Trump Plaza Implosion Marked End of an Era in Atlantic City Boxing
Trump Plaza hit the canvas in a matter of seconds last Wednesday morning, dropping faster than Michael Spinks did against Mike Tyson at nearby Boardwalk Hall 31 years ago.
It had been on the ropes for a while, however. The implosion merely completed a 10-count that had been going on for more than 25 years. Donald Trump's first Atlantic City casino had become an empty, rusting shell, long past the days when celebrities dined at its restaurants, bet $100,000 a hand at the blackjack tables, and sat ringside to see Tyson, Evander Holyfield and others fight at both Trump Plaza's Imperial Ballroom and Boardwalk Hall.
Once it opened in 1984, there was about a 10-year span where Trump Plaza was a sports and entertainment mecca.
"I never worked there, but I was there many, many times," boxing manager and Harrah's Atlantic City executive Jim Kurtz said Wednesday while watching the implosion from Caesars Atlantic City's parking garage. "Lots of boxing matches, lots of shows, and lots of memories. ..."
Once it opened in 1984, Trump Plaza joined Atlantis, Bally's, Claridge, Harrah's, Playboy, Resorts, Sands and Tropicana in holding boxing at its property, enabling Atlantic City to surpass Las Vegas as the "Boxing Capital of the World."
There were 123 cards held in town in 1984, followed by a whopping 144 in 1985. It was not unusual for Atlantic City to host three or four boxing events in a week.
"Those were definitely the good, old days for boxing in A.C.," said New York's Ron Katz, who promoted shows in Atlantic City for Top Rank and HBA-East.
According to BoxRec.com, the first boxing card held at Trump Plaza was on Dec. 7, 1984, when New England-based promoter Robert Andreoli staged a small show headlined by a NABF lightweight bout between Guy Villegas and Dennis Cruz.
Top Rank Promotions got started at Trump with a card on June 11, 1985 with unbeaten featherweight Bernard Taylor vs. Tyrone Downes. One month later, a promising, young heavyweight named Mike Tyson scored a second-round TKO over John Alderson in an undercard bout.
Tyson fought six times in Atlantic City in 1985-86, including four times at Trump Plaza. Elsewhere in town, Evander Holyfield was starting his career at Harrah's Atlantic City. Promoters Don Elbaum and Teddy Menas staged a vastly popular "Tuesday Night Fights." series at the Trop.
"Everyone likes to remember the big fights in Atlantic City with Tyson, Holyfield, (George Foreman) and others, but the years leading up to those fights helped build boxing in town," said Brigantine's Bernie Dillon, who ran Trump Plaza's boxing program from 1984 to 1991. "We did a lot of boxing back then, but so did Resorts, Sands, Caesars, the Trop and others. Those shows were what paved the way for us to do those big Tyson fights."
Because virtually every card was nationally televised, whether it was on ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, USA or HBO, it afforded local casinos the opportunity to grow their brand via publicity.
Dillon and a young marketing executive named Dave Coskey got creative. According to Coskey, who now lives in Avalon, Trump Plaza was the first to put their name on the ring corner pads and on the rope ties.
"The world was focused on Atlantic City because of some of the events that were held there," Coskey said. "There was a time when Trump Plaza was a monster in the casino industry. We only had 800 rooms, but at one point it was the most profitable casino in the world."
Tyson fought six times in Atlantic City in 1985-86, including four times at Trump Plaza.
His earlier appearances, specifically a bout against Jose Ribalta on Aug. 17, 1986 there helped Dillon and Trump Plaza's boxing program gain the inside track for Tyson's megafights at Boardwalk Hall against Spinks, Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes, the late Carl Wiliams and the late Alex Stewart from 1987-90.
"(Tyson's former co-managers) Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs needed a place to hold Tyson-Ribalta," Dillon said. "(Former Trump executives) Mark Etess and Stephen Hyde (who were both killed in a 1989 helicopter crash) worked out a deal that contained a right of first refusal for some of Tyson's future fights. There were some that were better-suited to Las Vegas, but Atlantic City hosted most of the big ones."
Although Tyson's big fights were held at Boardwalk Hall, Trump Plaza served as the host hotel. As such, the bars, restaurants, and gaming tables were always packed with celebrities and high rollers.
That was especially true of Tyson-Spinks, which was held on June 27, 1988, a Monday. The fight reportedly produced $344 million in gamble revenue in Atlantic City that weekend. Trump Plaza registered a record casino drop of $11.5 million on the day of the fight.
"It was an amazing event, probably the most amazing event Atlantic City has ever seen," Trump told me in a 2013 interview. "The buzz around that fight was incredible."
The entire town was filled for Tyson-Spinks. Every hotel within a 35-mile radius was sold out. Traffic was backed up for 20 miles on the Garden State Parkway. Although a record crowd of 21,785 watched Tyson's 91-second knockout, hundreds more arrived too late.
"I can remember walking into the Tyson-Spinks fight and people were flowing out of (Boardwalk) Hall," said Ken Condon, former Bally's Atlantic City president who was working at Resorts in 1988. "I got a late start after loading some customers onto trams at Resorts and I missed the first-round KO.
"I wasn't late again for any Tyson fights after that, though. When Tyson was in town, it was electric. All of the casinos purchased tickets for their customers! Tyson fights were great citywide events that drove business not only through the casinos but to all of local restaurants and bars."
The last fight to come close to generating that much money and interest in Atlantic City was Holyfield-George Foreman. Approximately 20,000 fans filled Boardwalk Hall on April 19, 1991 to watch Holyfield carve out a 12-round, unanimous decision.
Financial troubles forced Trump out of the boxing business just three years later.
According to boxrec.com, the final fight card at Trump Plaza happened on Aug. 19, 1994, with middleweight Tony Marshall earning a 10-round, split decision over Lonnie Beasley in the main event.
Condon and Caesars Entertainment took over where Trump left off and helped keep big-time boxing alive in town. A $90 million renovation that was completed in 2002 reduced Boardwalk Hall's seating capacity for boxing to about 14,000, but major fights featuring the late Arturo Gatti, Sergio Martinez, Kelly Pavlik, Bernard Hopkins, Holyfield and others kept Atlantic City in the mix for a little while.
It's sad to see what's happened in recent years.
Seven years have passed since the last fight at Boardwalk Hall's main arena took place. That ring has essentially remained in storage since Sergey Kovalev beat Bernard Hopkins on Nov. 8, 2014.
Trump Plaza, vacant since 2014, is now gone, just like the Atlantis, the Sands, Playboy and others who helped make Atlantic City a hotbed for boxing in the 1980s.
Boxing appeared on the verge of a comeback in early 2020, when Ocean Casino Hotel and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino - former the Trump Taj Mahal - held cards on Showtime and ESPN, respectively, in January. Two months later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Other states have started to host boxing shows again in recent months, but New Jersey has yet to book another show. March 7 will mark one year since the last card was held at Bally's Atlantic City.
Like Trump Plaza, boxing appears to have imploded.
"I think boxing can still make a comeback here, but it won't be like it once was," Dillon said. "That was quite a heyday."