By Mitch Abramson
Is Sergey Kovalev the man to save Atlantic City?
Main Events CEO Kathy Duva thinks so.
With the beach-front resort town in the midst of an economic decline and four of the city’s 12 casinos slated to close by the end of September, Duva thinks that Kovalev, who faces Blake Caparello (19-0-1) at Revel Casino Hotel on HBO as part of a tripleheader Saturday- has what it takes to develop into a one-man stimulus package for the city.
If he defeats Caparello, as many expect he will, a career-defining unification fight with IBF/WBA champion Bernard Hopkins is already agreed upon for November on HBO.
The pressure is on Kovalev to do something remarkable.
Anything less than a scintillating effort against the unknown and unheralded Caparello will be viewed as disappointing since Kovalev has built his reputation on annihilating his opponents.
But Duva, who promotes the WBO light heavyweight champion, is hoping for more. Much more.
In fact, she’s banking that Kovalev, who has stopped 22 of 24 opponents, can eventually become the same kind of driving force the late Arturo Gatti was in Atlantic City.
That seems like a bit of a stretch for the Russian-born Kovalev, whose English remains a work in progress and hasn’t come close to participating in the career-defining wars that Gatti used to build his reputation.
The Main Events-promoted Gatti was adored on the boardwalk for his almost callous ability to take punishment and dole it out. He fought in Atlantic City over 20 times and was viewed as a son of the city until his untimely death in 2009 in Brazil.
But Duva was discussing Kovalev not in terms of matching Gatti’s boyish appeal and charisma but in becoming a driving force for the economy and developing into an attraction with his antics in the ring. And she was talking within the framework of the Atlantic City gaming market, which is experiencing a steep fall.
The city is facing the prospect of losing four of is 12 casinos by the end of September, including Revel, a shiny $2.4 billion skyscraper, which has filed for bankruptcy protection twice since opening in 2012.
The 1,400 room high-rise will shutter its doors unless someone offers to buy it at an auction next week. Moreover, Showboat Casino will also close unless a buyer emerges.
And Trump Plaza Hotel officials told the Associated Press it will probably cease operations by September. The Atlantic Club shuttered in January.
Kovalev doesn’t busy himself with feeling he has to score a knockout to keep the momentum going in his career and for other outside factors.
“I am just trying to win the fight and do what I have to do to have my hand raised,” he said in a phone interview. “Everything else doesn’t matter. That’s my goal for every fight.”
But Duva takes a longer view and according to her, Kovalev (24-0-1, 22 knockouts) has the style and personality (as evidenced by HBO’s “Two Days” program) to be an appealing attraction in Atlantic City, producing the same business that Gatti once did and playing a role in the city’s revival, she said, sounding very much like a promoter.
“Yeah, absolutely,” she said. “We’re going to try to. The Northeast as his base is kind of what we have in mind. And maybe at some point he ends up fighting on the West Coast or Vegas but for the time being Atlantic City is really happy to have him. They want to find another star. The people who run Boardwalk Hall, the people from the various casinos, the people who work for the state of New Jersey, and the people who want to see Atlantic City make a comeback- they all recognize that boxing plays an important part of it and they all recognize that Sergei Kovalev is the kind of guy who can drive that kind of renaissance. So we’re trying.”
Despite Duva’s optimism (it’s her job to bang the drums on his career, right?) developing Kovalev into a Gatti-like attraction seems like a longshot.
With his English limited, Kovalev cannot really sell a fight beyond the promise of excitement, which should be enough but isn’t, not when boxing remains a hard-sell to the casual boxing fan. When it comes to promoting a fight, he’s way behind the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr., for example, naming perhaps the best marketer in the business. But Duva isn’t selling his personality. She’s selling his crushing power.
“That’s the thing that we are selling with him,” Duva said. “I think his personality really helps and his English gets better every day. But some fighters like Floyd Mayweather- they’re excellent fighters but their personalities carry them a lot of the way. Watching Floyd fight is something you have to appreciate, where Sergey is out there just blowing guys out.”
Duva is hoping that’s enough and plans on bringing him to Atlantic City as often as possible.
In a somewhat surprising note, Saturday’s fight is being scaled for a room of just 2,500 fans, a small amount because of the slow summer months, she said. But it’s the next step in his step-by-step development in a place that was once synonymous with big fights.
“I still think it’s a great fight town and I think that people say, ‘Why don’t we have another star like Gatti?” Duva said. “And we think we do and that’s why we brought him there. [But] I think it will take time. We’ve got to introduce him. They have to get to know him. They have to feel comfortable. But it will happen.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.