Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Czar of Atlantic City

Whether you’re sitting inside the friendly confines of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall or viewing the fights on HBO this Saturday Night, there’s a person you should thank – but you’ve probably never heard of him.

By all accounts he’s the one person responsible for keeping boxing alive at "America's Seaside Entertainment Center" on the Jersey shore.

His name is Ken Condon, and most within the boxing industry credit him with single handedly keeping boxing on the Boardwalk. Without him, many say there would be no boxing on the beach at all.

After nearly 30 years in the casino business, Ken Condon recently stepped down as the President of Bally’s Atlantic City. But soon afterward, Harrah’s Entertainment hired him to serve as Sports and Entertainment Consultant for the company’s four Atlantic City properties which include Caesars Atlantic City, The Showboat, Harrah’s and Bally’s. It's now Condon's full-time job to bring big name entertainers and big name fighters to the sandy shores.

Speaking from Atlantic City on Wednesday morning, the enthusiasm and passion Condon has for Atlantic City - and more importantly boxing - could be heard in his voice.

"It's a dream job," he says of his new role. "It's great. I have a background in marketing and to be able to keep boxing alive here is a great experience. Keeping the relationships with promoters and business contacts in boxing has been wonderful."

When he was the head of Bally’s for eight years, Condon worked tirelessly to bring big-time boxing to New Jersey and to keep the sport as a major draw for Atlantic City. It was Condon who helped arrange the matches at Boardwalk Hall in recent years that led to the facility’s rebirth as one of the top-grossing boxing venues in the country.

On fight night, inside the confines of Atlantic City's famous arena. Boardwalk Hall is a mystical place from which to watch a fight.

Condon is no newcomer to Atlantic City or to boxing for that matter. The former casino executive has been a key cog in Atlantic City's wheel since since the inception of gaming there in 1978. He's a proud New Jersey native and began his casino career in the public relations department at Resorts International. But, like any casino, the need to cater to the high rollers and "whales" soon emerged and his role eventually morphed into becoming Atlantic City's very first casino host.

After spending several years at Merv Griffin's Resorts International, Condon went to the Trump Taj Mahal and worked for "The Donald" for a short time. Luckliy, he never heard the now infamous Trump words, "You’re fired!" No, Condon left on his own, went back to Resorts International for a while and then ultimately to Bally’s.

Condon eventually rose to the top of the food chain at Bally’s where he was responsible for the entire operation. He oversaw a succession of key developments, including the opening of the Wild Wild West Casino annex, the merger of Park Place Entertainment with Caesars Palace, and the merger of the Claridge into Bally’s.

And aside from all of those accomplishments, he's the person most pointed to when people talk about the success of boxing on the Boardwalk.

"Ken Condon has been the single most important individual as far as bringing in the major world championship fights to the state," said Larry Hazzard, former longtime chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. "There are some people who are irreplaceable and Ken has really done a tremendous job."

The sun breaks over the horizon and illuminates the boardwalk in front of Boardwalk Hall. On fight night, the area is flooded with eager fight fans.

After Boardwalk Hall had an extreme makeover and was re-opened in 2001, it was Condon that led the way in bringing in major boxing events to the arena. Over the years he helped make Bally's casino synonymous with boxing and he was a key part in making sure that two of the three Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward fights ended up at Boardwalk Hall. The arena became Gati's second home with his last nine fights of his career having taken place there.

Condon has adopted a tactical approach in what fights and fighters he likes to see come down to the Jersey shore and he has used his keen sense of what sells when he selects which fights to go after.

"The super mega-fights land in Las Vegas," says the plain-spoken Condon. "And Vegas is geared more toward West coast fighters. Our concentration has been more on east coast fighters like Miguel Cotto and Kelly Pavlik. Those two have been a terrific duo for us. And Arturo Gatti carried us for years."

So when word leaked out late last year that Condon would be stepping down from his post as the head of Bally's it sent a shot through the boxing industry that landed like a Gatti left hook to the chin.

"I personally don't believe they could find someone of his caliber to fill that type of void," said Larry Hazzard when he learned of Condon’s departure from Bally’s. "I would go so far as saying if it were not for Ken Condon, there would be no professional boxing in the state of New Jersey. There would be none."

Micky Ward (left) and Arturo Gatti fought two of the most storied fights in boxing history at Boardwalk Hall.

Luckily for boxing fans, Condon was tapped to keep close to boxing and Boardwalk Hall when he was hired into his new role.

Lee Samuels, who works as an ace publicist for Bob Arum's Top Rank promotions, says Condon has a discerning eye when he chooses what fights ultimately come to Atlantic City. Top Rank is promoting the card on Saturday night featuring Miguel Cotto vs. Alfonso Gomez for the welterweight title and Top Rank is coming back to Atlantic City on June 7th for the Kelly Pavlik vs. Gary Lockett middleweight title bout.

