Commentary

City by the shore still capturing fight fans' imaginations

As "Friday Night Fights" hits the Boardwalk this week, Don Stradley takes a look at the rise and fall -- and rise again -- of Atlantic City.

Originally Published: May 7, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Arturo GattiAl Bello/Getty ImagesFor years, Arturo Gatti was the face of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
As ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" sets up shop in Atlantic City, N.J., this week, it's tempting to reminisce about the glory days when Pacific Avenue was a puncher's paradise.

Is it possible that 20 years have already passed since Mike Tyson and Donald Trump made it seem, albeit briefly, that Atlantic City was the country's new fight capital? David Anderson of The New York Times wrote at the time, "If boxing had a coat of arms, it would be a half-smoked cigar twisted into a casino ashtray. For a quarter of a century, all those big cigars were lighted in Las Vegas casinos, but now they're being puffed in this Baghdad by the Boardwalk."

[+] EnlargeMike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks
Getty ImagesMike Tyson once ruled the Boardwalk with an iron fist.
Atlantic City's turn as a boxing mecca reached a climax in June 1988, when Tyson steamrolled Michael Spinks at Convention Hall for the heavyweight championship. The fight was a genuine mainstream event, with a tidal wave of high rollers and celebrity gawkers crowding into the city like acolytes. The most-anticipated boxing event since the days of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier turned out to be a bust -- Spinks fainted dead away at 91 seconds -- but Atlantic City was already very familiar with the unpredictable nature of the sweet science.

Long before Tyson and Trump got involved, Atlantic City was a fight town with a tradition dating back to Aug. 15, 1893. That's when Dominick McCaffrey, a boxing pioneer who had been in the ring with John L. Sullivan and Jim Corbett, came up from Pennsylvania -- train service from Philadelphia was one of A.C.'s early selling points -- and easily defeated a local amateur star named John F. McCormick.

Other big names trickled into the city after McCaffrey's appearance, including Mysterious Billy Smith, Kid McCoy and Harry Wills. In an era when fighters fought an average of 15 times per year, Atlantic City was the perfect place to pick up some quick money, enjoy the ocean view and be off to your next bout.

And so it went, with one or two insignificant fights every few years until after World War I, when boxing surged in popularity in America. From that point on, Atlantic City became a regular fight destination. Some of the game's real geniuses displayed their goods there, from welterweight star Jack Britton to Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom.

It was a tune-up town, a place for fighters to get some rounds in without the probing eyes of the New York press upon them. In those days, Atlantic City was a slightly offbeat summer spot where you could watch horses diving off Steel Pier or could spend 25 cents to see an exhibit of incubator babies. There were human cannonballs, band concerts and the world's largest typewriter. The annual Miss America pageant began in 1921, and if pretty girls in swimsuits didn't do it for you, there was usually a fight card somewhere. You might even catch Tony Galento boxing a kangaroo.

[+] EnlargeAtlantic City 1921
AP PhotoCraving something other than a fight? The Atlantic City of the 1920s offered a little bit of everything for everybody.
The city's biggest boxing shows were held at the exotically named Waltz Dream Arena. In 1941, when Sugar Ray Robinson was just a skinny lightweight, he scored his 15th win there, a one-round knockout of Charlie Burns. Bob Montgomery was another favorite at the Waltz Dream Arena, fighting there 15 times during the lean years of the Depression. He never lost.

As America prospered after World War II, Atlantic City went into decline. With more people owning automobiles, it was easy to blow past A.C. and head for sunny Miami. Why bother with the humidity of the Jersey shore? Tourists stayed away, and so did fighters.

The fading resort town had one last gasp in 1963 when Joey Giardello faced middleweight champion Dick Tiger at Convention Hall. That fight would have taken place in Madison Square Garden, but Giardello had been banned in New York because of his association with "unsavory" types. But not even New Jersey boy Giardello could help Atlantic City. He won the title, but the fight was a financial flop.

The city parted ways with boxing for a decade.

