ATLANTIC CITY BOXING HALL OF FAME — The Roman Empire isn’t going to rise again, a fact of life that apparently extends to boxing at Caesars Entertainment properties in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and, sadly, for East Coast aficionados of the pugilistic arts, Atlantic City. But notable periods in history can and should be commemorated, and especially if past can hint at prologue.
The Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, which only recently became something more substantial than a notion, welcomes 24 inductees into its inaugural class from May 26 to 28 of next year at The Claridge, where the labored heart of a sport once so identified with the South Jersey seashore resort town refuses to stop pumping.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable weekend,” promises Ray McCline, 51, president and founder of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, whose list of scheduled festivities includes a red carpet meet-and-greet, invitation-only rooftop cocktail reception and Ultimate Fight Fan Experience, an interactive boxing and entertainment smorgasbord with exhibits, merchandise and memorabilia, and autograph sessions open to the general public.
With such legends of the ring as Mike Tyson, Michael Spinks, Larry Holmes, Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Mike Rossman among the living inductees expected to be on hand, as well as representatives of posthumous honorees Arturo Gatti, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Leavander Johnson, the ACBHOF’s first nod toward the city’s glorious boxing past should produce a sizable, enthusiastic turnout of fans who remember the good – no, great – old days. Whether or not that translates into some much-needed momentum moving forward remains to be seen, but McCline and other like-minded crusaders (executive vice president Roy Foreman, vice president and business development head Rodrick Green and general counsel Steve Smoger) are brimming with optimism.
“I like to say Atlantic City is recalibrating,” McCline continues. “It’s getting its footing back. Without question, we want to reflect on some of the glory days of Atlantic City boxing, but also to talk about its future. Boxing played a pivotal role in Atlantic City’s best period, and I think it can play a pivotal role again. I don’t think we can recapture the magic of the ’80s and ’90s, but we can bring a certain number of big fights back.”
If McCline and his inner circle are successful in that respect, it would be something akin to what the late, beloved likes of Gatti and Saad Muhammad so frequently pulled off when they were headlining sold-out shows in Boardwalk Hall (pictured) and other A.C. venues. The never-say-die Gatti and Saad made an art form of the late and improbable comeback, rallying from seemingly insurmountable deficits on the scorecards to register spectacular knockouts.
The zenith of Atlantic City boxing was reached the night of June 27, 1988, when Tyson flattened Spinks just 91 seconds into the first round of what arguably was the most significant global heavyweight bout since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met for the first time on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden.
“It was the biggest event in the world at that time – not just in the country or in boxing,” Butch Lewis, Spinks’ manager who was 65 when he died on July 23, 2011, said some years ago in recalling that tumultuous scene. “I’m talking the whole bleepin’ world! If there was a Superdome in Atlantic City, we could have filled that sucker up twice over. (Attendance was a Boardwalk Hall record 21,785, which never will be broken given the building’s current configured capacity of 14,770.)
“The demand for tickets was just crazy. Ringside seats had a face value of $1,500 and they were being scalped for more, a lot more, and that’s only if the people lucky enough to have ’em were willing to sell, which they weren’t.”
But, by and by, Donald Trump – he’s sort of been in the news of late – reduced and then pulled his large financial stake in boxing from his Atlantic City casino properties, and the town that once had been audacious enough to publicly proclaim itself “the boxing capital of the world” began to fall far behind in its competition with Vegas for that unofficial but coveted designation.
During its boxing heyday, ushered in when casino gambling was approved by New Jersey voters in 1976 and the first casino, Resorts International, opened to great fanfare on May 26, 1978, Atlantic City averaged 130 fight cards a year from 1982 to 1985, with a high of 145 in ’85.
It was probably unsustainable growth, and like the stock market crash of 1929 that triggered the Great Depression or the housing market collapse of 2008, lean times arrived, at first as what was viewed as a temporary dry spell, but eventually an extended drought. Unlike the banking industry, boxing down the shore was not too big to fail. In 2009 the number of fight cards staged in Atlantic City had shriveled to five, and that skimpy figure has largely remained in single digits since. The last truly significant boxing event in Boardwalk Hall — which was built in 1929 and underwent a three-year, $90 million renovation in December 1998 in no small part with boxing in mind – was the Nov. 8, 2014, pairing of Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev. The last before that was the finale of the Super Six World Boxing Classic, in which Andre Ward scored a unanimous decision over Carl Froch on Dec. 17, 2011.
“The Jersey shore will never be quite the same due to the fact we are completely surrounded by gambling on all sides,” Joe Lupo, the vice president of operations for the Borgata who only last month accepted an executive position with the Hard Rock Casino Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., said in 2009 to explain Atlantic City’s loss of casino exclusivity on the East Coast, an erosion that also took down big-time boxing as collateral damage.
