Extra Points: Boxing, MMA Anxious to Return to Atlantic City
Boxing and mixed martial arts are starting to make a comeback.
Top Rank ended its hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic earlier this week with an ESPN-televised boxing card at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and had another Thursday at the same venue.
The UFC was the first major sports organization to return when it staged UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla. on May 9. Last week, Las Vegas was the site of UFC 250. Toms River-based standout Frankie Edgar will be back in the cage on July 11 as part of UFC 251 on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Atlantic City's boxing rings and MMA cages remain in storage.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has yet to give the go-ahead for combative sports to resume in the state. When he does, the New Jersey Athletic Control Board and various promoters will be ready.
"We've been studying and developing plans for months with our officials and our medical personnel," Control Board Commissioner Larry Hazzard said. "As a matter of fact, we've got another meeting scheduled for next week. We're just waiting for the governor to give us permission to start back."
Both sports were off to an encouraging start in Atlantic City this year before Covid-19 forced them to tap out in March.
Four boxing shows were held on the boardwalk in the first two and a half months. Women's standout Claressa Shields started it off at Ocean Casino Resort with a convincing victory over Ivana Habzin on Showtime Boxing on Jan. 10. The next day, Top Rank returned to town with a great fight that saw Joe Smith Jr. on ESPN at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
But an uppercut hasn't been thrown since March 7, when Atlantic City super-middleweight Gabriel Pham beat Glassboro's Derrick Webster in a thrilling fight at Bally's Atlantic City staged by Hard Hitting Promotions. HHP was hoping to hold a card on June 27, but it has already been canceled.
"We don't have anything scheduled officially," Hazzard said. "But a number of promoters have renewed their licenses and have expressed interest in doing business here again. We consider ourselves promoter-friendly. We're willing to consider any ideas, within reason."
The last MMA show in Atlantic City was Ring of Combat 71 on Feb. 21 at Tropicana Atlantic City. ROC 72 was scheduled for May 29 at the Trop but was postponed. It's hoping to return in September.
Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships held CFFC 79 at Hard Rock on last Nov. 16. CFFC was forced to cancel a shows at Hard Rock scheduled for March 21, May 23 and June 13.
"We're were hoping to be back in June, but now we're shooting for the latter part of July," CFFC owner Rob Haydak said. "We're ready to go once the governor gives us permission. It's going to be far different than what we're used to in terms of standard operating practices, but we're prepared."
Both boxing and MMA cards initially will be held without fans, just like the UFC and Top Ranks shows.
Strict policies with regard to Covid-19 testing, social distancing, isolation of competitors, sanitizing the venues, etc. will be instituted.
One of the challenges will be finding suitable venues. CFFC has a great relationship with Hard Rock and would love to keep holding shows at the Etess Arena, but it may not make sense for the casino property to host an event without fans who would otherwise be staying in their hotel, eating in their restaurants, and playing slots and blackjack. That is also the case with Ocean, Bally's and the Trop.
There is a chance that some of the early post-pandemic events could be held at non-casino properties such as the Claridge and Showboat hotels. Both have staged boxing and MMA events in the past.
Another out-of-the-box possibility would be to hold a card outdoors. Vineland-based boxing promoter Diane Fischer-Cristiano has reportedly been considering that idea.
An outdoor event brings additional challenges, however.
The last local MMA card to be held outside was in 2007 at the Sandcastle in Atlantic City. Several fighters suffered burns on their feet and backs when heat and humidity made the black vinyl surface hotter than expected. A boxing card hasn't been held outdoors since June 24, 2005, when Fischer-Cristiano helped hold a card at the now-defunct Nikki Beach nightclub outside Resorts Atlantic City. A cool breeze off the ocean dropped the temperatures into the 60's and made it difficult for boxers to properly warm up before their bouts.
Outdoor fights have been known to work, however. The now-closed Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing held horse racing-boxing doubleheaders in 1991 and 1994.
Hazzard, Haydak and others expressed confidence that any and all potential issues would be resolved once the restrictions are lifted and boxing and MMA are cleared to resume.
"We've got all the bases covered," Hazzard said.
Which is more than can be said for Major League Baseball.