By Charles Jay
Donald Trump may have been a key factor in the demise of the United States Football League, by leading the charge for a switch from the spring/summer to the fall, but there was another sport where he fit in quite snugly. With his ego and business interests that had, by the 1980’s, entered into casino gaming, he was a natural to make his way into boxing, and to do it big.
That’s exactly what he did, and he brought the sport to a new place in Atlantic City.
In 1987, Trump owned two casinos in Atlantic City. And with the reputation he wanted to cement as someone who did things at the highest level, as well as the desire to compete with Las Vegas, which had developed a stranglehold on the big fights, there was no question that he was going to make a bid on bringing a marquee event to the Boardwalk.
Some casino in Las Vegas would have done quite well with the heavyweight fight between Michael Spinks and Gerry Cooney, but it was clearly an event that had “east coast” written all over it. After all, Spinks had lived in Philadelphia, was connected to promoter Butch Lewis and had taken up residence in Delaware, while Cooney, even with all his inactivity, still had a big following from the New York area.
And there was still quite a bit of importance attached to this event. Spinks had make a successful ascension from the light heavyweight division right into the heavyweights, beat Larry Holmes twice, and though he had been stripped of his IBF title, was still the lineal champion. Cooney had lost only to Holmes, and was just 30 years old, with a lot of boxing potentially ahead.
Trump stepped up to the table, offering $3.5 million for the live gate. The big advantage Trump had over the other casino owners was that he could put the fight essentially on his own property. That’s because the Atlantic City Convention Center was connected to his Trump Plaza Hotel/Casino, and he could put over 16,000 people in that building.
This wasn’t really much of a thought in Atlantic City before, because while the area had become extremely active with boxing since the casinos were built, they were generally restricted to ballroom venues. With access to the Convention Center, there really wasn’t anything Las Vegas had that Trump didn’t, when it came to getting the big fights.
In the fight itself, which took place on June 15, Spinks overwhelmed Cooney with a fifth-round stoppage, and Cooney’s career, which had been marked by sporadic fighting and long hiatuses, promptly went into another one.
Spinks was a big winner, but Trump may have scored even bigger. Mark Etess, Trump’s right-hand man in the casino business and the point man when it came to making the site fee deal, described the profits as “extraordinary.” He didn’t stop there.
Etess told the Associated Press, “The gaming impact on our casino Monday (the night of the fight) alone was so much in excess of this property’s prior one-day history that it was staggering.”
More staggering still were events that were yet to come. Trump’s involvement got even deeper, and before it was all over, he had the biggest name and the biggest event in boxing, which we can only assume is what he planned all along.