Everyone loves a successful sports comeback and on August 4th, in more than one way, that’s exactly what we’re going to see. In fact, that particular date has been circled in red ink on the calendars of all serious fight fans for some time now as the night in question will see not one, but two, excellent, high-stakes battles: Sergey Kovalev vs Eleider Alvarez and Dmitry Bivol vs Isaac Chilemba. But beyond the two very solid match-ups, there are comeback stories of various shapes and sizes abounding here.
There’s the comeback of Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev as, for the first time since his stoppage defeat to Andre Ward in June of last year, he faces a truly elite opponent, one with the talent and experience to present a serious threat to his future ambitions. There’s the comeback of Eleider “Storm” Alvarez, as he seeks to rebound, not from defeat, but from the injustice of being denied for years the opportunity he had earned through sweat and toil to compete for a world title. There’s the comeback of Yvon Michel as he finally delivers that opportunity to his long-suffering but very loyal charge. And there’s the comeback of Isaac Chilemba who has the chance to score a huge upset win and make everyone forget about the fact he’s lost three of his last four fights, albeit all of those defeats against champions and top contenders.
But in terms of a major comeback, the real story here is Atlantic City and a brand new beginning for a site that was once one of New Jersey’s biggest attractions before it declined and then collapsed. The Kovalev vs Alvarez event marks the return of big time fight action to a place which saw more than its share of boxing superstars in years past, as this card, promoted by Main Events and Krusher Promotions, in association with Groupe Yvon Michel, will be hosted by the brand new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Which is actually not new at all, but is a major comeback story all on its own.
For many years, Atlantic City was a go-to destination for major fights and boxing fans and in the 1980’s and early 90’s it competed with Las Vegas for the biggest events. Huge pay-per-view clashes such as Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks and Evander Holyfield vs George Foreman were staged there, as were major championship battles featuring such big names as Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes, Arturo Gatti, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, Meldrick Taylor and Pernell Whitaker.
And many of those big fights were held in a place called The Trump Taj Mahal, the former “crown jewel” of Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk, a haven for tourists and gamblers and fight fans alike in the 1990’s. But the story of the Taj Mahal did not have a happy ending. The site went from being Donald Trump’s showcase property to a bankrupt failure that almost sank the entire city. Over five thousand jobs were lost when it closed in 2006 and the fallout was felt for years.
Thus, August 4th is not only a red-letter night for boxing and the light heavyweight division, but also for a city which is seeking to re-establish itself as a prime destination for boxing’s biggest fights. It’s also the first in hopefully a series of fight cards to be hosted at the brand new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on the Boardwalk which just had its grand opening this past June 28.
Over $300 million was spent to refurbish the former Taj Mahal property. Set on 17 acres, and with the famous Boardwalk as its backdrop, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City is now the most lavish entertainment destination in the area. It boasts over two thousand slot machines and a plethora of world-class entertainment options from dance shows, to concerts, to comedy acts and sports, and the opulent facility is receiving rave reviews since its grand opening last month. The Mark G. Etess Arena at the Hard Rock will host the big HBO boxing double-header next month and all signs point to a standing-room-only crowd and some major electricity on fight night.
But the comebacks don’t stop there! The Kovalev vs Alvarez card also marks a comeback to boxing for one Bernie Dillon, the Vice-President of Entertainment and the man responsible for bringing major fights to the new Hard Rock property. In fact, Dillon’s association with professional boxing goes back more than a few years, as Kathy Duva of Main Events noted at the kick-off press conference for Kovalev vs Alvarez:
“If you had told me back in 1983 when I first met Bernie Dillon … that we’d be standing here today in these roles, doing these big jobs, I would’ve had a lot of trouble envisioning it. Bernie told me that when he left Atlantic City to work for a cruise line a few years ago, he thought that he had finally left boxing behind. But, Bernie, we don’t let anyone get away that easily. I am so glad to welcome you back …”
Indeed, Bernie Dillon, while an acknowledged expert in the wider field of entertainment, a man who has worked extensively with various high-profile sports enterprises and music acts, has in fact been involved in boxing for decades. And he’s hopeful that the city once called “The World’s Playground” is about to reemerge as a prime destination for the biggest fights, with Kovalev vs Alvarez being only the first in what will prove to be a long series of major matches at the brand new Hard Rock. And if anyone has the background, connections and experience to make that happen, it’s Bernie Dillon.
“I started out in 1979 at Caesar’s, then was at Trump Plaza for many years, and during that time I worked on a lot of boxing events,” says Dillon when asked to reflect on the trajectory of his career and his involvement in “The Sweet Science.” “I helped HBO develop their pay-per-view business, which was called TVKO at that time. And later I even went on my own and did some promoting. I worked with guys like Roberto Duran, Hector Camacho, Vinny Pazienza and Sugar Ray Leonard. I’ve been in this business for quite a while now.”
