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Why can’t Atlantic City draw boxing matches?
By DAVID WEINBERG, Staff Writer – Press of Atlantic City
The state’s top boxing official is frustrated with Atlantic City.
Since starting his second tenure as commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board last September, Larry Hazzard has been desperately trying to turn the resort into a boxing town again.
Boxing was once a thriving sport in Atlantic City, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1985, there were a whopping 143 boxing cards. Virtually every casino property had fights. But there hasn’t been one pro boxing card in Atlantic City in more than six months.
A town that once rivaled Las Vegas as the fight capital of the world is in a serious slump.
“When I was a referee back then, I’d work fights at Playboy on Friday, then do a fight on ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports’ at Harrah’s or Sands or somewhere,” Hazzard said. “I don’t care what anybody says. I think boxing is terrific for casinos, and I’m doing everything I can to get Atlantic City to realize that.”
Trouble is, Atlantic City casinos either lack the financial resources or simply don’t have the desire to have boxing at their properties. Those that do have fight cards have opted to showcase mixed martial arts.
After Donald Trump dropped out of the boxing scene in the early 1990s, Bally’s was at the forefront of boxing on the Boardwalk.
Under the guidance of Caesars Entertainment consultant Ken Condon, Bally’s main ballroom was the site of 24 boxing cards in the last five years. Caesars Entertainment also hosted 16 cards at Boardwalk Hall in that span.
Caesars has been the sole host of every major fight card at Boardwalk Hall except one in the last 20 years or so. The sole exception was in 2006, when Borgata sponsored Bernard Hopkins’ fight against Antonio Tarver.
Condon declined to comment on the current state of boxing, but promoter Russell Peltz, Main Events President Kathy Duva, Hazzard and others have pointed to Caesars’ current bankruptcy as the reason why it has at least temporarily suspended its relationship with boxing.
Depending on the card, it could cost a casino between $15,000 and $50,000 to hold a show on their property. Boardwalk Hall fight cards can cost more than $100,000.
“My guess is that’s the reason,” Peltz said. “Hopefully, they’ll start putting on shows again because I’d love to go back. Based on my experience, Bally’s always gave me the best deal in Atlantic City. They would give us rooms, buy 200-300 tickets and just treated us very well. For instance, they would give us food vouchers that would allow the fighters and their camps to eat in any of their restaurants.
“The other casinos weren’t nearly as cooperative. They wouldn’t buy any tickets and were very conservative with rooms. And everyone had to eat in the employee cafeteria.”
Tropicana, which used to be a big player in the local boxing scene, last hosted a pro fight on April 19, 2013. It now sticks to Ring of Combat MMA shows. Tropicana CEO Tony Rodio declined to comment.
Besides Hopkins vs. Tarver, Borgata held four shows in its Event Center between 2005 and 2007, but now relies on Cage Fury Fighting Championships for that type of entertainment.
“To be honest, I’m a boxing guy,” said Joe Lupo, Borgata’s senior vice president of operations. “When I worked in Vegas (he ran the sports book at the old Stardust) I was at the big fights like (Thomas) Hearns-(Sugar Ray) Leonard and Leonard-(Roberto) Duran. But in my opinion boxing as a whole has been declining for the last five or 10 years. I also think the boxing (fan) base has been declining. … Their fans are getting older and the younger fans are more interested in MMA.
“Cage Fury just fits here a lot better. There’s plenty of action, there’s a lot of fights and it brings a level of enthusiasm here. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see boxing generating that same interest in casinos.”
Some recent fights would suggest boxing’s popularity nationwide is rising.
The Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 generated a record 4.4 million pay-per-view buys, according to HBO and Showtime. The combined PPV buys and closed-circuit showings — Borgata, Golden Nugget, Resorts, Tropicana and Trump Taj Mahal all showed it — produced more than $500 million.
There’s also more boxing on TV than in recent years. Adviser/manager Al Haymon, one of the sport’s most powerful figures, signed a multi-year deal with NBC earlier this year that will feature 20 cards on NBC and NBC Sports Network. Fox Sports 1 and truTV also recently struck deals to televise fights.
