When Trump made boxing - and Atlantic City - great again
The president's legacy in Atlantic City is mixed, but fans, fighters, promoters, and historians said that, for a brief time, Trump made boxing great again.
ATLANTIC CITY — The scariest man on earth paced the ring and shadow-punched the electrified air.
Mike Tyson, just 21, was shirtless, his black trunks and custom leather boots devoid of logos. It was a Monday night, June 27, 1988, and 21,785 boxing fans had packed Boardwalk Hall to see him destroy Michael Spinks.
Tyson, the crowd, and the millions watching on closed circuit had to wait, though. Ring announcer Michael Buffer had an introduction to make:
"He's a man whose success at business epitomizes the American dream, the author of the year's best-selling book The Art of the Deal. His vision and accomplishment make him the quintessential entrepreneur. Ladies and gentlemen, New Jersey thanks him — our host for this great evening of championship boxing, Mr. Donald J. Trump."
As Buffer spoke, Trump — whose name was emblazoned on the ring and many other flat surfaces in Atlantic City — pointed to himself.
Tyson, 50, returns to Atlantic City this weekend as part of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame's inaugural class. Trump didn't make the cut. The president's legacy in Atlantic City is mixed, but fans, fighters, promoters, and historians said that, for a brief time, Trump made boxing great again.
"Listen, he paid me $11 million to fight that night," Tyson said recently by telephone. "He was putting on the biggest events in boxing. Atlantic City wasn't the way it is now. It was a booming city then."
Trump got into boxing when the sport was blessed with heavyweights in their prime — such as Tyson and Evander Holyfield — and also a few — such as George Foreman — who hit their prime twice.
"Donald Trump was very good for boxing in New Jersey," said Larry Hazzard, New Jersey's longtime boxing commissioner. "You can't rewrite the history."
The foundation for Atlantic City's boxing legacy was laid in 1976, when New Jersey voters passed a referendum to legalize gambling in the struggling resort town. A year prior, according to BoxRec.com, there was one boxing promotion in the entire city.
Resorts, the first casino, opened in 1978 and began hosting matches soon after. The first, on Aug. 18, 1979, featuring Philly brawler Matthew Saad Muhammad, a light heavyweight who is also an inductee into the city's first Hall of Fame class.
"It was nothing but excitement at the time," said John DiSanto, who operates PhillyBoxingHistory.com. "It wasn't until later that you realized it was choking out boxing in Philadelphia. Atlantic City pretty much knocked out Philly's big fight scene."
Most of the early promotions in A.C. were held in casino ballrooms, promoted by Philly's Frank Gelb, also an inductee. Crowds rarely exceeded 1,000. Atlantic City's iconic Boardwalk Hall, originally called Convention Hall, had hosted occasional fights dating to the 1930s.
Long the sport of hustles, boxing found a perfect partnership with the casino industry. Promoters said financial backing from a casino was one of the few ways to lock up heavyweight mega-fights in the seaside venue.
Trump, a member of New Jersey's Boxing Hall of Fame, also had the moxie to outbid Las Vegas. He entered the casino game in 1984, when he opened the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel next to Boardwalk Hall. The casino hosted its first fight in 1985, a year when Atlantic City was home to 142 boxing promotions.
In 1987, Trump Plaza hosted six of the seven world title fights in Atlantic City and landed the heavyweight match between Spinks and Gerry Cooney at Boardwalk Hall.
Boxing Events Held in Atlantic City
The next January, Tyson knocked out Easton's Larry Holmes in Boardwalk Hall. He returned that June for his record-setting, star-studded fight against Spinks, a fight that lasted a whole 91 seconds.
"It was a night of beauty," Tyson said.
The fight was the pinnacle of Tyson's career, and Atlantic City was the reining capital of boxing.
Trump basked in the attention.
"I put on these fights because I'm a fan," Trump told the Inquirer in 1988. "I do it because I like it. It's exciting. People really react to it. You wouldn't see this kind of excitement at the opera or ballet. "
Trump was also making a killing, luring in "whales" who would drop record numbers in his casinos during fight nights. According to the NJ Boxing Hall of Fame, Trump spent about $3.2 million to bring the Spinks-Cooney bout to Atlantic City and gamblers left $7.2 million at his tables.
"He and I certainly had our differences," said State Sen. Jim Whelan, mayor of Atlantic City from 1990 to 2001. "The reality, though, if we're strictly talking about boxing, he was very good for the sport, and that was good for the city at the time. Trump was good at generating buzz and generating publicity. Fight night had made this town sizzle."
