The arena at Ocean Resorts Casino is brand new, and I noticed its pristine aesthetic the moment I walked in: red and blue lighting, which matched the Top Rank and ESPN logos, shining off five thousand seats ready to welcome spectators who haven’t seen boxing like this in Atlantic City for a long time. But with the inauguration of any venue comes blips. For me it was little more than ushers not knowing how to get media through to their seats, and it seemed like the staff underestimated the number of bartenders they’d need for fans. For a few of the combatants though, the unexpected events of the evening could have longer ranging implications.
I arrived just as Oleksandr Teslenko (14-0) sent an overmatched Avery Gibson (9-9-4) to the canvas in the first round of their heavyweight fight. Teslenko would go on to earn a unanimous decision, but in a near silent room. The night felt like it really started off with Allentown, PA prospect Joseph Adorno (9-0), who made short work of Augustine Mauras (6-5-3) by knocking him down early in round one, and then followed that up by backing Mauras to the ropes with a flurry of hooks until the referee stopped it at 1:39 of round one. The crowd at the time was still trickling in, but plenty seemed excited by a decisive early TKO from the lightweight prospect. The ring walks for the next fight started almost before Adorno left the ring, and so the buzz from his performance stayed in the air as Thomas LaManna climbed through the ropes.
LaManna (26-2-1), a super welterweight out of Atlantic City proper, took on Matthew Strode (25-7) in a bout that tested both fighters’ patience. While Strode, a decade older than LaManna, showed his maturity, and provided a good test for the younger fighter, the referee took every opportunity to interrupt the proceedings, making him the worst kind of official, the one you notice. Shouts of “Let ‘em fight, ref!” came from the writers and the fans, and the combatants grinned in frustration at some of the mini-lectures they received. LaManna won a wide decision, though the thing he may have learned most is that sometimes you have to fight both the man in front of you and the third man in the ring.
For the locals in attendance, the next fight marked the first real main event as Philadelphia favorite, bantamweight Christian Carto (16-0), entered the ring to an ovation which would match those for the televised fights a few hours later. The young Carto kept his fans involved in the first round, landing several thudding body blows on the veteran Javier Gallo (25-16-1), and showing off his flashy defense, slipping and dipping to avoid almost everything his opponent threw—but that didn’t last long.
Carto started taking punches from Gallo in the second frame, and while the older fighter rarely posed a real threat, neither did Carto show his typical dominance. In the sixth, Gallo even landed a big hook to Carto’s jaw that seemed to hurt him. Carto won the fight, deservedly, but while his night began with a raucous reception for a rising star, it ended with mumbles reflecting doubts about how far this kid can really go.
Had he been figured out by an opponent with great ring IQ? Had he gotten arrogant? Is his ceiling lower than we all thought? Some of the older writers started throwing out names of boxers I’d never heard of, since local prospects that don’t pan out only get remembered when someone’s afraid they’re seeing it again. But we’ll all find out the truth in Carto’s next few fights.
Those mumbles soon turned into groans and boos as in the next fight über-prospect Shakur Stevenson (8-0) almost willfully refused to show off the skills that got him to the Olympics and enabled him to score seven straight pro wins. While it’s easy to look at Carto’s fight and see the lessons he can take from a distance fight with a veteran who owns a chin made of wrought iron, Stevenson just looked like he never wanted to pull the trigger against Carlos Ruiz (16-5-2).
Around this time I noticed a few people at the media table watching the live stream of DeMarcus Corley’s bout. In other words, a middle-aged man in his 84th bout offered more entertainment value than the combat 20 feet in front of us. Stevenson vs Ruiz was eight rounds devoid of action, and when it ended another writer walked by me, slapped his hand on my shoulder, and said in the scratchy voice of someone who started attending fights back when you could smoke cigars at ringside, “Was that horrible, or was that horrible?”
Fortunately, the co-main event followed, and while ESPN began its fanfare, both the atmosphere and the fights ramped up. As Tim Bradley and Mark Kriegl went over their notes a few feet in front of me, Bernard Hopkins walked by and everyone, TV staff included, stopped for a moment to glance at him. “The Executioner” smiled and nodded as he walked. No living fighter has more cache among Philadelphia fight fans than he does, and he knows it, and we know it. B-Hop’s appearance was a fitting lead in to Jesse Hart and Bryant Jennings making their respective pitches for second title shots.
