ATLANTIC CITY — Fighting in Atlantic City is still a big deal to World Boxing Organization light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.
Kovalev, who will defend his title against unbeaten Eleider Alvarez on Saturday at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, snuck around to the front of the stage after Thursday’s news conference to capture some memories.
While workers rolled away the tubs of potato salad and sandwiches, Kovalev took a picture of his name plate and the giant banner with his cell phone.
“That’s Sergey,” Main Events president Kathy Duva said. “He’s genuine, and down to earth. New Jersey boxing fans can relate to him because there’s no pretense. A lot of the people who will be here for the fight on Saturday are the same people who used to come to Atlantic City to watch guys like Mike Tyson and (the late) Arturo Gatti.”
Kovalev may never match the popularity of Gatti, who sold out Boardwalk Hall nine straight times and even has a dressing room at the arena named in his honor.
Tyson drew even bigger crowds — 22,185 watched his first-round knockout over Michael Spinks on June 26, 1988 — before Boardwalk Hall underwent a renovation in the 1990s that reduced its seating capacity from 22,000 to 12,000.
But he has the personality and the fighting style that could make him a popular draw.
According to Bernie Dillon, Hard Rock’s vice president of entertainment, all of the $200 ringside seats at Hard Rock Live Etess Arena have been sold. Approximately 1,000 tickets remain in the 5,500-seat venue and are expected to be sold by Saturday.
Most of the fans will be there to see Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs), who is fighting in Atlantic City for the fourth time. If he beats Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs) on Saturday, there’s a good chance he’ll be back very soon.
“Sergey has a very strong following,” Dillon said. “We have to see what happens Saturday night, but I would definitely like to have him fighting here again. We have 365 days of entertainment here and boxing will be a part of that.”
Kovalev, a native of Russia now living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had three fights in Atlantic City at three different venues in 2014.
He made his debut in town with a seventh-round knockout over then-unbeaten Cedric Agnew at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom on March 29, then notched a second-round TKO over Blake Caparello at the former Revel (now Ocean Resort Casino) on Aug. 2.
Three months later, on Nov. 14, he scored the biggest victory of his career with a 12-round, unanimous decision over the legendary Bernard Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall’s main arena.
That was also Atlantic City’s last big-time fight until this one. Although four years have past, some local boxing fans still remember him.
“I was walking down the Boardwalk to the barbershop the other day,” Kovalev said. “Some guys came up to me and said, ‘Hey! I remember you!’ I’m glad to be back in Atlantic City.”
Kovalev’s chances of become an Atlantic City staple are helped by his association with Main Events, which is his promoter.
Kathy Duva’s late husband, Dan, and father-in-law, Lou, began promoting fights in Atlantic City in 1978, the year legalized gambling came to town.
But Kathy’s memories of the Boardwalk date back to the 1950s.
“My father (Frank Martone) worked for John Hancock Insurance and their convention was always in Atlantic City,” she said. “I remember seeing Mr. Peanut on the Boardwalk, and I’m still traumatized to this day by seeing the ‘Diving Horse’ on Steel Pier.
“My father took me to this huge ballroom at the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall (now Resorts Atlantic City) for lunch. Everyone was dressed so elegantly. I remember meeting (actress) Joan Crawford and (television host) Ted Mack, who was very popular back then from the ‘Ted Mack Amateur Hour.’ I still have their autographs to this day.”
Note: Saturday’s card also features another light-heavyweight title fight featuring WBA champion Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs) against Isaac Chilemba (25-5-2, 10 KOs). ... Friday’s weigh-in will be held on the Boardwalk in front of Hard Rock at 2 p.m., weather permitting. It’s free and open to the public.