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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Sergey Kovalev crumpled to the canvas, a crowd of 5,000-plus roared and suddenly Atlantic City felt like a fight town again. A casino buzzing with activity, tickets gobbled up, a recognizable world champion in the ring. Once, these days were familiar. Now, city and state officials, boxing promoters, everyone hopes it can be again.
The demise of Atlantic City as a destination for big fights — when Main Events, the New Jersey-based promotional company, brought Kovalev to the recently opened Hard Rock Hotel & Casino earlier this month, it was the first major boxing show in nearly four years — coincided with the crippling of the local economy. Skyrocketing taxes coupled with dwindling casino revenue impacted by the openings of casinos in New York and Pennsylvania imperiled Atlantic City’s casino business. Between 2013 and 2016, five of the area’s 12 casinos were shuttered.
Revel, a 57-story, $2.2 billion casino opened in 2012. It went through two bankruptcies in the first two years, and closed in 2014.
“When that happened, it forced casinos to take a hard look at how marketing money was spent,” Ken Condon, a consultant for Caesar’s and the former president of Bally’s told Yahoo Sports. “These were very tough times. For boxing, it was a rude awakening.”
Indeed, for casinos, boxing is a marketing tool. Big fights draw big crowds which will (presumably) lead to big action on the casino floor. Casinos regularly put up big site fees and offer a percentage of the gate to draw promoters there. Condon targeted HBO and Showtime fights, in part because of the exposure the broadcast would give the casino, in part because he believed the networks were likely to deliver quality fights.
ESPN’s recent commitment to boxing has offered new opportunity. In 2017, the network inked a deal a four-year deal with Top Rank to be the boxing provider for ESPN and the recently launched ESPN+. A year later, ESPN tore up the deal—and signed Top Rank to a new seven-year agreement that calls for 54-live boxing events annually.
Atlantic City wants a piece of that action. Last January, developer Bruce Deifik bought Revel for $200 million, then he shuttered it, remodeled it and re-opened it as Ocean Resorts and Casino in June. A longtime friend of Deifik: Bob Arum, Top Rank’s CEO.
“When I bought this property my thought process was that I bring professional sports back to Atlantic City in a very big way,” Deifik told Yahoo Sports. “I believe Atlantic City is the home of boxing in the United States. I’m a 30-year Las Vegas guy. I’m very respectful of the great fights they have had. But Atlantic City is the root of that. I want to have major championship boxing here.”
Arum is all for it. On Saturday, Arum will promote an ESPN-televised show headlined by a crossroads matchup between a pair of former heavyweight title challengers, Bryant Jennings and Alexander Dimitrenko. On Thursday, a news conference for it evolved into an Arum appreciation. A representative from the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame presented Arum with a plaque commemorating his years of promoting fights in A.C. and Atlantic City mayor Frank Gilliam presented Arum with a key to the city. Arum told the story of the time he promoted three cards in two days in A.C.—on three different networks.
“We did two fights on Saturday,” Arum said. “We did one, on CBS, I walked down the boardwalk a few hours later, did another on ABC.”
“It’s good to be back. Boxing is having a rebirth in Atlantic City.”
If boxing can become a sustainable presence in A.C. is an open question. Deifik has told Top Rank he wants to promote 4-6 shows a year at Ocean. Hard Rock hired Bernie Dillon, a longtime Atlantic City-based boxing executive, as its vice president of entertainment. Still, they face competition. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun put on boxing shows, and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn offers promoters an appealing New York alternative. And in the aftermath of the casino collapse, Atlantic City’s economy —based heavily on tourism — is still rebuilding.
But for the first time in years, there is hope. On Thursday, Larry Hazzard, the commissioner of New Jersey’s Athletic Control Board, reminded a dais crammed with fighters that it was once said that when you fought in Atlantic City, you knew you made it. To his right, Shakur Stevenson smiled. A Newark native, Stevenson, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist, remembers driving down to Atlantic City to watch Bernard Hopkins fights. He remembers the atmosphere on the boardwalk and the crowds that came to support a Hopkins fight.
He hopes Atlantic City can become his new home.
Atlantic City does, too.