When someone asks me what the difference is between seeing a fight in person and watching it on TV, I always say, “Punches are louder in person.” Jesse Hart’s (25-1) performance is why I say that. Only the people in the venue know just how brutally he beat up Mike Gavronski (24-3-1). It didn’t take Hart a full round to start finding a home for his overhand right, often on the bridge of Mike Gavronski’s nose, usually with a crack as sharp as a ball-peen hammer on a rock.
By the third round Hart had established his dominance and scored a knockdown. After Gavronski got up, Hart gave him no quarter and ended the fight with another overhand right that sent his opponent back to the deck. While Gavronski got to his feet, he could do little more than stagger, and the referee wisely called the fight off. Hart did everything required to prove he is a true contender at super middleweight, and when Gavronski walked past me and back to the locker room he still looked shaky.
On the night, Hart was the baddest man in the building, but he was also one of the most gracious. While ESPN ran their preview of next week’s Ray Beltran fight, only those in the arena saw Hart walk around the ring and shake people’s hands: Top Rank staff, the TV cast members, a few fans who’d come down from their seats. This is a reflection of my experience talking to Hart a week or so before the fight; I texted him to set up an interview and he called me back in about 90 seconds. He truly appreciates the media and fans, and wants to connect with those who support him. A class act, and maybe a class world champion soon.
Bryant “B.Y.” Jennings (24-2), in the main event, found himself in a very different battle than his Philly compatriot. Alexander Dimitrenko (41-4) hadn’t put on an impressive display in sometime, and while Jennings isn’t known for his knockout power, many predicted a clean decision win for the local heavyweight. But Dimitrenko came out ready to bang. Jennings found himself on the wrong end of body blows, his opponent consistently getting underneath his elbow with hooks to his solar plexus and kidneys. That investment in the body paid off for Dimitrenko by round four when he went upstairs and knocked Jennings down. Someone near me mentioned that even if Jennings got through this fight and won, that he couldn’t be considered a top heavyweight contender anymore. Much as the Philadelphia fan in me wanted to find some positives in Jennings’s performance to that point, I too was deeply unimpressed.
But give Jennings credit, because while no one predicted he’d get pushed around for the first four rounds, as he picked himself up off the canvas I don’t think any of us saw what came next either. “B.Y.” began to establish himself as the dominant fighter. The key was his movement, because while at the start he went toe-to-toe with a man who had 30 pounds on him, he must have realized that in order to win, he needed to establish himself as the more athletic fighter. He moved more at the waist and made full use of the ring, and as a result started landing consistent blows, including a strong jab.
By the sixth round, a crowd that had been murmuring about his career maybe being over was completely on his side, and Jennings seemed energized. By the eighth Jennings bossed the fight, and due to relentless swarming, movement, and an accumulation of punches he knocked Dimitrenko down twice. To start the ninth, Jennings came out with the same ferocity and cracked his opponent on the chin with a perfectly placed hook. Dimitrenko hit the deck and the ref immediately waved his hands to end it.
The stoppage was strange: there was no count, not even a moment to look in the fighter’s eyes and evaluate his state. Personally, I thought Dimitrenko looked like he could’ve continued, and that the fight had an ebb and flow worth seeing out to the end. Still, three knockdowns in two rounds could understandably lead a referee to err on the side of caution.
Did Jennings do enough to earn another shot at a heavyweight title? It’s tough to say. Contenders don’t usually come out and get bullied by fringe opponents for four rounds before they figure it out, but real contenders do show exactly the guts that Jennings did by coming back and taking over the fight to earn a stoppage win. The fight was exciting, and while I wouldn’t say it increased Jennings’s stock, it didn’t hurt him either. In boxing, there is usually very little wrong with putting on a good show for the fans if you come out with a victory. I think the crowd left Atlantic City happy last night, having seen their local fighters give good, sometimes great, accounts of themselves.
The evening did end on a melancholy note though, as the walk-out fight saw Jason Sosa (21-3-4), who only 18 months ago was battling Vasyl Lomachenko for a world title, beat up an overmatched Reynaldo Blanco (14-5) in front of a nearly barren arena. ESPN had packed up, the ring girls were gone, the writers yelled for a knockout so they could go home. While a few vocal fans stayed to cheer Sosa on, a glance up at the stands revealed dark rows of empty seats. It was a reminder of how cruel boxing can be sometimes, how fickle a world it is for even a former world champion. That said, when Sosa was finally announced the winner by unanimous decision and all the lights came on, I was ready to call it a night. Here’s hoping we have more such nights on the Boardwalk soon.
— Joshua Isard