This is in the Resorts Hotel, and there is a march toward the Cotillion Ballroom, the mini-area where the fights will be held. They are the boxing fans of the night. Any Thursday night in Atlantic City.
The movement out of the hotel's casino area begins around 8 o'clock. The routes of those headed for the fights lead past the steady thump-thump of the slot machines, and the soft flap-flap of the blackjack dealers at work; past the loud exhortatory action at the dice tables, and the whir-plus-clicking of the roulette wheels, amid garish lights flashing all around, on a random schedule.
Fight night in the Resorts Hotel is into its sixth year as an ongoing success story. This is a Bob Arum-ESPN production. Vows in the boxing business are at best fragile, but nothing is as cohesive as mutual benefit, and Arum and the ESPN cable network and Resorts know they are onto a good thing.
During many a week, the Thursday fights are the top-rated show on the ESPN system. Five years ago, Resorts used to beg other cable systems to carry the fights and paid them for doing so. Now they ask for the fights and pay ESPN and Arum handsomely. The Resorts Hotel also pays Arum, and revels in the wide advertising that brings in more casino clients.
The weekly fight cards are something below title caliber, but they are more than a cut above the club fights of a generation past, those bygone bucket-of-blood carnivals that were hailed as the incubators of future champions.
Fighters and managers by the hundreds are now pleading to get on the ESPN shows, eager for the exposure and for deliverance from obscurity.
They'll take a meager $500 purse, the going rate for a preliminary six-rounder, looking to graduate to the $2,000 and $3,000 and sometimes $5,000 paydays that come with the feature bouts. Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, the ex-lightweight champion, got his start on ESPN. So did his recent two-time conqueror, Livingstone Bramble. Roberto Duran began his comeback on ESPN. It was on an ESPN card that Robin Blake was derailed from a lucrative fight with Mancini by losing to Tyrone Crawley.
Important sponsors are aware of the ratings of the ESPN shows, which the demographics say have "an audience of upscale males, the kind of folks advertisers want to reach." Anheuser-Busch, the Wall Street Journal, Soloflex and Old Spice are regulars on the Thursday night commercials at $5,000 for a 30-second spiel.
The package for Anheuser-Busch includes its name on two of the ring posts, with ring posts 3 and 4 reserved for the name of the Resorts Hotel, all of them getting big play in the camera sweeps. In addition, the ring floor is covered with the Budweiser logo.
Where do the fighters come from? Arum's company, Top Rank Inc., attends to that. It has the pick of the top contenders among the estimated 3,000 boxers in this country and below the border. And how do they pick them? Most often by computer, that's how.
Matchmaker Teddy Brenner's assistant, Bruce Trampler, is the father of the computer. Arum gave the go-ahead and, at a cost of $50,000, Trampler put together a computer that contains the history, and also the destiny, of almost every boxer in the world.
Brenner said, "We know the name, the age, the skills of every boxer in the country. We know his nationality, whether he is right-handed, left-handed or a switcher. We know at what weight he fights and who his manager is, and what his telephone number is. We know who he has licked, and who has licked him. We just push the buttons and get to know all we want."
Into the computer go the results of 860 boxing cards staged yearly in the United States, with an average of 10 fighters on each card. "We probably know more about certain fighters than they know about themselves," said Trampler.
Mostly the fight managers call Top Rank, pleading, "Give us a break." Then the records are scrutinized and the match ups created. When Top Rank wants a special fight for an ESPN show, Brenner and Trampler go to work, in the cunning tradition of matchmakers.
"I call one manager," said Brenner, "and tell him, 'Joe, I got an easy fight for you. Your man can't miss winning this one, and it will lead to a big shot.'
"And on the other phone, Trampler is calling the other manager and saying, 'Charlie, I got an easy fight for you. The guy is made for your man, and we can make the match right now.' " That's the fight business, Brenner said.
The hot fighters who are ESPN graduates include Donald Curry, the budding welterweight sometimes called "the best fighter in the world"; Gene Hatcher, who recently lost his world junior welterweight title to Ubaldo Sacco of Argentina; and James (Black Gold) Shuler, unbeaten and headed for a fight with Tommy Hearns in November, another Top Rank promotion.
