A Return To Hazzard-ous Duty in Atlantic City

They say that what goes around, comes around. Sometimes it does, but very often it doesn’t. In the case of Larry Hazzard Sr., the once and now future head of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, his roundabout journey from summarily dismissed leader of one of America’s most influential boxing commissions to his former executive position was a circuitous journey that took nearly seven years.

Although there is some paperwork that must be completed before his re-appointment becomes official, the 69-year-old Hazzard – a 2010 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – is expected to be sworn in on Sept. 22, and he will be at ringside in his once-customary seat for the Nov. 8 light heavyweight unification matchup of IBF/WBA champion Bernard Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) and WBO titlist Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. It will be a homecoming that is enthusiastically endorsed by Hopkins, who was among Hazzard’s staunchest defenders after the high-profile, hands-on commissioner got the boot from New Jersey’s then-attorney general, Anne Milgram, on Nov. 14, 2007. After attending the funeral of his 41-year-old nephew, Hazzard returned to his office in the state capital of Trenton where he was unexpectedly informed that his “services were no longer required.” He was obliged to hurriedly gather his personal effects and was escorted from the building by security personnel.

In an open letter Hopkins sent to various New Jersey governmental agencies and media outlets throughout the state, Hopkins wrote that he was “shocked and appalled” by the firing of Hazzard for no apparent cause and without due process. “We were doing just fine with Larry Hazzard as a leader in our sport,” B-Hop continued.

Jimmy Binns, the former executive counsel for the WBA and a onetime commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, served as Hazzard’s attorney in his subsequent lawsuit against Milgram, in which he sought reinstatement of his $115,000-a-year job, back pay and punitive damages for being exposed to “public disgrace.”

Although Hazzard declined comment on his return to the position he had held for nearly 22 years until he is sworn in by Gov. Chris Christie, Binns joined Hopkins in offering the opinion that a significant wrong has finally be righted.

“The whole thing was a disgrace,” Binns said not only of Hazzard’s dismissal, but the manner in which it was carried out. “It was bad when that little girl (an obvious reference to Milgram) did it. She didn’t know anything about boxing, that was clear, but I guess she felt she had to exercise her political muscle.”

And now?

“Karma is a strange thing,” noted Binns, who added that he found out about Hazzard’s impending re-appointment during a Wednesday night dinner with Hopkins. “I texted Larry and told him I was so elated for him. He texted me back and he said that Gov. Christie had offered him his old job and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Hazzard replaces Aaron M. Davis, who will be reassigned to an undisclosed advisory role within New Jersey’s Department of Law and Public Safety, of which the Athletic Control Board is a division.

At a press conference last week to hype the upcoming Hopkins-Kovalev bout, Davis welcomed Hazzard’s return as “a good thing for boxing in New Jersey. We did some real good things during my tenure and Larry is coming back to continue that strong tradition. Larry has a lot of experience in both boxing and (mixed martial arts), and I’m glad he’s coming back. It’s good for New Jersey, and it’s good for boxing.”

It will be a very different environment that Hazzard will be returning to in his home state. In 1985, the year he was sworn in by then-Gov. Tom Kean, Atlantic City hosted an astounding 145 fight cards. Atlantic City billed itself as “the world capital of boxing” then, which might have been an overstatement, but the seashore resort town was duking it out with Las Vegas for the biggest fight cards in those heady days.

“It became very competitive between us and Vegas, maybe even a little contentious,” Hazzard recalled in June 2013. “But we had the edge because we had Tyson.”

Mike Tyson, in those days the biggest draw in the sport, fought 13 times in all in Atlantic City, including five title defenses after he won the heavyweight championship for the first of his two reigns. The most electric night ever for Atlantic City boxing, maybe the most electric night there ever for any reason, was June 27, 1988, when Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in the first round of one of the most widely anticipated boxing matches of all time.

But a precipitous economic downturn in Atlantic City, spurred in large part by increased competition from casinos in neighboring states, has had a crippling effect on the local boxing scene. From the high-water mark of 145 fight cards in 1985, things bottomed out with just five shows in 2009. The situation has improved somewhat, but the recent shuttering of four of AC’s 12 casinos – and the likelihood that still another, the bankrupt Trump Taj Majal, could soon follow suit – has resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and a bleak landscape going forward.

It is into this figurative winter of discontent that Hazzard makes his re-entry, and his task now is not to maintain or build upon the solid foundation that took years to put into place, but to start over, almost from scratch. It would be a daunting task for almost anyone, but Hazzard – an instantly recognizable figure in his colorfully tailored suits – looks forward to rolling up his sleeves and making boxing in AC as relevant as possible.

He certainly hasn’t been afraid to ruffle feathers, if he deems confrontation to be the proper course of action. When in August 2004 then-Gov. James J. McGreevey blocked Tyson, who had served time on a rape conviction, from fighting in New Jersey’s larger arenas, including Boardwalk Hall, Hazzard made no secret of his displeasure since he had personally approved Tyson’s application for re-licensure on the grounds he had paid his debt to society.

“There’s something about Mike Tyson that certain politicians in New Jersey find distasteful, and it is expedient for them to single him out,” Hazzard complained. “But you cannot have one standard for Mike Tyson and another for everyone else. I was insulted when the governor did what he did. I felt it was terribly unfair to Mike Tyson, and to me. I am the licensing agent for boxers in New Jersey and have been since 1985. My actions in the performance of my duties had never been questioned by any of the four previous governors to serve since my appointment.”

The relatively free hand that Hazzard, a former referee, previously had in exercising his authority was restricted even further when he took on another New Jersey governor, Jon Corzine, in the 2007 showdown that resulted in his dismissal. He sent a letter to Corzine outlining his concerns that his staff had been gutted of experienced personnel, creating a situation that was putting boxers at risk. One of the holdovers to whom Hazzard objected was Sylvester Cuyler, a deputy commissioner of the NJSACB. Corzine turned the matter over to Milgram, who, according to the post-firing lawsuit filed on Hazzard’s behalf by Binns, informed Hazzard “not to document the malfeasance and misfeasance” by other NJSACB members even though it “jeopardized the welfare of contestants.”

Flashpoint was certain to be reached at some point, and Milgram’s position in state government carried more heft. And so Hazzard was gone, left to fill his time at various junctures as head of officials for the IBF, principal of a charter school in Newark, a special boxing adviser in China, an unofficial ringside scorer for NBC’s “Fight Night” series and as overseer of COMBATT, a non-profit organization that provides counseling, academic and athletic support, including boxing training, for at-risk youth.

But the NJSACB always felt like home to Hazzard and so it shall be again, even if his old adversary, Cuyler, still is around. His close associates believe that Hazzard, although he hasn’t exactly mellowed, has learned to pick his spots to raise a ruckus on issues on which he believes himself to be in the right. It won’t always be a smooth ride, but maybe a pot-stirring firebrand is what boxing in the Garden State needs again.

Should be interesting.

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COMMENTS

-The Commish :

Commissioner Hazzard is scheduled to be a guest on my SiriusXM show today. We won't be taking phone calls during his segment, as we know ommissioner Hazzard has a lot to say and we have a lot to ask. SiriusXM's "Monday Night at the Fights" is on SiriusXM Channel 92 and can be heard from 6-8pm (ET). As he been doing for the past seveal weeks, TSS's The Shadow will be in-studio, along with me and my co-host, former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney. -Randy G.