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From boxing to bicycling, Trump brought big-time sports to A.C.

From boxing to bicycling, Trump brought big-time sports to A.C.

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Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson spent part of his 50th birthday on June 24 involved in a Twitter-based sparring session with Donald Trump. They argued about reports that Trump had invited Tyson to speak at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

It would have been understandable if Trump had wanted Tyson in his corner, considering Trump used to be in Tyson's.

Maybe not in the actual corner, but "The Donald" always had a ringside view for Tyson's big fights at Boardwalk Hall.

"Donald was there for all of them," New Jersey Athletic Control Board commissioner Larry Hazzard said. "He used to call me his prognosticator. Before he sat down, he'd always come over to the (Control Board) table and ask me who was going to win the fight. And I was never wrong."

Trump and Tyson used to be buddies.

Tyson celebrated his 22nd birthday in Atlantic City with Trump. Three days earlier, on July 27, 1988, Tyson had registered the biggest win of his boxing career with a spectacular, 91-second TKO over Michael Spinks at Boardwalk Hall.

Trump, who sponsored the fight, was in the front row, just as he was for Tyson's other bouts on the Boardwalk. He had paid a then-record $11 million site fee to bring the fight to town, outbidding Las Vegas and other cities that sought it.

"It was an amazing event, probably the most amazing event Atlantic City has ever seen," Trump told me in a 2013 phone interview. "The buzz around that fight was incredible."

Trump was good at creating buzz back then.

Tyson-Spinks was among several major fights he brought to Atlantic City in the 1980s and '90s. Bouts that were once held in Las Vegas were staged at Boardwalk Hall.

Movie stars, musicians and athletes filled the seats to watch Tyson knock out Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes, Spinks, Carl Williams and Alex Stewart, respectively. Over 20,000 showed up to see George Foreman's fights against Gerry Cooney and Evander Holyfield, respectively.

"Let's be honest," Hazzard said. "Whether or not you agree with Donald Trump's political views is your business. But I'm able to separate politics from sports, and there is no question that Donald Trump had a tremendous impact on boxing in Atlantic City. Without him, there was no way Tyson-Spinks or any of the other big fights would have been there. He made Atlantic City the boxing capital of the world at the time."

Trump's sports interest wasn't just reserved for boxing.

It can be argued that he was the first to realize that Atlantic City needed more than gambling to lure people and sought other ways to do draw customers to his casino properties.

In 1988, he sought to bring attention to his casino property at Frank S. Farley Marina, then named Trump Castle, by hosting the Trump Castle Grand National Powerboat Championship that Trump dubbed the "War Offshore." Among the competitors was "Miami Vice" star Don Johnson, who also stayed in Trump's $29 million, 292-foot yacht, the Trump Princess, between races.

Trump was sufficiently impressed that he bid $160,000 - $10,000 more than longtime host Key West, Florida - to bring the World Powerboat Championships to Atlantic City the following year.

The races were delayed for three days by a mixture of rain, fog and wind - some cynics thought Trump's reputation as a blowhard was a factor - before finally being held.

In 1989, he paid $750,000 to sponsor the Tour de Trump bicycle race. The event, which he formed with ex-TV sportcaster Billy Packer, was designed to be the United States version of the Tour de France. It originally was a 10-stage event that began in Albany, New York, and ended on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in front of Trump Plaza.

The inaugural race drew an impressive field that included Tour de France winners Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, plus top European teams such as Lotto and Panasonic, and the Soviet national team. However, it ended in controversy. Dag Otto Lauritzen won it after Eric Vanderaerden of the Netherlands took a wrong turn during the final stage in Atlantic City.

The race lasted two years before Trump withdrew his financial backing. The Dupont Corporation took it over and ran it as the Tour duPont for a few years.

A decade later, he turned his attention to mixed martial arts and a fledgling outfit called the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

On Nov. 17, 2000, he brought UFC 28 to Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Two of the next three UFC cards were also held at the Taj Mahal, and he sponsored two more at Boardwalk Hall. Trump did his best to build hype by having the Taj Mahal use commemorative UFC chips and plastering the walls with posters.

"Donald Trump's impact on the UFC was huge," said State Deputy Attorney General Nick Lembo, who helps oversee MMA events in New Jersey with Hazzard. "His decision to bring those cards to the Taj Mahal essentially legitimized the organization. UFC 28 marked the first time a UFC show was held in a major arena and city."

Of course, Trump also made more than his share of enemies in Atlantic City.

For every person who kissed his butt back then, there are five who wished he would take a long walk off Steel Pier. You can start with the contractors who were shafted by Trump after helping to build the Taj Mahal.

He has bragged about his experiences in town, how he mastered the "Art of the Deal" by walking away with millions even while thousands of workers were left without jobs and his casinos were in bankruptcy.

"Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me," Trump told The New York Times in May. "The money I took out of there was incredible."

Whether he is qualified or capable of being the next President of the United States is a debate for other sections of The Press.

However, he does deserve credit for realizing decades ago that Atlantic City needed more than slot machines and blackjack tables to lure customers to its casinos.

At his peak, he packed more of a wallop than one of Tyson's punches.

(David Weinberg's Extra Points column appears Wednesdays and Sundays in The Press.)

Contact: 609-272-7201

Twitter @PressACWeinberg


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