The UFC will return to its roots when it stages a card in Atlantic City next month.
The April 21 UFC Fight Night card at Boardwalk Hall will mark the organization’s eighth trip to the resort since its first appearance at the since-closed Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort 18 years ago.
It was where the UFC blossomed from a small, struggling company into the most respected organization in mixed martial arts.
“For them to have a show in Atlantic City was a very big deal back then,” said state Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Lembo, who oversees mixed martial arts for the New Jersey Athletic Control Board with Commissioner Larry Hazzard. “It essentially legitimized the organization because it was their first show in a big casino market.”
Prior to UFC 28 at the Taj Mahal on Nov. 17, 2000, the UFC was struggling to gain respect. Some states refused or were reluctant to sanction shows for a sport that had been labeled as barbaric by critics.
It had held events in places such as the Five Seasons Event Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Augusta (Georgia) Civic Center.
President Donald Trump, who then owned the Taj Mahal, decided to bring it to Atlantic City by hosting UFC 28 High Stakes at the Mark G. Etess Arena. A sellout crowd of 5,000 saw Randy Couture regain the heavyweight championship with a third-round TKO over the late Kevin Randleman.
“Donald Trump made it a big event,” Lembo said Tuesday. “He covered all the blackjack tables with UFC 28 logos, had special casino chips and posters all over the place.”
It was the first of nine UFC cards in Atlantic City over the course of 14 years. Two more were held at the Taj Mahal before it made its debut at Boardwalk Hall with UFC 41: Onslaught on Feb. 28, 2003.
An announced crowd of 11,707 watched Tim Sylvia win the heavyweight championship with a first-round TKO over Ricco Rodriguez and lightweight champ B.J. Penn battle Caol Uno to a draw.
Next month’s event, which will feature a lightweight bout between contenders Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza, will be the first UFC show in Atlantic City since the since-closed Revel casino hosted a card headlined by Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller on July 16, 2014.
“Atlantic City has always been a huge fight town, and I’m really excited about fighting there,” Lee said Tuesday. “From what I hear, the UFC sort of got its start there, so this fight is bringing everything back full circle.”
Lee (16-3) has never fought in Atlantic City, but Barboza (19-5) but has some Boardwalk experience.
Barboza, a native of Brazil who lives in Toms River, fought twice at Tropicana Atlantic City in 2010 for Ring of Combat and won its lightweight title before signing with the UFC. He was also on the Cerrone-Miller undercard at Revel, where he posted a first-round TKO over Evan Dunham.
“I’ve fought in Atlantic City three times and have three knockouts,” Barboza said Tuesday. “I love this place, man.”