Even smaller shows are generating interest outside Atlantic City.
More than 1,300 boxing fans from Philadelphia and South Jersey filled the folding chairs and stood three-deep in the aisles at the 2300 Arena on Philadelphia’s Swanson Street on May 8. Deafening cheers and lusty boos filled the hazy, sweltering arena while heavyweights Amir Mansour and Joey Dawejko engaged in a bloody brawl.
That same night, a capacity crowd showed up at the Prudential Center in Newark to watch Passaic junior-middleweight Glen Tapia take on French contender Michel Soro. They watched with a mix of shock and anger as Soro battered Tapia around the ring en route to a fourth-round TKO.
The only boxing card held in Atlantic City that weekend was an amateur show at the Police Athletic League.
“It’s really a shame,” long-time Atlantic City boxing trainer Bill Johnson said. “I was flipping the channels back and forth, watching both fights, and I was missing the days when I would be working fights like that here (in Atlantic City). It’s been a while since we’ve had fights here. Too long.”
The last professional boxing card in town was on Nov. 8, 2014, when more than 8,000 showed up at Boardwalk Hall to see Kovalev defeat Hopkins in a light-heavyweight unification fight.
It was one of the most prestigious fights in Atlantic City in several years, and local and state boxing officials hoped it would serve as a springboard to a boxing resurgence in a town that hosted just seven cards in 2014.
Instead, someone let all the water out of the pool.
Promoters Marshall Kauffman of Reading, Pennsylvania, and Diane Fischer-Cristiano of Vineland are combining to hold a mid-level card at the Claridge on Friday. It will be the latest debut for pro boxing in Atlantic City in a year since 1978, when the first fight was held on June 15.
“I’m just trying to do my part to help bring boxing back,” Fischer-Cristiano said. “(Kauffman) is hoping to put on one show a month, if we can find a venue willing to help us. It just breaks my heart to see what has happened in Atlantic City.”
Duva feels the same way.
As recently as last November, she was excited about the prospect of making Atlantic City Kovalev’s home base like she did with the late Arturo Gatti.
Kovalev’s victory over Hopkins marked his third straight appearance in town last year. After beating Jean Pascal in Pascal’s native Canada earlier this year, she was planning on bringing Kovalev back to Boardwalk Hall on July 18 against Nadjib Mohammedi. But Atlantic City expressed little interest, and she moved it to Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
“I was trying everything I could think of, but I just kept running into another road block,” Duva said. “I can somewhat understand their attitude because all their rooms are filled in the summer, anyway, but I still was hoping to get a little bit of cooperation. Meanwhile, Las Vegas was just so excited to have it. Summer is their off season, so they have plenty of rooms available.”
Hazzard keeps plugging in hopes of eventually ending the slump.
Last November, he attended a meeting at Boardwalk Hall that also included Condon, Duva, Top Rank Vice President Carl Moretti, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, Boardwalk Hall General Manager Fran Rodowicz and other officials.
That group, plus the Atlantic City Alliance, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, played a big role in bringing Kovalev vs. Hopkins to town.
Hazzard is hoping to get those entities together again.
“We talked with Jay Z’s company (Roc Nation) to bring a show here (to Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom) in April, but it didn’t happen,” Rodowicz said. “We have a few dates on hold at the request of some promoters, but nothing has been finalized. We certainly think boxing has a place in Atlantic City. We’re willing to consider any opportunity, whether it be boxing or mixed martial arts.”
Meanwhile, Hazzard continues to contact several promoters to try and get them to come back to the city. Boxing may never return to the glory days when there were three cards a week, but he’s hoping it can host more than three a year.
“Atlantic City used to be identified with boxing and I think it can reach that level again,” Hazzard said. “That’s also true for Boardwalk Hall. There is nothing like a big-time fight at Boardwalk Hall. Anyone who was at the Kovalev-Hopkins fight in November would agree with me.
Hopefully, the casinos will come to realize that and bring some big fights back to Atlantic City.”