ATLANTIC CITY - Butch Lewis was telling a story about the late, great comedian Richard Pryor, a story he found so amusing, you would have thought Pryor himself was relating it onstage to a howling-with-laughter audience.
Pryor wanted a ticket to the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks megabout here in 1988, when boxing was booming in this boardwalk town. Atlantic City enjoyed a stunning golden age of boxing in the 1980s, an era that hasn't been seen since and likely never will be seen again. "It was the biggest event in the world at that time - not just in this country or in boxing," said Lewis, who managed undefeated linear heavyweight champion Spinks, in recalling the June 27, 1988, showdown with Tyson, holder of all the major recognized titles, in Boardwalk Hall. "I'm talking the entire [bleepin'] world. If there was a Superdome in Atlantic City, we could have filled that sucker up twice over. The demand for tickets was just crazy.
"I was getting calls from everybody you could think of - superstar athletes, big-time entertainers, politicians, right up to the White House. 'Butch, you gotta get me in,' they all said. But there wasn't anything I could do. The place was as sold out as sold out gets. Ringside tickets had a face value of $1,500 - remember, this is 1988 dollars we're talking about - 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.
"Anyway, Richard calls and tells me he'll do anything to get in. Richard and me were close, so I had to try, right? I checked around, called in some favors and, somehow, I got him two tickets somewhere in the first three rows, right behind Magic Johnson.
"The fight happens. Slim [Spinks] gets knocked out in the first round. Even before he went down, Magic stood up. Boom, boom, the fight ends just like that [after an elapsed time of 91 seconds]. Richard calls me later and says he never saw a punch, all he saw was Magic Johnson's back.
"Richard is yelling, '[Bleeperbleeper], I could just as well have stayed home!' " Lewis, cracking himself up, said in replicating Pryor's frantic, profane indignity.
"But you know what?" Lewis said after he finally stopped giggling. "At least Richard was in the house. That was one night when you had to be there. And if you couldn't actually be in the arena, you at least had to be in Atlantic City, taking in the whole wild scene. All the hotels had closed-circuit telecasts and those sold out, too.
"People who couldn't get into Boardwalk Hall were milling around outside and offering hundreds of dollars for ticket stubs to the people who were coming out after the fight ended. They were willing to pay good money for stubs! I never saw or heard about anything like that before. But, in a way, I understood. They wanted to be able to go back to wherever they came from and tell their friends and co-workers, 'See, I was there.' "
Tyson-Spinks was the absolute peak of a 10-year urban-renewal experiment that coupled casino gambling and professional boxing in a once-magnificent seashore resort town that gradually had fallen upon hard times. The plan was hardly unique; it had been implemented with runaway success in Las Vegas, and especially Caesars Palace, which opened in 1966, into the preferred destination for free-spending fight fans who easily transferred the rush they got from a spinning roulette wheel or high-stakes blackjack to watching two men pound one another.
"Things were going so good with the fights, I just thought it would never end," said Buster Drayton, the former IBF junior middleweight champion from South Philadelphia who fought 21 times in Atlantic City in a career that spanned from 1978 to '95. "People from all walks of life came. They came there for the boxing, sure, but it was almost like a social thing, too, a way for different people to get together and enjoy themselves."
Casino gambling in Atlantic City was approved by New Jersey voters in 1976, and the first casino-hotel - Resorts International - opened with great fanfare on May 26, 1978. Boxing shows soon became as common along the boardwalk as scavenging seagulls. In 1985 alone, Atlantic City was the site of an incredible 145 fight cards, more than half of which the industrious Frank Gelb had a hand in either as the promoter of record or as a liaison to casinos and other promoters who didn't have his contacts and lay of the land.
The explosive growth period actually covered 1982 to '85, during which Atlantic City averaged 130 fight cards per year. It was not unusual for two, three or even four shows to be scattered around town during a given week. Lewis recalls one weekend when CBS, NBC and ABC each came in and did nationally televised boxing. It was the sort of advertising a municipality almost couldn't buy, and the nation's hottest fight town gorged on the sport like a ravenous man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
In 2009, there have been five boxing cards in Atlantic City.
"The Atlantic City casinos saw boxing as a means by which they literally could give Vegas a run for its money," Lewis said. "Everybody benefited - the casinos, TV, the promoters, the fighters, the fans.
"It was a good arrangement all around. How many millions of people live along the Eastern Seaboard within a few hours' drive of Atlantic City? Las Vegas is in the desert, man. You got to get on a plane to get from here to there."
Boxing had been introduced into Atlantic City long before casino gambling was legalized. In what is believed to be the first pro bout staged here, on Aug. 15, 1893, Dominick McCaffrey defeated John F. McCormick. Fights were held intermittently following World War I, with some major attractions - Bob Montgomery, Sugar Ray Robinson and "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom among them - occasionally dropping in to punch for pay and to frolic on the beach.
