-year span from 1982 to 1985, Atlantic City hosted 519 boxing cards, including 138 in 1982 and a record 143 in 1985. Almost every week featured three or four shows at properties such as Caesars, Playboy, Sands, Tropicana and Trump Plaza.
Then-casino owner Donald Trump began to hold major fights featuring heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and other top events such as George Foreman-Evander Holyfield (1991) at Boardwalk Hall in the late 1980s.
“Atlantic City used to be bigger than Vegas when it came to boxing,” Top Rank President Bob Arum said. “We used to do two, three fights a weekend. I have very fond memories of some fights we did there, like Foreman and Holyfield.”
When Trump bowed out of boxing in the 1990s, Park Place Entertainment President Arthur Goldberg and CEO Wally Barr enlisted former Bally’s President Ken Condon to help keep the sport alive.
Condon scored a knockout with hard-hitting, exciting Arturo Gatti. Gatti, who died in 2009, sold out Boardwalk Hall six straight times. Other top fighters such as Kelly Pavlik, Sergio Martinez and Hopkins took over in later years.
Big-time boxing is coming to Ocean Resort Casino this summer.
“When I was coming up, you dreamed of fighting in Vegas and Atlantic City,” former four-division world champion Roy Jones Jr. said. “You either fought in the desert or on the Boardwalk. That’s how you knew you had made it.”
But as the Atlantic City casino industry began to struggle, properties began to phase out boxing. The town hosted just 14 cards in 1996 and sank to nine three years later.
The sport hit bottom in 2015, when only five shows were held in Atlantic City. That was the lowest total since the casino era began in 1978.
“I think one of the problems was that, in recent years, a lot of the casinos had people in charge who don’t understand the value of boxing,” Hazzard said. “A big fight brings a level of excitement you don’t get from other sports. It attracts people who may not even go to the fight but will go to the weigh-in, eat in the restaurants, stay in the hotel, gamble in the casino. Boxing has that drawing power, and now they have people who know that.”
When Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City opens Thursday, visitors will have a hard ti…
Both Dillon and Hard Rock President Jim Allen worked at Trump during boxing’s boom era. They plan on having boxing and mixed martial arts as part of their entertainment menu.
Arum, who has been friends with Ocean Resort owner Bruce Deifik for years, announced plans to have at least four ESPN shows per year at Ocean’s Ovation Hall. The property will also have MMA.
“Ocean Resorts gets it, and Hard Rock gets it,” Arum said. “They know boxing will appeal to their customer base. I think Atlantic City is absolutely coming back. It’s going to be a boxing center again.”
The Hard Rock and Ocean Resort cards will be the sixth and seventh boxing shows to be held in Atlantic City this year. Millville-based Rising Star Promotions has one scheduled for Showboat Atlantic City on Sept. 8.
The one thing missing is a big fight at Boardwalk Hall. Because it can cost as much as $100,000 to put a card there, it takes cooperation from various casinos and other entities. Kovalev-Hopkins, the last fight to be held in Boardwalk Hall’s main arena, was made possible because of the cooperation from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and others.
“It seems boxing in Atlantic City is finally turning around,” Atlantic City veteran trainer Bill Johnson said. “I don’t know if it will ever be back to what it used to be, but it’s been a while since a fight of the magnitude of Kovalev-Alvarez has been here. There’s a lot of buzz around town about it.”
Contact: 609-272-7201 DWeinberg@pressofac.com Twitter @PressACWeinberg