It may be hard to picture now, in an age where boxing holds few household names, that there was a time when the most-anticipated sporting events in the world were boxing matches, and for many years the town that had the honor of hosting them time and again was Atlantic City.
Throughout the sport’s heyday in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, the city brought in fight after fight, many taking place at venues like the former Trump Plaza, Tropicana and Boardwalk Hall, and each being beamed out to millions around the world via cable TV and pay-per-view. Champions ensured their legacies here. Fighters such as Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Michael Spinx, Larry Holmes and Arturo Gatti all battled like ancient gladiators just a few feet from the crashing waves of the beach. Titles changed hands, upsets took place and little by little this city-by-the-sea grew to be the premier boxing destination in the country, if not the world.
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This weekend, the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame will hold its inaugural induction for the class of 2017 at The Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City. A three-day affair, the ACBHOF has put together a package of events that will include a rooftop cocktail kickoff, a fight-fan experience expo, a red carpet gala and after party, as well as the Class of 2017 Inaugural Induction Ceremony.
The list of honorees is a long one, and includes some of the biggest names the sport has ever known.
Chatting with Kid Dynamite
Mike Tyson has lived a life that is anything but typical, even for a heavyweight champion boxer. From his early childhood growing up in the notorious Brownsville section of Brooklyn, to his years at the top of the sport to his later scandal-filled years that included stints in prison, face tattoos and ear biting, this is a man who has pushed through it all.
This year he is being inducted into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, and regardless of what one might think of his out-of-the-ring antics, few names seem more worthy of the honor.
“Boxing chose me, I didn’t choose it,” Tyson says.
While this may be true, (Tyson was always known for having an incredible amount of natural abilty) the performances he had while fighting in Atlantic City are all but legendary. A main event featuring Tyson was sure to be a show. To him, one night stands out in particular though.
“Larry Holmes … that was a big, big fight in Atlantic City. What a great night.”
Tyson is of course referring to Jan. 22, 1988, the night he faced former World Champion Larry Holmes in a much-hyped fight at Trump Plaza. Indeed it was a great night, for Tyson anyway, who defeated Holmes via TKO in round 4 to increase his record at the time to an impressive 33-0.
These days Tyson prefers to keep boxing far back in the rearview mirror. “I don’t miss it. Not at all,” he insists. “It’s too much work.”
Of course in his heyday that “work” was a non-issue for the now 50-year-old. “Boxing was all I’d ever think about when I was young,” he remembers.
Often known for his outrageous comments and bitter feuds, (Tyson once famously threatened to eat boxer Lennox Lewis’ children), the current version of Tyson seems to have far less venom for his enemies. Even sharing induction to the hall of fame with his former promoter Don King (whom Tyson has been notoriously critical of in the past) doesn’t spark any rage from the former champ.
“I got nothing bad to say about anybody,” Tyson says. “If they put him in there, he deserves it.”
Gatti’s legend lives on
One man being honored with induction this year is Arturo Gatti. Gatti was an explosive fighter who battled in the ring in Atlantic City on many fight cards at Boardwalk Hall, where he won both Super Lightweight and Welterweight titles. Sadly, Gatti’s life was tragically cut short when he was murdered in a hotel room in Brazil in 2009 under circumstances that remain unclear to this day.
His friend and bodyguard, the legendary tough guy Chuck Zito shared his thoughts on his former friend:
“He had the heart of a lion. The original ‘blood and guts’ warrior,” Zito says. “Whenever he stepped into the ring he went to war. He thrilled thousands of fans. He had the fighting spirit, tenacity and determination to become a three-time world champion. He was a champion in and out of the ring.”
Zito was still a member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club when he met Gatti, and the two became fast friends, sharing their love of motorcycles and combat sports. Zito had the honor of walking Gatti to the ring during his last 10 fights. He saw first hand what Gatti brought to Atlantic City.
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“Arturo Gatti generated more money for Atlantic City than any other boxer in history,” Zito states. “His trilogy with Irish Mickey Ward became three of the greatest fights in boxing history. Gatti’s name and legacy will live forever.”
Local boy done good
Anyone who reads the golf column in At The Shore will recognize the name Dave Bontempo. But while Bontempo is indeed well versed on the best places to play a few holes, his work in the boxing world and in Atlantic City in particular is legendary, as he has called matches for ESPN, Fox Sports and other networks for more than 30 years.
This year he gets to join the Class of 2017 in the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame.
“Atlantic City is well-suited for a Boxing Hall of Fame, both to celebrate its local fighters and personalities and its presence as the home to multi-million dollar fights,” Bontempo says. “It’s wonderful for that time and era to be honored. This may also serve as a reminder within the boxing world that Atlantic City remains a candidate for significant events, even if there are fewer of them.”
While there may be fewer events than in the past, luckily for him, Bontempo was able to witness many of the legendary battles that took place here from ringside. He offers insight as to why Atlantic City became a boxing town.
“Boxing and the gaming industry fed each other. Atlantic City was in its infancy as a gaming destination and turned to boxing, with its one-on-one appeal to gamblers, in order to attract players. This dynamic created nationally televised fights nearly every weekend, Tuesday-night fights every week at the Tropicana for several years and also established Atlantic City as a premier player in the boxing realm. Atlantic City became the boxing capital of the world.
“Yet it would have to be a short-lived title. Other gaming jurisdictions discovered the secret of boxing’s unique relationship to the bottom-line health and applied the same principal. I went from covering and broadcasting fights in Atlantic City alone to, now, nearly 180 cities and several countries, because of the gaming-boxing marriage. In retrospect, I feel fortunate that this wind of prosperity blew through here.”
While he may have seen the majority of the big fights, one in particular stands out.
“Most memorable event? Tyson-Spinks. Donald Trump paid an unprecedented site fee in the neighborhood of $11 million, the heavy hitters of the boxing world resided here for more than a week and The Press (of Atlantic City) put out a special section connected with the fight. Its fast ending was irrelevant to me. It was the night Atlantic City seized its identity as a boxing powerhouse, surpassing Las Vegas at that time.”
Hitting close to home
One of A.C. Weekly’s very own writers has a direct connection to the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame. Freelancer Danielle Gomes’ father Dennis Gomes is to be posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame this year for his efforts in bringing championship boxing to Atlantic City. His son Aaron was kind enough to give us a few words on what it means for their family.
“We are extremely honored that our father has been selected as one of the inaugural members of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame. I was fortunate enough to work hand-in-hand with my father and witness firsthand the passion he put forth in bringing boxing events to Atlantic City’s casinos. He put the same passion into hosting the biggest title fights in the world as he did into small-scale events for up-and-coming local boxers. This is testament not only to his love of Atlantic City, but to his true love and devotion for the sport.”