ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Fact: Between 1984 and ’88, this seashore resort town was the site of 451 boxing cards at its various casino properties, more than a few of which were nationally and even internationally televised, and headlined by some of the sport’s most celebrated and prestigious stars.
Fact: In 2016, Atlantic City staged just six boxing cards, of which none of the main events could be described as a major fight. Thus far in 2017, that limited involvement is holding steady with four low- to mid-level cards already staged and just two more scheduled throughout the remainder of the year. The most recent big-time card to have taken place in Boardwalk Hall was the light heavyweight unification bout in which Sergey Kovalev scored a unanimous decision over Bernard Hopkins on Nov. 8, 2014. The one before was the finale of the Super Six World Boxing Classic on Dec. 17, 2011, in which Andre Ward unified the super middleweight title with a unanimous decision over Carl Froch.
All available data seemingly suggests that the inaugural induction ceremony of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, which was held here Sunday evening at the Claridge Hotel, was like the establishment of a museum in which living and deceased crafters of a once-glorious past can be admired for their part in an important historical period that deserves respectful commemoration but is forever gone. Certainly, the timing of the event – the capper of three days of festivities coming the night before Memorial Day – was much more indicative of what went before than what might yet be; nine of the 24 honorees were posthumous selections, and 15 of the 16 newly minted living Hall of Famers are at least 60 years of age (Mike Tyson, who was a no-show, is the youngster at 50), with promoter extraordinaire Don King, 85, closing the show as the final speaker. Dino Duva, who accepted for posthumous honoree Lou Duva, who died on March 8 of this year, noted that the ceremony was being held on what would have been his father’s 95th birthday.
But, like posthumous inductees and former world champions Matthew Saad Muhammad and Arturo Gatti, who made an art form of the late, improbable comeback, the prevailing theme of the ACBHOF’s first induction class – a sellout and enthusiastic crowd of over 500 attended — was one of hope for a future that somehow might replicate at least some of the wonderful stuff that made Atlantic City’s boxing heyday so special.
The brainchild of Ray McCline, a lifelong fight fan, the notion of an Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame began to take shape nearly two years ago. As time went by, the notion gained momentum on its way to becoming reality, with tangible assistance provided by such contributors as vice presidents Rodrick Green and Roy Foreman, media facilitators Angela Crockett and Marc Abrams, and sponsors who were willing to provide financial support instead of mere lip service. If Sunday’s impressive event is any indication, the ACBHOF will have more staying power than did a similarly ambitious venture known as the Atlantic City Boxing Gala, which was first held in 2012 but discontinued after two years.
“The Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame is going to be a part of the city’s (boxing) rebirth,” McCline, 51, said Friday night at a cocktail party to kick off the three-day celebration period. “There has been so much energy that has been behind this to make it happen. No one thought this would take place. The naysayers said Don King won’t come, Mike Tyson won’t come (oh, well), Michael Spinks won’t come. But everyone’s here. That speaks volumes about the power of Atlantic City, what Atlantic City meant to boxing, and what it will be again as we go forth.
“Atlantic City is known for boxing. For many years this place was a premier boxing destination. We want to make it so again, and the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame is going to be a part of that.”
Can the occasional big fight again find its way back to Boardwalk Hall? Can boxing again furnish the electricity that so energized this town on a regular basis from the 1980s until the first decade of the 2000s? It won’t be easy, but, hey, ring magic was made here before, and maybe it can be again on a less grandiose scale.
“(The 1980s especially were a) magical time because of a set of factors that you can only dream of,” said inductee Dave Bontempo, the former boxing reporter for The Press of Atlantic City who for the past 32 years has made his mark talking about fights as a color analyst for TV instead of writing about it. “Atlantic City was making its mark alongside Las Vegas and competing with Las Vegas in the casino business, and using boxing as the catalyst to do it.
“We had this perpetual realm of magic. Atlantic City was a cavalcade of power brokers – boxers, promoters, managers, network officials, all coming in here to make their mark and make their statement. This was a marketplace of deals and dreams.”
But Donald Trump, Atlantic City’s largest investor in the sport and the man who brought Tyson to town for five high-interest heavyweight bouts, including his seminal showdown with Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988, cut back and then cut off his financial involvement, leaving other casino magnates to take up the considerable slack, which proved easier said than done. Further erosion of the once-booming Atlantic City fight scene came with the opening of casinos in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Maryland, siphoning large chunks of the feeder markets of gamblers who once converged on A.C., especially those fond of boxing, like seagulls swooping down on a child’s dropped french fries on the boardwalk. Five of the city’s 12 casinos have closed in recent years, although there are indications that Hard Rock International, a company that has been had substantial involvement in boxing at its properties in Florida and Las Vegas, is in the process of taking over the former Trump Taj Mahal, which shuttered after Labor Day 2016.
“It’s a different ballgame now,” acknowledged inductee Ken Condon, the former president of Bally’s who is mostly retired but still serves as a periodic consultant to Caesars Entertainment. “The remaining casinos here have gone through a lot of restructuring to reflect the new reality of the marketplace. But sooner or later, I believe things will start to jell a little bit. It will take several casinos banding together to put up some serious guarantee money back into boxing. I’m hopeful that will happen. Hard Rock is coming back into town, and I know that’s an entity that is very much pro-boxing.
“I always try to be positive and look to the future. I’d hate to see this (the ACBHOF) just be a bunch of old boxing guys getting together to reminisce. All of us are boxing fans and we want to see boxing thrive here again. It’s just going to take some time to build that up.”
Even if Atlantic City’s fight future doesn’t evolve much beyond “a bunch of old boxing guys getting together to reminisce,” there are worse ways for diehards to spend a few pleasant days recalling the way they were. Even the relatively short sound bites on Sunday night – Don King spoke for 3 minutes and 34 seconds, which has to be some sort of personal record for brevity – rolled back the years to an era when even the most ambitious plan seemed doable, and often resulted in fruition.
“Roy (Foreman) is like a son,” King, his trademark fright-wig hairstyle noticeably reduced in height, said during his appearance at the podium. “You know, his big brother George was the one who gave me an opportunity to put the `Rumble in the Jungle’ on in Zaire, with Muhammad Ali. With Muhammad Ali, I started at the top and I just never left, you know what I mean.”
Bada bing. DK might be a lion in deep winter, but he still can crack up an audience with a one-liner or a perhaps-intentional malaprop.
Dino Duva’s remarks were more reserved and serious, but they still struck a chord. “My father taught our family one thing: remember where you came from. Remember your roots,” he said. “Atlantic City and New Jersey is our roots. We grew up here. We grew as a family and as an organization here. Atlantic City in its heyday was as important to boxing as anywhere in the world. I hope that the casinos, the promoters, everyone can find a way to build Atlantic City boxing back up to where it was.”
Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame inductees
Matthew Saad Muhammad*
Dwight Muhammad Qawi
TRAINERS AND CUTMEN
Mike Hall Sr.*
PROMOTERS, MANAGERS, ADVISERS, MATCHMAKERS, RING ANNOUNCERS
J Russell Peltz
OFFICIALS (COMMISSIONERS, JUDGES, DOCTORS AND REFEREES)
Larry Hazzard Sr.
Dr. Frank B. Doggett*
MEDIA (WRITERS, HISTORIANS, PHOTOGRAPHERS, ARTISTS, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY)
SPECIAL CONTRIBUTORS (EXECUTIVES, TV NETWORKS, GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, BOXING ORGANIZATTIONS)
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