Bernie Dillon is a boxing guy. As the new Hard Rock in Atlantic City’s VP of Entertainment, Dillon is responsible for bringing Amy Schumer in September and Elvis Costello in November to the casino-hotel’s Etess Arena. But, on Aug. 4, he’s bringing his first love back to center stage – hopefully, for good – when Sergey Kovalev defends his WBO light heavyweight championship against Eleider Alvarez at the Hard Rock’s 6,000-seat Etess Arena. Not only is it the first major boxing event in Atlantic City in four years (see sidebar), HBO will be on hand to televise the Kovalev-Alvarez bout, live.
There is much to unpack here; in relation to the main event itself (Kovalev is an AC fave, having fought along the Jersey shore four times), but, mostly, in regard to Dillon, with whom Atlantic City casino boxing’s history is irrefutably tied up. He all but invented the fight game in AC at the start of the casino era, first for Caesars, then for Trump Plaza where he worked with boxing’s golden generation greats (Don King, Oscar de la Hoya, Mike Tyson).When the then-bourgeoning HBO started its pay-per-view system, TVKO, Dillon helped them start it. After pushing Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mixed martial arts to prominence, and working with Carnival Cruise Lines, Dillon joined the Hard Rock team for their Hollywood, FL operations before heading back home to Atlantic City. He’s been away from AC for 15 years, watching the boxing game go to hell from its own maddening excesses, and his birthplace deal with sad, economic difficulties – until now.
“I was getting out of Montclair State University in 1978 when the casino industry was launching here,” said Dillon, the ultimate Jersey Boy, born in Atlantic City Hospital. “I got a job at Caesars out of college, staff assistant to the VP of operations, where I did everything. I was a young guy with energy and common sense who was able to get thigs done.” What Dillon got done was to help bring major event boxing to AC in a big way; inspired by how Caesars Palace was the first casino in Vegas to promote boxing starting in the 1960s, and how creatively it celebrated its star-shine into the 1970s.
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“I liked boxing in AC’s casinos because it worked,” said Dillon, with a laugh. “I was a big fan to begin with, when you could see guys like Ali, Frazier and Foreman, all on network TV for free. Boxing played well in casinos. In fact, boxing’s the one professional sport we could claim as our own franchise.”
Between Vegas and AC, from 1978 on, any big fight worth its’ muscle happened in one of their casinos. “Customers who liked to be mano et mano against us at the craps table; that’s what you see when these guys stepped into the ring,” claimed Dillon, loftily. “And there’s nothing like the electricity of a ring walk when two fighters enter to their own music, and march around like gladiators. I don’t want to be too dramatic but … it really is something.”
After the golden '80s, boxing didn’t maintain its elevated might. Some say it was the UFC that moved traditional boxing out, but Dillon sees it differently. After a time, there were too many new organizing boxing bodies and promoters (“it was a free-for-all”), issues with troubled fighters “getting infamous rather than famous,” and lousy matches with hyped-up fighters who won in one round, “NOT because they were so good, but, because who they were matched against were less good.” Casino boxing kept shooting itself in the foot, and “became its own worst enemy,” said Dillon. “At that time, UFC was a better run sport, able to market great fighters and solid recognizable personalities.” If that wasn’t enough to hurt Atlantic City’s boxing game, having Vegas open bigger grander hotels and welcome people for longer stays made it tough for the Jersey shore. “It got bad at the end of the 80s, worse in the 90s, until the 2000s and the rise of mixed-martial arts,” he said. “Plus, in retrospect, we could have invested more in the city itself when thing were good, something I have seen more within the last decade. Slowly and surely, AC is trying to get back on track.”
So too is boxing at the casinos of Atlantic City. Having the confidence of HBO and top boxing promoter Kathy Duva — the CEO of the NJ-based Main Events that brought the Kovalev fight to Dillon — is an excellent first step to ensuring boxing’s future in the gambling palaces of the Jersey shore.
Is that what brought him home, from Florida, to do, return AC boxing back to its former glory? “I have confidence, but I have skepticism at what happened in the past, so I’m cautiously optimistic.“ For Dillon, the key to making Atlantic City boxing bright again is to choose the right fights and the right fighters. He’s still in the entertainment business, trying to present the best live opportunity to his customer base, be it Christina Aguillera or Sergey Kovalev.
There is a lot riding on this August 4 bout. It is the first and only boxing match on the Hard Rock docket (there are five MMA Pro League events at the E-Arena through 2018). “The idea behind my position is to drive customers to the Hard Rock, to do more than gamble,” said Dillon. “As for where boxing stands at the Hard Rock, ask me on Aug. 5.”
The other big bout
Atlantic City’s other new casino, Ocean Resort, isn’t about to let Hard Rock have all the pugilistic (or televised) fun. On August 18, Las Vegas-based Top Rank brings a card starring Philadelphia heavyweight Bryant Jennings and other area superstars such as the still-undefeated super-bantamweight Christian Carto from West Deptford and Millville welterweight contender Thomas LaManna to AC. Before these matches, Philly super-middleweight Jesse Hart (24-1, 20 KOs) — the son of the great local middleweight Eugene “Cyclone” Hart — will fight Tacoma, Washington’s Mike Gavronski (24-2-1, 15 KOs) in a 10-round bout.
Adding an additional twist to the proceedings, ESPN will broadcast the show from Ocean Resort; an address that last saw boxing when, as Revel, it hosted that light-heavyweight champion bout with Sergey Kovalev, in 2014 discussed in the main feature. This night at OC in AC also happens to be Top Rank’s first gig in town since 2013, and Guillermo Rigondeux/Joseph Agbeko super-bantamweight championship bout at Boardwalk Hall.
Though all of August 18’s match-ups are important, the success of the Jennings (23-2, 13 KOs) 12-rounder with Russia’s Alexander Dimitrenko (41-3, 26 KOs) is a big deal: on a hometown hero level, to raise each fighters’ World Boxing Association rank, and — like the Hard Rock/HBO/Bernie Dillion deal — to ensure a next match and another after that, occur.