"He's the heartbeat of boxing in Atlantic City," said Samuels. "He knows what good fights are, what sells and what's works for his customers. Atlantic City has gone hot and cold with boxing, but it's hot right now because of Ken."

So how does Condon do what he does and how does he get the fighters to Atlantic City?

"Well, I'm always proud of Atlantic City," he says. "And it's good for the whole city when people come to see the fights here. And not every fight can land in Las Vegas. We have a great venue in Boardwalk Hall and it's an intimate 13,000 seat venue. It's not Madison Square Garden where a ringside seat is several rows back from the ring."

And Condon's philosophy on going after certain fights and fighters is a simple one. "There's a lot of good championship fights out there," he says.

The bright lights on the beaches of Atlantic City have been a beacon for boxing.

So clearly the focus is on fighters like Cotto and Pavlik that put butts in the seats and have a following on the east coast. And in talking with Condon you understand that he has an intuitive sense of what the clientele of his city will want to see when it comes to fights and fighters.

Condon goes way back when it comes to boxing on the beach, so he understands the mentality of the east coast boxing fan as well as anyone in the sport. During his tenure at Resorts International, Condon was introduced to boxing when he watched a young Mike Tyson fight in their ballroom with ESPN televising, Al Bernstein and Barry Tompkins calling the action from ringside, Ed Derian serving as the ring announcer and Frank Cappuccino as one of the referees.

From then on, he was hooked. "I just enjoyed boxing and never let it go," he says.

Throughout the late 80’s it was Donald Trump that was main man behind most of the big fights in Atlantic City. Trump partnered up with Don King who had control of Mike Tyson and for a time it seemed that Atlantic City was the center of the boxing universe. Tyson defended his heavyweight championship there against the likes of Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and Carl Williams. But as Tyson self destructed and Trump’s casino empire began to lose focus and struggle it signaled the end of a brief era that saw Atlantic City as a boxing powerhouse. Years later Don King would be banned from promoting boxing in New Jersey because of his ties to the scandal plagued Iinternational Boxing Federation and not too long after that Boardwalk Hall was shuttered for lengthy renovations.

A young Mike Tyson became a rich man while fighting in Atlantic City back in the mid-to-late 1980's.

By the time Boardwalk Hall re-opened in 2001 many of boxing's East Coast power-brokers had forged new relationships with the new kids on the block at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. Then there were a myriad of other tribal owned casinos that sprouted up all across the country and even Madison Square Garden was beginning to actively get back into the fight game. As a result, Atlantic City was behind the eight ball when it came to landing high profile matches.

When Condon was asked if he ever believed that boxing was dead and buried for Atlantic City, he pondered the question for a moment.

"I thought it would be very limited," he admitted. "I was concerned it would slow down to a crawl. MSG got back into boxing and so did all of the other properties on the east coast. But, just when boxing here and everywhere was at its lowest, Arturo Gatti was at his best. Gatti kept us on the map and helped us promote the city. I'll be forever grateful to Arturo Gatti."

Condon is of course speaking of "the human highlight reel" and his two historic fights against Micky Ward - two East Coast fighters with huge followings. In November 2002, the legendary second fight between Gatti and Ward took place at Boardwalk Hall and seven months later the two locked horns again for their third and final encounter at the same place.

And just like that, after two standing room only crowds, boxing was back in A.C. The atmosphere of the Gatti-Ward fights was electric as crowds flooded the Boardwalk and fight fans jammed the casinos to be a part of all the action. It was like deja vu all over again and it reminded many of the "time of Tyson" when Atlantic City had, well, a monopoly on the sport.

And it didn't hurt that Gatti fought the next and ultimately last seven fights of his career at Boardwalk Hall. Just as Yankee Stadium became known as "the house that Ruth built" and the MGM Grand Garden "the house that Tyson built" now Boardwalk Hall is regarded as "the house that Gatti built."

And the future for Atlantic City boxing looks good, too. "It's not a complete sellout for Saturday night," says Condon of the Cotto vs. Gomez card. "But we'll be over 10,000."

So the question begs: Where is the next Arturo Gatti going to come from?

Well, to Condon's delight, he may have been discovered in a little place called Youngstown, Ohio. Condon seemed most excited when he began to talk about Kelly Pavlik who will defend his middleweight championship on June 7th in Atlantic City after having won the title from Jermain Taylor in Boardwalk Hall last September.

"The turnout for Pavlik is incredible," said Condon and you could hear the excitement, anticipation and glee when the subject of Pavlik came up. It sounded as though he might just have found the next star to hitch his wagon to. He was smiling and there was a sparkle in his voice.

And you get the sense, thanks to Ken Condon, that boxing in Atlantic City is going to be just fine.

April 2008

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