ATLANTIC CITY - Ken Condon sometimes must feel as if he bears the burden of preserving what remains of this seashore resort town's diminished boxing legacy.
Even before the economy took a startling turn for the worse, professional boxing cards - once so plentiful here - had become increasingly rare. From an almost-unimaginable high of 145 shows in 1985, the total had dipped to just six in 2006. If boxing were a wild animal, it would be on the endangered-species list in Boardwalk Hall and the few casino ballrooms that still occasionally open their doors to the fights.
But Condon, now a consultant for Harrah's Entertainment's four Atlantic City casinos after a lengthy run as the boxing-supportive president of Bally's Atlantic City, believes the sport is making a comeback, albeit a modest one. And the numbers seemingly back him up, at least to a point.
There were 12 boxing cards in Atlantic City in 2008, according to the New Jersey State Athetic Control Board. In 2009, though, that number has been scaled back to a casino-era-low five cards.
There is still the occasional major event in Boardwalk Hall's 13,000-seat main arena - such as the Dec. 5 card between Paul Williams and WBC super welterweight champion Sergio Martinez, and club shows are being scheduled more frequently as midlevel promoters return to their roots.
Maybe boxing can never again be as integral a part of this city's fabric as it once was, but then what is? The Miss America Pageant relocated to Las Vegas in 2006. The famous diving horses at the Steel Pier stopped diving in 1978. Even finding a saltwater taffy shop along the boardwalk isn't as easy as it once was. But some sense of tradition must endure.
Condon understands that the marketplace has changed. There are fewer fighters whose appeal is so far-reaching that it transcends geography, as was once the case with Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, George Foreman and Riddick Bowe, all of whom could draw big crowds anywhere in the world. Each came here to ply his trade at one time or another.
But with the retirement and subsequent death of Atlantic City's most dependable attraction in recent years, Arturo Gatti, Condon - who is working on a tighter budget than he did before the local casino industry began feeling the economic pinch - has to be more selective.
"My mission always is to identify East Coast fighters who can drive our business upward," Condon said. "I'm realistic enough to know that if a fighter crosses over to a level of popularity that he transcends regionalism, most likely that fighter is going to appear most often in Las Vegas. They can generate higher grosses and larger purses there in part because they have larger arenas.
"My feeling is that Kelly Pavlik can step into Arturo's role, to a certain degree. We consider him an East Coast fighter. I understand that he has a tremendous fan base in Ohio and that he wants to fight in Youngstown every so often. But I would like for him to make Atlantic City his second home. He already has developed a following here."
And if Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, the ageless wonder (well, he turns 45 in January) from North Philadelphia, has another fight or two left in him, Condon would like for those to be staged here. B-Hop has fought 16 times in Atlantic City, dating to his Oct. 11, 1988, pro debut against Clinton Mitchell, and some of his more recent ring successes - victories over William Joppy, Antonio Tarver and Pavlik - have come in Boardwalk Hall.
"Bernard Hopkins is an incredible fighter," Condon said. "There's no rhyme or reason to try to understand why he has been as good as long as he has been. The guy is unbelievable, a master of boxing. He's been big in Atlantic City for a long time. If he plans a farewell fight, I'd certainly take a look at doing it here. But it would have to be the right fight."
Translation: It would have to be financially feasible.
"All the casinos are making very prudent marketing decisions without putting themselves too much at risk," Condon said. "That said, Atlantic City is still willing to step up to the plate and do major boxing events here.
"Our program for the past several years is to do one or two major fights, and maybe sneak in a third, in the big room [Boardwalk Hall] and multiple smaller fights in ballrooms. That probably will continue to be our program."
Rich Rose, who used to book big fights for both Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Caesars Atlantic City, is among those pulling for a boxing rebirth along the boardwalk.
"I truly hope that Atlantic City can come back," Rose said. "It's a great market. You're getting not only Atlantic City fight fans, but Philly fight fans, among the best in the world, and New York fight fans, among the best in the world."
But Larry Hazzard Sr., the longtime executive director of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board who was fired in November 2007, wonders if Condon's program can be carried out without a Tyson or a Gatti as a guaranteed attraction.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that Pavlik will never be another Gatti," said Hazzard, now the personal assistant to IBF president Marian Muhammad. "That ain't gonna happen.
"Ken has been the lifesaver for boxing in Atlantic City in recent years, but now he's the Lone Ranger with one bullet. It's there for everybody to see. It's that glaring." *