Championship Flight: A Trip Through Atlantic’s City’s Elite Boxing History, Part 1

Written By Dave Bontempo on June 3, 2022Last Updated on June 7, 2022
Tyson Spinks

This is the first of a two-part series looking at the storied history of pro boxing and Atlantic City casinos. 

“Will the big fights ever return to Atlantic City?”

The periodic question returns with news of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Oct. 7-9 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. More importantly, with this news comes the potential of a network-level fight to complement it there.

This is a relevant time to reflect on Atlantic City’s relationship with the sweet science, which  once made it the boxing capital of America, if not the world.

Unfortunately, the  national spread of gaming and entertainment options has reduced boxing’s presence here.

The sport that once electrified  the city and accompanied its casino gambling rise  has not been washed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Just mention fights and Atlantic City. There is an emotional connection to fans and gamblers.

Here is the first of a two-part look at boxing’s high-profile link with Atlantic City. This comprises 12 segments for 12 rounds, the length of a championship fight.

We’ll focus first on the history element and  then the modern-day adaptation.

Round 1: Atlantic City boxing nostalgia

Just as Miss America is associated with Atlantic City, so is Tyson-Spinks.

We are talking about the Mike Tyson vs, Michael Spinks blockbuster at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall  in 1988.

It symbolized more than future United States President Donald  Trump paying an industry-record $11 million site fee to host the fight. It escorted  Atlantic City from the shadows of Las Vegas regarding its presence as a gaming powerhouse.

Trump, at the time, owned the neighboring Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino. That property, once located at the center of Boardwalk, has since been demolished.

Trump later underwrote the 1991 George Foreman-Evander Holyfield heavyweight championship bout.

Round 2: Big names feature a return engagement

Boxing’s headliners make Atlantic City  their destination every year for the induction.

Some of the icons who formed the glory era will be honored at these Hall of Fame ceremonies.

That includes Kathy Duva, whose Atlantic City promotional realm included Pernell Whitaker, Holyfield and Arturo Gatti.

Duva followed Trump as a mega-fight source, bringing a string of Gatti fights to Boardwalk Hall in the early 2000s.

Gatti, inducted with the first ACBHOF class in 2017, waged his last nine fights in sold-out Boardwalk Hall between ’02 and ’07.

Tyson, inducted in the Hall’s first class of 2017, was 13-0 with 13 knockouts  in Atlantic City. The Spinks blockbuster was his 11th appearance.

The dias will include Lennox Lewis. The former heavyweight champion enters the Hall of Fame on the anniversary weekend of his nationally-televised 1995 victory over Tommy Morrison at the Hall.

The induction ceremonies become bigger, and more celebrated every year.

They retain the flame for Atlantic City boxing.

Round 3: ACBHOF tentative plans

The 2022 Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame Weekend is tentatively set to include a live boxing card.

It’s not official yet.

However, from what we are hearing, negotiations are looking good for Hard Rock to host a fight here with the elite boxing community already assembled.

Anything can happen in negotiations, naturally, but this synergy is logical. So a fight could wind up on a major network, which would relish the chance to interview the honorees for its telecast.

This appears to be the wave of the future.

It is already happening at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. A boxing event inside of induction weekend  enables the events to cross-promote one another.

Round 4: Hard Rock arena is named for an iconic boxing figure

Hard Rock literally has a built-in advantage for major events by housing the Hard Rock Live at Etess Arena, with roughly 5,000 seats. Major stars have appeared there.

And the legendary Andrea Bocelli will be performing on June 25.

The arena is rooted in boxing.

It named for Mark Etess, a beloved figure in the world of boxing, entertainment and gaming.

Many people know of the tragic helicopter crash that took the lives of Etess and fellow executives Steve  Hyde and Jonathan Benanav   in 1989.

What they may not realize is Etess’ role in bringing Tyson-Spinks to Atlantic City.

Etess, with Trump’s checkbook in hand, cultivated relationships with Tyson’s management a number of years before the big event.

So by virtue of hosting an earlier bout between Tyson and Jose Ribalta, they forged the right of first refusal for the Tyson-Spinks blockbuster.

Call it a valued wild card.

The right of first refusal  actually ensured  that Trump Plaza would get the last word in landing the super event.

Etess enjoyed the hands-on-experience of dealing with boxing figures  perhaps  more than his corporate job.

Do you see the irony here?

Trump preferred the background, allowing his executives to occupy the media spotlight.

This was Etess’ baby.

And it was going to be his casino, as  Etess was  tabbed to run the former Trump Taj Mahal (that property is now Hard Rock).

Round 5: Mitchell Etess connection

One of the key administrative participants in this event was Mark’s brother Mitchell Etess.  He was then an executive at Trump Plaza.

Mitchell  went on to become the chief execute  of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority and  bring major events to casino customers inside of an arena owned by Mohegan Sun. Sound like a familiar formula?

One of those clients are  the WNBA Connecticut Sun, who play in an area on the Mohegan Sun property.

Etess’ departure  also signaled  a forthcoming trend in the casino industry.Seasoned Atlantic City executives would be recruited to spearhead the national growth of gaming.

They were in high demand.

As it did in Atlantic City, boxing fueled the growth of casinos  all throughout the world.

As a side note, I have called fights in approximately 180 cities. Most occurred from the early 1990s on and occurred in a casino.

Round 6: Trump takes flight from Atlantic City boxing scene

Trump got tired of taking the risk while competitors could share in the reward by merely purchasing tickets for their players.

After Trump bankrolled Holyfield-Foreman in 1991, he told me it was time for other properties to step up.

A new age in which boxing would have to fight for its place in Atlantic  City had begun.

That will be analyzed in next week’s Part 2.

Photo by AP/Rusty Kennedy
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Dave Bontempo

Dave Bontempo, a multiple national award-winning boxing commentator and writer, authors NFL betting columns for the Press of Atlantic City and others. He writes about all major sports in the booming legal New Jersey sports betting industry. Dave also hosts the Why Eagles Why podcast. Dave is a member of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and the Atlantic City International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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