But, in a manner of speaking, A.C. diehards are not disposed to quit on their stool. In 2012, former prosecutor Jonathan Diego was the driving force behind the first Atlantic City Boxing Gala, an optional black-tie event which brought together a host of former champions, referees and judges in the same room at Resorts. Diego was determined that the shindig would become a regular staple of the local calendar, but it was discontinued after two years.
Now along comes McCline, who believes he and his associates have a plan that ensures long-term viability, and not just as a salute to what was but as a beacon of hope to what might yet be, if the principals have the requisite Gatti- and Saad-level toughness to stay the course.
“We’ve done some shows at The Claridge over the last year and a half,” points out McCline, whose introduction to boxing came from his friendship with former middleweight contender Kevin “Killer” Watts and his late trainer, Mike Hall Sr., both of whom he met when Watts was a high school wrestler at the Pleasantville Recreation Center. “It’s only about 700 seats, but still. And there are still a few shows that we believe can be brought to Boardwalk Hall. It’s not apt to be like it used to be, but we definitely want to be part of the renaissance. We’re getting a good response from the city and other stakeholders. I think they’re seeing boxing more as a component to Atlantic City’s revitalization.”
It could be a hard, uphill fight, given the fact that five of the city’s 12 casino hotels – the Atlantic City Club, The Showboat, Revel, Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal – have shut down since 2014, and competition for fewer disposable-income dollars in a tight economy could get even fiercer should New Jersey voters approve new casino construction in North Jersey. Such a proposal failed to pass this year, but it can be revisited two years hence.
“It’d be a problem, without question,” McCline admits of that and other threats to siphon off still more of Atlantic City’s market share. “Obviously, the number of casinos in the city has been reduced, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There was an oversaturation. I think the remaining casinos can’t help but benefit.
“I think some people forgot that there’s still an ocean here, and reasons to come to Atlantic City outside of just the casinos. They’re reintroducing themselves to our summer beach concerts, which are very well-attended, our outdoor eateries and our shopping outlets.”
David Weinberg covers boxing and the Philadelphia Eagles for The Press of Atlantic City. In more equitable times, his division of duties was close to 50-50; he now says 90 percent of his time is devoted to the NFL team, maybe 10 percent to one-on-one combat involving guys stripped down to their shorts and wearing padded gloves on their hands. He hopes that promises of brighter tomorrows for the fight game are more than just hopeful chatter.
“Caesars sponsored Kovalev-Hopkins, but the other casino entities chipped in and bought tickets,” he notes. “Other organizations within the city got together to help bring that fight here, but there hasn’t been anything resembling that coalition put together since then and that’s what it’s going to take to get more fights in the big room at Boardwalk Hall.
“I know that Kathy Duva (CEO of New Jersey-based Main Events, which promotes Kovalev) really wanted to bring the Kovalev-Ward fight to Atlantic City, but Ken Condon wasn’t able to put anything together like he did for Hopkins-Kovalev. Everybody else said, `No, thank you,’ which really ticked her off.
“Now I hear talk that the rematch might be coming to Atlantic City, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. A lot of things would have to come together and that’s always an iffy proposition. Before he left for Florida, Lupo told me that boxing doesn’t appeal to the Borgata’s customer base as much as MMA (mixed martial arts). Why they can’t do both, I’ve never been able to understand.”
Until the future – sunny or hazy, as the case might be – comes more into focus, disenfranchised boxing buffs at least have the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame’s inaugural splash to look forward to. Maybe it is, and always shall be, more about what’s in the rear-view mirror than the road straight ahead, but it can be argued that having been part of something wonderful once is better than never having been part of anything particularly special. The eight fighters to be inducted combined to participate in 131 bouts in the city (with highs of 24 apiece by Gatti, Saad Muhammad and Qawi) and 32 world championship matches. The number of thrills generated in those scraps? Too numerous to count.
Inductees in other categories (those deceased identified with an asterisk) include Lou Duva, *Mike Hall Sr. and Bill Johnson (trainers and cut men); Larry Hazzard Sr., Steve Smoger and *Dr. Frank Doggett (non-participants – promoters, managers, advisers, matchmakers, ring physicians and ring announcers); *Bert Sugar, Dave Bontempo and *Jack Obermayer (media – writers, historians, photographers, artists and digital technology); Ken Condon, Bob Lee and *Dennis Gomes (special contributors – executives, TV networks, government officials and boxing organizations).
Event and hotel package information will be available on the ACBHOF web site (acbhof.com) in January. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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