The $1 billion Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino, Trump's third and largest casino in Atlantic City, opened in 1990 to much fanfare, but months afterward, the towering casino proved too big a bet and began defaulting on interest payments.
Meanwhile, in boxing, the unthinkable happened in February 1990, when Tyson was knocked out by journeyman James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo. Douglas was then knocked out by Holyfield and Trump lobbied hard to land "The Battle of the Ages" between Holyfield and Foreman, who at 42 appeared to have guzzled from the Fountain of Youth.
That April 19, 1991, fight at Boardwalk Hall, a unanimous decision for Holyfield, was certainly a success for fans. But three months later, Trump filed for Chapter 11. Bankruptcy, promoter Kathy Duva said, weakened Trump's hold on big fights there.
"He's very charismatic and very friendly and he cheated us out of a couple million dollars," Duva said in a recent interview. "He treated us like those small contractors you saw on television during the campaign. We didn't deal with him again."
Trump filed three additional Chapter 11 bankruptcies connected to his casino empire: Trump Plaza in 1992, Trump Hotels and Casinos Resorts in 2004, and Trump Entertainment Resorts in 2009.
The number of promotions dropped off, and some aficionados believe the best boxing came to Atlantic City after Trump took a backseat. That's mostly due to a lightweight from Jersey City who became a fan favorite in Atlantic City, Arturo "Thunder" Gatti. Also an inductee in A.C.'s Boxing Hall of Fame this weekend, Gatti fought nearly two dozen times there and his epic brawls against Massachusetts scrapper Micky Ward in Boardwalk Hall in 2002 and 2003 are often considered to be some of the all-time greats.
"Boardwalk Hall become known as the house Gatti built," said longtime HBO commentator Jim Lampley. "Fans didn't care whether Arturo won or lost. They knew they would get every penny's worth when he fought."
Philly fighter Ivan "Mighty" Robinson beat Gatti twice in Atlantic City and recalled barely surviving the first fight in 1998 at Boardwalk Hall.
"That shot Gatti hit me with in that last round, man, I thought I was on the beach somewhere, walking with the kids," Robinson said recently. "Normal guys could not take a beating like the way he did."
Gatti died in 2009 in Brazil under mysterious circumstances.
Though Gatti was an adopted son, former lightweight champion Leavander Johnson was the best the city ever produced. Johnson, also an inductee this weekend, died in 2005 at 35 after suffering a subdural hematoma in his last fight.
On a Friday afternoon two months ago, Johnson's father and trainer, Bill Johnson, side-stepped around the ring at Atlantic City's Police Athletic League, pads in hand, while a young fighter snapped punches. In the distance, the former Revel casino, perhaps Atlantic City's biggest bust, pierced the fog.
"All three of my sons were professional boxers," Johnson said. "I trained all three of them."
Bill Johnson will be inducted in the A.C. Boxing Hall of Fame as a trainer.
Boardwalk Hall's last fight was Nov. 8, 2014, when Philly's Bernard Hopkins lost his light-heavyweight titles to Sergey Kovalev. Four casinos closed that year, including Trump Plaza, and the city hosted only nine promotions. Hopkins-Kovalev drew 8,300 spectators in 2014, the highest turnout for a bout in Atlantic City in six years, but it felt like a disappointment in the boxing world. Some questioned whether it would be the last big fight in the city.
So far, it has been.
"That night was a death knell," Lampley said. "It was a definitive symbol."
No one's under the illusion that Atlantic City will reclaim its place as a boxing Mecca. Trump is long gone, his name taken down from each of his three casinos letter by letter. There may never be another Mike Tyson.
Five of the city's 12 casinos are closed.
"I think it's going to take some time for big boxing to come back here," said Caesars Atlantic City consultant Ken Condon, an A.C. Boxing Hall of Fame inductee who brought major fights to the city. "What we really need is some good, American heavyweights. There's a saying in boxing that 'As the heavyweights go, boxing goes.' "
Last month, on a rainy Saturday night, a few hundred boxing fans filed into a small ballroom at the Claridge Hotel to watch a handful of bouts.
The signs of a fight night were there, on a much smaller scale: scantily clad ring girls, a bachelor party or two, and even a DJ blasting out Drake and some old-school hip hop. One fighter knocked his opponent out in 17 seconds.
On the walls of the ballroom, videos promoting the Hall of Fame weekend showed loops of Tyson's unholy uppercut and Gatti's bloody flurries. Ring announcer, Nino Del Buono urged the crowd to believe that the future could be as good as the past.
"Atlantic City is coming back, day by day," Del Buono told the crowd. "We're going to get back to that."
Matthew Saad Muhammad
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Larry Hazzard Sr.
Dr. Frank Doggett