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May 14, 2018

Can legalized gambling make Atlantic City a boxing hotbed again?

Boxing Gambling
051518_Boardwalk_Hall_Carroll Thom Carroll/Philly Voice

Big time boxing, after the recent Supreme Court ruling on sports gambling, may be a more familiar site at Boardwalk Hall and along the Atlantic City strip.

It was a decade ago, March of 2008, and Mike Tyson could still draw a crowd by showing up anywhere unexpectedly. He hadn’t fought in three years, though carried a very vested interest in the sport that made him famous.

This time, “Iron Mike” briefly popped into the lobby of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, in Las Vegas, Nevada, and he found himself a magnet. He was immediately engulfed by fans and well-wishers. 

“This reminds me of the old days,” said Tyson, as he walked as the eye of a tornado of people. “It reminds me of the time I fought [Michael] Spinks in Atlantic City.”

The late Butch Lewis, Spinks’ promoter, liked to tell the story of how fans milling around outside of the Boardwalk Hall arena were offering hundreds of dollars for ticket stubs to people coming out after the 91-second Tyson-Spinks fight. 

“They were willing to pay good money for stubs!” Lewis recalled. Fans wanted to go back to work on Monday and say, “See, I was there!”

“There” happened to be Atlantic City. Over 30 years ago, “AC” was a prime boxing destination. On Monday, the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down a federal law that prohibited sports gambling gave states the go-ahead to legalize sports betting across the country.

The court ruled 6-3 in voting down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 law that barred state-authorized sports gambling, making Nevada the only state where someone could wager on the results of a game or a team.

The ruling is expected to be a boon for New Jersey, and more specifically — Atlantic City. It could also help spur the sport of boxing, which at one time was king in AC and has since fallen on tough times.

Moves were already made in preparation of the Supreme Court’s milestone conclusion. In anticipation of the ruling, numerous Atlantic City casinos had the technology and space waiting for betting parlors. On August 4, at the Hard Rock Café, New Jersey-based promotion Main Events announced on Saturday that Sergey Kovalev will be defending his WBO light heavyweight title against Colombian Eleider Alvarez in a nationally televised fight on HBO.

It will mark the first major fight in AC since Kovalev fought Bernard Hopkins in November 2014.

Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum, head of Las Vegas-based Top Rank, revealed to PhillyVoice, that he, too, will be coming to Atlantic City. The venue is unknown, but the heavily Philly-centric show will feature Philadelphia heavyweight Bryant Jennings, and fellow Philly fighters Jesse Hart and rising young star Christian Carto.

In April, UFC came to Atlantic City for the first time since UFC Fight Night 45 on July 16, 2014, when the mixed martial arts organization hosted UFC Fight Night 128.

Could legalized gambling across the country be the boost AC needs to become a major boxing/combat sport destination again? By the swirl of activity already happening in the past months, it seems like it’s heading there.

“Atlantic City was in a competition with Las Vegas as the fight capital of the world, and was holding its own, and maybe in some cases winning, because Tyson was fighting regularly there under the Donald Trump aegis,” said Bernard Fernandez, esteemed former boxing writer for Philadelphia Daily News who has covered fights in Atlantic City for over 30 years and will be inducted into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday, June 3.

“There was a fallow period during that time for New York, because there wasn’t the Barclays Center and there weren’t casinos in Pennsylvania, Maryland or then New York City,” Fernandez continued. “It will never be what it was in the 1980s, but AC could be a destination for certain big fights. Personally, I think there was a period of 15 years where Atlantic City was better known for boxing than it was the Miss America Beauty pageant, or the Steel Pier, or salt water taffy on the boardwalk.

“Hopefully, with this [Supreme Court decision], it will be the beginning of another renaissance, not to the level that it was in the 1980s and into the ’90s. That’s not going to happen because of the economic realities coming from competition in casinos from neighboring states. Just that sometimes, people need to be reminded of what Atlantic City was to boxing, and what boxing was to Atlantic City. I think some of that magic can be restored.”

Bernie Dillon, vice president of entertainment at the Hard Rock Café, knows the power of AC—and what legalized betting can do.

“One thing that’s happened with gaming throughout many states now, it’s available, but one thing we can do differently in AC, other than Las Vegas, is we can present a destination resort, with our hotels, with our restaurants, with our live entertainment.” Dillon said. “Other than Las Vegas, you don’t really get to see that in other areas.

“Boxing will be good for us, and the Hard Rock will be good for boxing. The properties in Atlantic City, and not just our property, are doing better. I see a new confidence in the city, and I feel the Hard Rock is a big part of that.”

RELATED: Legalized sports betting is the jolt Atlantic City needs to save itself

Kathy Duva, the president of Main Events, has seen a lifetime’s share of major fights in Atlantic City. Duva has a place in South Jersey, which was destroyed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. The renovation not only down her street, but throughout the city is a 180-degree turn.

Duva sees the Supreme Court ruling as a carry-over, which first and foremost helps AC, which in turn helps Main Events and other boxing promoters that want to bring back big-time fights, which could attract more patrons.

“Everyone wins, it’s huge,” Duva said. “It brings the city all the way back. I see legalized betting as the future. It was depressing, for a time there, with the bus people playing the slots. The Hard Rock coming is one of many casinos that will be coming to Atlantic City.

“The Hard Rock is one of the first modern casinos here. You know that they’re going to do it perfectly. This is like a homecoming for me. Many of the people who were there in the 1980s are still there, in some capacity. I have a vested interest, but the elements are in place for Atlantic City to be poised for a resurgence in boxing.”

According to Bernard Fernandez’s story on Atlantic City boxing on Dec. 15, 2009, in the Daily News, casino gambling was approved in Atlantic City by New Jersey voters in 1976. The Resorts International, the first casino hotel, opened on May 26, 1978.

In 1985 there were 145 boxing cards during that year. From 1982-to-85, Atlantic City held an average of 130 fight cards a year. By 2006, that number sank to a puny 6 boxing cards. Last year, there were 14 shows in Atlantic City and this year there have been 7 so far. Expect that number to grow.

The city, after all, once hosted greats like Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and Arturo Gatti.

Arum was happy to hear the Supreme Court ruling. He helped grow Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City.

“The fact that Atlantic City casinos will be able to take ‘action’ on all kinds of sports, not just horseracing, will be an attraction for people,” Arum said. “It will enhance business in Atlantic City, and that makes it a great destination for boxing.

“We’re already tentatively scheduled to have a fight there on August 18 in Atlantic City, and I know Kathy and Main Events will be there a few weeks before us, on August 4. You’ll again see Atlantic City taking a roll as a popular venue for boxing.

“I think Atlantic City needed this tremendously. Racing sports book aren’t big profit centers. Getting sports gambling is a big, big attraction. The fact that Atlantic City didn’t have sports gaming probably cost them billions of dollars through the years.”

It looks like AC has a chance to lure some big-time boxing names and some huge crowds because of it.

“I know for myself, I kind of miss covering major fights in Atlantic City,” said Fernandez, who now covers boxing for The Sweet Science ( “Vegas is a great place to be, but you have to get on a plane to get there. AC was like home, because it’s located in a central location and I’ve been waiting for the door to crack open again.”

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