In the last fight of any consequence during that period, South Philadelphia-based Joey Giardello captured the world middleweight championship on a 15-round decision over Nigeria's Dick Tiger on Dec. 7, 1963, in Boardwalk Hall, which was then known as the Atlantic City Convention Center. Ten years went by before Gelb, a renaissance man who now serves as the North American promoter for celebrated tenor Andrea Bocelli, made his boxing promotional debut in Atlantic City with a 1973 card headlined by light-heavyweight Richie Kates' 10-round decision over Roger Russell. That, however, was merely a blip on the radar; AC boxing again slumbered, awaiting its casino-infused reawakening.
As depicted in French director Louis Malle's 1980 film, "Atlantic City," the resort town's former opulence had faded badly in the years leading up to the erection of the gambling palaces that began to rise along the boardwalk like so many steel skeletons. It was a transitional period from one era to the next, and with it the hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Whether all that the casino proponents had hoped to gain was in fact achieved is a matter that continues to be debated. But there is no denying that boxing was an integral part of the new look, although most of the biggest bouts continued to go to Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden.
Enter financier Donald J. Trump, who knew a thing or two about making the sort of splash that would elevate the profile of any enterprise with which he was involved.
Trump was putting on fights in his Atlantic City casino properties, like everyone else in the town's gaming industry was doing in theirs. But Trump saw young knockout artist Mike Tyson as a mega-attraction and entered into an arrangement with Tyson's handlers that ensured the champion would primarily fight in Atlantic City and under the auspices of Trump Plaza.
Nudged by Trump, city fathers soon began to hype Atlantic City as the "boxing capital of the world," a far easier sell with Tyson as its de facto president. It also didn't hurt that boxing had other friends in high places, such as former New Jersey attorney general Irwin I. Kimmelman, who orchestrated a reduction in certain taxes that made it easier to bring major fights to the boardwalk. But the tax cuts were more than made up by the increased revenue generated by all those boxing bonanzas.
"It became very competitive between us and Vegas, maybe even a little contentious," said Larry Hazzard Sr., the chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board from 1985 to 2007. "But we had the edge because we had Tyson."
The zenith, of course, came on the night that Tyson took out Spinks, a fight for which Trump gladly overpaid a record $11 million site fee to beat out Caesars Palace, whose bid was thought to be in the $8 million range. But consider what that $11 million gained for Trump and for Atlantic City: an on-site crowd of 21,785 that produced a $13 million gross at the gate; 1,300 credentialed media; ringside seats occupied by such celebrities as Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Sean Penn, Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand and one very miffed Richard Pryor.
"Tyson was the Tiger Woods of boxing, before there was a Tiger Woods," said Bernie Dillon, then an executive with the Trump organization. "He was big or bigger than Michael Jordan. He was as big as big can be. When he made his walk to the ring, you could feel the electricity in the air."
It was almost too good to be true, and soon the dizzying moon shot began to return to earth. By and by Tyson lost his zest for combat and took his act on the road; Trump overextended himself with his creditors, and Vegas ramped up its game to meet the challenge from the East. Gaming jurisdictions in Connecticut, Mississippi, West Virginia and elsewhere began to open, siphoning away some of Atlantic City's overall and boxing business.
"Atlantic City didn't fall off the boxing map all at once," Dillon said. "The scaling back was kind of a gradual thing. But, you know, that's how it is just about everywhere these days."
By 2006, Atlantic City hosted only six boxing cards, its second-lowest total of the casino era. The Casino Association, a coalition of the city's gaming establishments formed to supply the collective funding to make up for Trump's greatly diminished presence in boxing, for the most part flopped. A $90 million refurbishment of Boardwalk Hall, completed in 2001, modernized and beautified the old arena, but during the 2-plus-year interim it was unavailable for big boxing events or anything else. The politicians who worked together so well during the boom period reverted to the sort of bickering that accomplishes little, and the economy has now slowed to such an extent that several casinos (including all three Trump properties) went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Construction at several sites was put on hold until the financial outlook improves.
For those in the region who still enjoy an enjoyable night at the fights, Ken Condon, the consultant for Harrah's Entertainment's four Atlantic City casinos, is the current keeper of the flame.
The 2007 retirement of Arturo Gatti, who died last summer, left a void that won't be easy to fill. Gatti was the most reliable Atlantic City draw since Tyson regularly stopped by.
"He helped keep us on the boxing map," said Valarie McGonigal, director of marketing for the Atlantic City Convention Center, which includes Boardwalk Hall. "We do other fights here, but when it was Gatti, he generated a lot of buzz. His tickets sold faster than for any other fight."
But Gatti is gone and there is a tradition to be upheld, even if it is in a diminished format.
"I don't know if I'll ever see another fighter as popular as Gatti in this town," Condon said.
"My job is to always have somebody coming down the road that can fill up Boardwalk Hall, and that's no easy task. But I believe there has to be somebody to step up and keep things going. There always is. At least, there always has been." *