New Hall of Fame preserving the past and fighting for the future
Once upon a time, Atlantic City was a boxing destination, drawing some of the sport’s biggest names.
To preserve that history—and hoping to help trigger a rebirth—the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame was established last month, when 24 members were inducted into the inaugural class at the Claridge Hotel.
Eight boxers, three trainers, four promoters, three media members, three officials, and three special contributors were inducted.
The eight boxers—Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Michael Spinks, Mike Rossman, Leavander Johnson, Arturo Gatti, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi—are former world champions who had bouts in Atlantic City.
The Philadelphia-born Saad Muhammad, who was formerly known as Matthew Franklin, Johnson, and Gatti were inducted posthumously.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with those boxers, and their impact on Atlantic City at the time, than Dave Bontempo, who was part of the HBO and Showtime broadcast teams on many of their bouts. He started his broadcast career as a part-time broadcaster for ESPN while he was covering boxing at the Press of Atlantic City.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Atlantic City attracted some of the most sought-after fights in the nation.
“I’m grateful that the wind blew through here for a little while,” said Bontempo, who was also inducted into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame.
Bontempo, 60, a 1978 graduate of Glassboro State College (now Rowan University), currently lives in Egg Harbor Township and frequently travels abroad. He broadcasts international boxing matches for HBO and Showtime.
As other casinos opened throughout the nation in the last two decades, marquee boxing matches gradually faded from Atlantic City. The new casinos wanted to get their brands known, and attracting big-time boxers was a way to help spread the word.
“That’s the fundamental underpinning of why” boxing became less popular in Atlantic City, said Bontempo, an award-winning writer and broadcaster. “I know, because I ended up following it. When I started broadcasting fights, it was only in Atlantic City. Now I’ve done fights in more than 175 cities and several countries.”
The newly created Hall of Fame “puts Atlantic City back on the map,” Bontempo said. “They can get some smaller-level fights if they want to. I think one property will start it and someone else will say, ‘Hey, look what they have. Why don’t we go after that?’ I think it can come back, but the experience we had there in the ’80s was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon for any place.”
“Our goal,” said Ray McCline, the president and founder of the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame, “is to try to tell the history of Atlantic City through boxing. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the casinos and boxing came together in an unbelievable way…. Obviously there are now other places that have come onto the stage with new arenas, like the Barclays Center (in Brooklyn). Madison Square Garden and Vegas will always be a hotbed for boxing, but we do believe Atlantic City is going to have another shot at it as well. There are some new things coming on board, like the Hard Rock Casino, so I definitely think Atlantic City will have another shot.”
The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino recently purchased the Trump Taj Mahal for a reported $50 million, and it will feature two arenas with seating that totals 7,000.
“They’re renovating it, and they are a company that likes to do boxing,” McCline said. “They’re definitely looking to get back in the boxing business in Atlantic City. I think that’s going to make a big difference….and other casinos are showing interest, too.”
Added McCline: “We may not be the only destination like it was before, but we will be a player.”
McCline, who has been a trainer, agent, and consultant in his career, said the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame was started because so many boxers are often forgotten after they retire.
The inductions, held last month over Memorial Day weekend, will be an annual event.
The next phase will be finding a location to house the Hall of Fame awards and memorabilia. The Claridge Hotel is a possibility, McCline said, “and we have interest from others to have a permanent residence in Atlantic City.”
The late Saad Muhammad was one the most fascinating boxers inducted.
In 1977, Saad Muhammad (pictured) became the light-heavyweight champion while competing in just his 21st pro fight—an amazing development for someone who was abandoned by his family and taken in by Catholic nuns when he was five years old. They named him Matthew from the Bible, and Franklin because he was found near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.
He defended his title eight times, including seven by knockouts, before losing to Muhammad Qawi in 1981. Saad Muhammad retired 11 years later, finishing with a 46-16-3 record, including 35 knockouts.
Saad Muhammad died at age 59 in 2014, four years after he became homeless and lived in a city shelter for a while. According to The Inquirer, he had his own home in North Philadelphia at the time of his passing. He had been an advocate for the homeless, speaking during anti-homelessness campaigns until his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, prevented him from contributing.
“He was an explosive puncher, someone who could turn a fight around instantly,” Bontempo said. “And he was a prominent player in what I believe, to this day, is still the heyday of the light-heavyweight division. There were boxers like Victor Galindez and John Conteh. It was the Who’s Who of the light-heavyweight division and he was one of those champions….His fights were part of that ascension in Atlantic City.”
In many of Saad Muhammad’s fights, Bontempo said, “you’d see him in some adversity, and then he would turn it around with his power and he would win. But they were usually expensive victories for him because he had no easy fights.”
Rossman, a Turnersville, N.J., native who was christened Michael DePiano, was inducted because of a 44-7-3 career that included 27 knockouts. He fought 10 times in Atlantic City during a distinguished 11-year career.
Nicknamed the “Jewish Bomber,” Rossman’s most famous fight was a 1978 stunner that was a preliminary matchup to Muhammad Ali defeating Leon Sinks to win the heavyweight crown for a record third time. Rossman scored a 13th-round TKO over the heavily favored Galindez to capture the WBA light-heavyweight title.
Four promoters were inducted: Don King, Don Elbaum, J. Russell Peltz, and Frank Gelb, who was involved in bringing the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman fight to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall in 1991.
Besides Bontempo, Jack Obermeyer and Bert Sugar were media members inducted. The latter two men were honored posthumously. Ken Condon, the late Dennis Gomes, and Bob Lee were inducted as contributors.
The inaugural class also included three officials: Referee Steve Smoger; Larry Hazzard, the New Jersey Athletic Control Board commissioner; and the late Frank Doggett, a former ringside doctor.
The three trainers inducted: Bill Johnson, an Atlantic City native, Lou Duva, and the late Mike Hall. Johnson is the father of Leavander Johnson, who won the IBF lightweight crown on June 17, 2005. Three months later, he lost on an 11th-round TKO to Jesus Chavez and, tragically, died five days later from brain injuries suffered in the fight.
McCline said the famous folks inducted, like Tyson and King, “may get people excited, but in reality, I want to make sure we speak equally about the others.”
After all, they also played a vital role in once making Atlantic City one of the nation’s boxing hotspots.