Atlantic City is no longer America’s Playground, and hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a city of casinos along the famous boardwalk, many of which are run down, five of which have gone out of business since 2014. Away from the boards, it’s a city of labyrinthine shopping outlets, of row homes showing damage from the salty air coming off the ocean, of highways leading to the nicer towns up and down the coastline where people have second homes near beaches with tag fees.
Not only is Atlantic City a long way from The Rat Pack, but when it comes to boxing, it’s a long way from Tyson vs Spinks, Ward vs Gatti, and Foreman vs Holyfield. However, the city is on the comeback trail, and pugilism will be a part of it. Part 1 of that comeback happened at the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel and Casino with the big HBO card featuring Sergey Kovalev’s upset defeat to Eleider Alvarez. And this Saturday will be Part 2 with the new Ocean Resort Casino hosting bouts featuring Bryant Jennings, Jesse Hart, and a slew of Philadelphia fighters on the undercard. And in fact, nothing could be more appropriate, because Atlantic City and Philadelphia, separated by only 60 miles, are culturally entwined cities.
When Philadelphians say they’re going “down the shore,” they mean southern New Jersey, the Atlantic City area, if not AC itself. Many of those second homes are owned by people from the Philadelphia metro area. In the summer months, the expressway between the cities is jammed going east every Friday evening, and then once more going back west on Sunday afternoon. The towns share a culture and tend to reflect one another.
In recent years, both places hit their nadir, but both are bouncing back. Philly, the notoriously blue-collar town with a citizenry that takes crap from no one, an attitude fully reflected in its boxers, was in an economic and cultural rut for some time, but now seems to sport a new skyscraper every year. Remember Rocky looking out at the city from the Art Museum steps? That skyline is unrecognizable now, though it’s somewhere under all the glass and steel; rest assured, the city has not lost its attitude.
Atlantic City took its hit more recently, but has already seen two of those shuttered casinos resurrected under new ownership, the very ones hosting the city’s first major fights in four years: The Hard Rock and the new Ocean Resort. And the headline boxers on this weekend’s big card are themselves bouncing back from losses in world title fights, but both are now getting chances to regain what they had and put themselves in a position to achieve even more.
Bryant Jennings headlines the evening, and will take on Alexander Dimitrenko in a heavyweight bout for the WBO International title, with the hopes of moving further up the rankings and getting a second shot at a world title. In 2015 he lost a decision to then unified champion Wladimir Klitschko in what would be the final victory of Klitschko’s Hall of Fame career. Later the same year, Jennings was knocked out by Luis Ortiz.
There’s no shame in either defeat, one to an all-time great and the other to an absolute destroyer, but Jennings took nearly two years off after those bouts. While a long layoff is never ideal for a fighter, Jennings said he stayed preserved in that time, and had plenty of new experiences. “In the ring is not the only place you learn about your craft,” he says. And the time away does appear to have benefited him as since then he’s gone on a four match winning streak and looks set to re-scale the heights. Now he has a chance for another major step forward in what is something akin to a hometown venue.
“It’s a lot like fighting at home,” Jennings says of Atlantic City. “It’s just a drive away. The fact the city is coming back is a good thing. I’m proud to be in one of the events to help bring it back.”
In the co-feature, super middleweight Jesse Hart is also on the comeback trail after losing a world title fight a year ago to Gilberto Ramirez, but when I bring up that loss to Hart, he stops me fast.
“It’s not a loss,” he says, “it’s a lesson. A lesson is more valuable than any win.”
Hart, now ranked number one by the WBO, says he’s on a better track, and primed to defend his NABF belt against Mike Gavronski. He says his team put him through the ringer in this training camp, pushed him to the limits, and he even brought in local heavyweight prospect Sonny Conto as a sparring partner. Now that camp is winding down, he feels ready to go, and he also believes that Atlantic City is a fine place for him to continue making his name in the sport.
“Atlantic City has a rich history,” he says. “It’s a home for boxing, always has been.” Specifically, Hart noted how AC always welcomed Philadelphia fighters, which he says has a lot to do with longtime commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic Board, Larry Hazzard. “He always fought for Philly guys,” Hart says, “to get them exposure. He’s one of the best commissioners in boxing.”
Both fighters are aware of the storied history of Philadelphia boxing, and take pride in maintaining the tradition.
“I want to represent the household I come from,” Jennings says, noting the passion Philadelphia has long brought to the sport. Hart is connected to that tradition in his genes—his father, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart was one of the great Philadelphia middleweights of the ‘70s—and he takes a particular pride in upholding the legacy. “That culture has a great impact on my career,” he says. “My dad wouldn’t have been the best if he hadn’t fought all those great fighters… [I] want to carry this name right.”
While Jennings and Hart will be the biggest names of the modern Philly boxers on Saturday’s Ocean Resort card, they won’t be the only ones. On the undercard, Jason Sosa, of Camden New Jersey, which is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, will look to bounce back himself after suffering two straight losses. And local Philadelphia favorite Christian Carto, a bantamweight who has his own family legacy of Philly boxing going back to the 1940’s and his grandfather and great uncle, seeks to improve on his 15-0 record.
There’s a resilience to the fighters, and a resilience in the region as well. These are boxers and cities that never quit on the stool, and never let losses define them. A few weeks ago, Jesse Hart posted this on Twitter: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
It’s easy to see how this can apply to a fighter, but it also applies to the Atlantic City/Philadelphia region, where it seemed casinos and beaches and enormous stars of pugilism would maintain affluence in perpetuity. But after suffering some painful defeats, the boxers and their homes have rebounded, embodying the toughness both are known for. Everyone involved has learned some tough lessons but now are ready for some bright years ahead, some stirring victories. Both Jennings and Hart are determined to make that happen this Saturday. — Joshua Isard