Out of the dusty limbo emerged a solution: In 1976, New Jersey voters approved casino gambling for Atlantic City. Promoter Frank Gelb, who had been bringing small fights to A.C. since 1973, spearheaded the obvious pairing of boxing and casinos. To call what happened next a "boom" is an understatement. It was more like a supernova.

Conveniently coinciding with Atlantic City's casino expansion was the 1980s boxing renaissance. Matthew Saad Muhammad, Michael Spinks, Frank "The Animal" Fletcher, Bobby Czyz, Gerry Cooney and many other marquee names enjoyed some of their finest moments in Atlantic City. Fledgling cable network ESPN began broadcasting twice a month from the Sands. Fighters from New York and Philly happily abandoned their dank arenas for the new glitter of the city by the sea. A 1982 Ring magazine article stated that Atlantic City "was boxing's Avis to Las Vegas' Hertz. And it was definitely trying harder."

Boxing fan Trump hired longtime boxing insider Mark Etess as vice president of Trump Plaza. "The day I was hired," Etess told the Times, "Donald asked me, 'Well, Mark, are you going to get me all the big fights now?' and I said, 'I'll get you anything you want. It's your money.'"

It was grand for a while. From 1982 to 1985, Atlantic City averaged an astounding 130 fight cards per year. Matchmakers who previously had worked at the mere club level were now working the big time; with money to burn, they seemed like geniuses.

Then, just as the elements fell nicely into place, things started coming apart. Tyson crashed and burned; Trump seemed to lose interest; competition from Connecticut casinos chipped away at Atlantic City crowds; boxing's popularity dipped, along with the economy; with more fighters coming from Mexico and California, A.C.'s East Coast talent pool became smaller.

[+] EnlargeAtlantic City skyline
Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty ImagesAtlantic City is in the process of recapturing its old luster.
Faster than you could say "Aces up," the city felt dead to boxing again. Sure, the glitz was still there, but as you strolled along the boardwalk at 2 a.m. with the salty breeze on your face, you couldn't imagine that Tyson had ever fought in this town.

There were other factors. Atlantic City casinos preferred to host fights on weeknights. Tyson-Spinks was on a Monday, the idea being that customers would linger at the betting tables all weekend and book three or four nights' worth of hotel rooms.

As Saturday became America's official fight night, casino operators were in a quandary. Who gets booked on a Saturday? HBO World Championship Boxing or Neil Diamond?

Another factor was that new casinos used boxing to attract attention; once their names were made, it became less important to host fights. Even in 1988, when Tyson was king, Atlantic City was cutting back on boxing. America's rapidly growing number of gamblers could find their way to A.C. without the allure of boxing, so why promote fights at all? The big fights went back to Las Vegas or to Madison Square Garden; the smaller fights went to Foxwoods.

In 2007, Atlantic City hosted a mere six boxing shows, the fewest in three decades. When longtime Atlantic City icon Arturo Gatti fell against Alfonso Gomez last year, it seemed as if the city itself was on its knees, bleeding from the mouth.

Still, Atlantic City's fight fans are not without hope.

[+] EnlargeKelly Pavlik
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenIs Kelly Pavlik the new face of the Boardwalk?
In April, the city hosted boxing on consecutive nights, something that hadn't been done in a while. In June, there are plans to do it again, culminating with Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik defending the middleweight championship at Boardwalk Hall on June 9. Ever since Pavlik knocked out Jermain Taylor in Atlantic City last year, there was talk that Pavlik could be the city's next big attraction.

"Without a doubt, Pavlik has the potential to be one of Atlantic City's biggest draws," Harrah's Entertainment boxing consultant Ken Condon recently told the Atlantic City Weekly. Condon, the former president of Bally's and current entertainment consultant for Harrah's, is optimistic about A.C.'s future and is hoping for three major fights per year. "I think the city can handle it."

It's a long way from 1982, but the sport and the city are both stabilizing.

Still, it's fitting that a fighter nicknamed "The Ghost" would be A.C.'s new star. Maybe it's the anguish in the air of a million or so losers at the slot machines, or the spirit of the long-gone Waltz Dream Arena, but Atlantic City often has felt like a city of ghosts.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.