Dillon laments what has transpired in the years since, noting that boxing lost its status as a reliable draw for Atlantic City.
“It’s unfortunate but boxing became less important in terms of entertainment for the gaming industry and that had a kind of trickle-down effect I think. Right now at the Hard Rock we have some 125 shows on sale but that includes just one boxing event. And that one fight has some stiff competition as we’ve got acts like Frankie Valli, Kid Rock, Steely Dan and Toby Keith on the bill this summer. But I’m hopeful it will do well. And beyond August 4th, if it is a success, we can start thinking about doing more of these events and hopefully start to reverse that trend.”
Dillon’s involvement in the boxing business has been based primarily, though not exclusively, in his many years working in Atlantic City, but his passion for the sport goes back much earlier.
“I was always a boxing fan and I grew up watching all those great fights on free TV in the 1970’s and 80’s. I was a huge admirer of people like Alexis Arguello and Thomas Hearns and Duran and then later I was lucky enough to see Sugar Ray Leonard vs Marvelous Marvin Hagler live in Las Vegas. And then, to my surprise, I found myself actually working with Duran and Leonard and Roy Jones Jr. in the 90’s. I was also part of Mike Tyson’s career as many of his early fights were in Atlantic City.”
Mention of a highly significant Atlantic City clash — Roberto Duran vs Iran Barkley in February of 1989 — sparks an exclamation and clearly some very fond memories.
“Oh, yeah, maybe my favorite fight of all-time out of all the big matches I’ve been involved with. Imagine: we had 17 inches of snow that day. We had to clear all the roads and highways so people could get through the storm to Boardwalk Hall. That was a challenge, believe me. But we did it and everyone who had a ticket was able to get to their seat and see one of the greatest fights of all-time. That was a night I’ll never forget. But there were other amazing nights with fighters like Arturo Gatti, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield. It’s been a fun ride.”
And the ride continues, which brings us back to August 4th and Kovalev vs Alvarez, a match that may well have been staged in Alvarez’s home city of Montreal where “Krusher” enjoys a certain popularity after his big wins there against Jean Pascal. Instead, one of the best matches of the year has found its home at the Mark G. Etess Arena in the brand new Hard Rock Casino and may pave the way for Atlantic City becoming once again a premier destination for prizefighting.
For his part, Dillon is cautiously optimistic. “We definitely want to bring other big fights here and I think it’s possible. We’re taking things one step at a time but we’re hopeful we can create some new interest here for boxing. Right now I just want to make sure this is a successful event. So far, so good.”
One reason for Dillon’s guarded optimism is how smoothly the August 4th show came together.
“We got a deal done with Kathy Duva to stage the fight here and everything came together very quickly. She had the fighters, plus Yvon Michel and HBO all set and ready to go. It all fell into place quite easily and everything is moving very smoothly.”
As Duva herself noted at a recent press conference to hype the show: “When fighters really want to fight, making the fights that you, the fans, want to see is easy. And we have two fighters here who want to fight. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Could Main Events and Groupe Yvon Michel form a powerhouse with Bernie Dillon to create regular shows at the new Hard Rock Atlantic City?
“We’re not going to do any exclusive deals,” says Dillon. “Because I want to be able to buy the right fight, at the right time, for the right price. So I’m sure I’ll be working with other promoters. But I’ll say this: it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with everyone associated with this event. And I’ll also say, I would love nothing more than to see the Mark G. Etess Arena become the premier venue for boxing in Atlantic City.”
As for the main event on August 4th, Dillon isn’t ready to make a clearcut prediction.
“You have to give Kovalev a bit of an edge as he’s been in a lot of big fights before. But Alvarez has some younger legs and if the fight gets into the later rounds anything can happen.”
Which brings us back to the idea Duva talked about, how big fights are easy to make when the principals actually want to fight each other. No question, this is a high risk match for both men, but both Kovalev and Alvarez wanted this challenge, wanted to take on a dangerous rival, to prove themselves and create bigger opportunities for the future.
Which causes one to wonder: does August 4th mark another kind of comeback for boxing? That is, a return to the days when these types of high-stakes tilts were the norm, not the exception? Could the biggest comeback of all here be a return to the days when the matches that make the most sense, that represent the most compelling competition, are what fight fans can expect to happen? When one considers that boxing markets stateside need to compete with the World Boxing Super Series tournaments, it’s not a crazy notion.
In any case, if Bernie Dillon has anything to say about it, many of those compelling match-ups will be hosted in Etess Arena where, as Dillon emphasizes, “there’s not a bad seat in the house.” Here’s hoping all of them are filled on August 4th.
— Michael Carbert