Extra Points: 30 Years Ago, Holyfield-Foreman Happened
Monday marks the 30th anniversary of one of Atlantic City's most epic fights.
On April 19, 1991, Evander Holyfield retained his unified heavyweight championship with a 12-round, unanimous decision over George Foreman at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
It was an action-packed, brutal fight that is considered one of the best and biggest events in Atlantic City history. An estimated 20,000 fans packed the arena, making it the second-largest crowd to watch a boxing match at Boardwalk Hall behind the 22,785 for Tyson-Spinks on June 27, 1988.
Those fights, along with other memorable matches such as Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward III and Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor I, helped make Atlantic City one of boxing's hotbeds in the 1980s-90s.
Now it's a ghost town for boxing.
More than a year has passed since Atlantic City last hosted a boxing event. The last fight card was held at Bally's Atlantic City on March 7, 2020, when Atlantic City super-middleweight Gabriel Pham and Somers Point middleweight Isiah Seldon earned victories before an enthusiastic crowd. Nearly seven years have passed since a fight was at Boardwalk Hall's main arena. The last one was Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins on Nov. 8, 2014.
I understand the recent dry spell, to a degree. About a week after that Bally's card, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the boardwalk and local sports came to a halt. But high school and college sports have since resumed in the area - the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference held its men's and women's basketball tournaments at Boardwalk Hall last month - but boxing is still on the canvas.
It makes no sense.
Boxing events are being held throughout the country in Atlanta; Kissimmee and Hollywood, Florida; Philadelphia and Phoenix; and Southern California. No fights are scheduled for Atlantic City.
On May 1, Millville's Thomas LaManna will challenge former junior-middleweight world champion Erislandy Lara for the vacant World Boxing Association middlweight title. Although LaManna has fought 20 times in Atlantic City, he will face Lara in Carson, California. Why couldn't that fight card have been held at Hard Rock, Ocean or Boardwalk Hall?
Other local fighters have seen their careers halted. Pleasantville welterweight prospect Anthony Young (21-2, 8 KOs) has been sidelined for nearly two years. Mays Landing heavyweight Rodney Brooks, an Oakcrest High School graduate and former professional basketball player, was scheduled to make his pro debut last year. He's still waiting.
Bill Johnson has been hurt more than anyone.
The legendary boxing trainer, who turned 80 last month, lives on Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City. But he's just as much at home at the third-floor boxing gym at the A.C. Police Athletic League on New York Ave.
Over the last 40-plus years, he's worked with hundreds of fighters, including world champions Bruce Seldon and his youngest son, the late Leavander Johnson. He started at the old PAL, a converted firehouse on Rhode Island and Melrose Avenues, before moving over to the current site about 30 years ago.
But he hasn't been there in 13 months.
"It's been tough," Bill said during a birthday dinner at The Twenties Italian Bistro at the Claridge - A Radisson Hotel last month. "I'm used to being there all the time. I've been taking a lot of long walks to stay busy, but it's not the same."
His first boxers were his older sons, Craig and Cade. They started going to the old PAL in the mid-1970s and asked their father to join them because they knew he'd have their best interests at heart.
Under his guidance, they both enjoyed outstanding amateur careers. They traveled the country together, competing in the top amateur tournaments. One of their favorite trips was to the annual tournament at the
Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus, Ohio.
One such trip in the early 1980s was particularly memorable. Between bouts, they happened to glance over at another ring to watch a young heavyweight who was knocking out opponents with shocking power. His name was Mike Tyson.
"Dad always said that winning championships are great," Craig said at the dinner, "but the journeys we had were the best part."
Cade and Craig both had brief pro careers, but eventually found more joy in the kitchen than the ring. Cade, 55, is executive chef at Harrington Raceway & Casino in Delaware. Craig, 57, is executive chef at the Claridge.
When they decided to hang up their boxing gloves, Bill supported their decision.
"He never pressured us to stay in boxing," Cade said at the dinner. "He just wanted us to pursue our passion and strive to be successful in whatever it was. We got our strength from our dad."
Bill had the same goals for Leavander, who found his calling in the ring.
With Bill in his corner, Leavander won the IBF lightweight title on June 17, 2005 with a seventh-round TKO over Stefano Zoff in Italy. Three months later, he suffered an 11th-round TKO against Jesus Chavez in Las Vegas. Leavander left the ring under his own power, but collapsed in his dressing room and died six days later at age 32.
Distraught over the tragedy, Bill stayed away from the PAL for a month, but eventually returned as a way to honor his son's legacy.
"It's what Leavander would have wanted," Bill said.
He longs for the day when he can return, when he can pull on his sweat-stained elbow braces, put on a
pair of hand pads, turn his baseball cap backward, climb through the ropes, and work with a fighter again.
That would be the perfect birthday present.