ESPN cable had only 4.5 million homes wired when it went into business with Top Rank in 1980. The count is now 37 million, and ESPN last year spun off 20 percent of the company to ABC-Video for $60 million. Arum says he conceived the partnership with ESPN by recalling that Gillette sponsored the old "Friday Night Fights" for 24 unbroken years, reaching the male audience it desired.
From ESPN, Arum gets a $31,000 stipend every week to help pay the fighters and stage the shows. Resorts Hotel provides the trappings and publicity and keeps the live gate, which isn't much, what with its biggest gambling clients getting free tickets. Anheuser-Busch kicks in something extra when the show is a special one, and from all parties, Arum gets a splendid expense account.
He also peddles the show to foreign networks. "Italy is our best customer, and pays us $15,000 a crack for every show," said Arum. "When Don Curry went over there to fight Nino La Rocca recently, he was astounded at the reception he got. The Italians already knew him, thanks to ESPN."
Top Rank started off getting a meager $10,000 a show from ESPN. By degrees it has moved past $30,000, "And next year I would say the increase will be, well, substantial," Arum said. For ESPN it has been an excellent deal, often outpulling the big investment it has in USFL games in the ratings. Viewing audiences have been averaging more than a million, and the reruns overrun the daily programs.
"Viewers don't care whether it's live action if they see an exciting fight," Arum said. "They can see the reruns next week, next month, any time. For insomniacs, reruns go on as late as 3 a.m., and every month there is a special showing of the highlights of recent shows."
ESPN gives the viewers a professional blow-by-blow man in Sam Smith, and the expert analysis of Al Bernstein. The viewers also get something extra in the form of the scoring of each round, fearlessly announced.
Resorts Hotel is pleased with the deal. On fight nights the gambling action goes up an estimated 16 percent, nearly $400,000. It seems that fight-going gamblers return to the tables after the bouts.
There's envy in Atlantic City. Donald Trump, of the multi-millions and the New York skyscrapers and Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, wants in on the ESPN act, for his Trump Casino on the boardwalk. He covets the influence of the Resorts Casino, and, Arum says, wants some fight shows thrown his way. But Arum says he has his loyalties.
The shows go to all 50 states, and some of the Caribbean area where sneaky people steal the signals off the satellites. Alaska loves the Thursday night fights, according to Brenner. "There's not much else up there. They don't have any alternatives," he said, "and they idolize their undefeated (junior) welterweight, Greg Haugen. "The promoter called me from Anchorage and said, 'All Alaska will come to a standstill if we match Haugen with unbeaten John Meekin.' We matched them."
On a recent Thursday night, Shuler, the Philadelphia middleweight, warming up for a shot at Hearns in Las Vegas, had a rough time getting a decision over Jerry Holly. Holly was a sparring partner for Marvelous Marvin Hagler before he fought Hearns, in there every day taking Hagler's punches. "You couldn't take him lightly, he's a survivor," Brenner said.
With a few exceptions, the Thursday night fights have been exciting matches, "but occasionally there is a turkey," Brenner admitted. "When one young fighter heard his opponent being announced as the No. 1 contender for the title, he went into a tremble as if to ask himself, 'What am I doing here?' and didn't last out the first round."
Three fighters Brenner would like to get in his program are Washingtonians. "Those Washington kids -- Maurice Blocker, Simon Brown and Darryl Tyson -- have great futures and we could give them big breaks," Brenner said. "But their managers weren't smart when they tied them all up with the Tropicana Hotel on the Boardwalk. No television, no exposure, no nothing. What a shame."
Charles Rosenblatt, Blocker's counsel and promoter, said that Blocker and Brown had ties with the Tropicana, which were severed this year. However, Rosenblatt said, "I have indicated to Mr. Arum that any time he wants to discuss a fight, we would discuss it with them. Send us a contract, make a phone call."
The fight business isn't thriving anywhere except on ESPN. The heavyweight situation with Larry Holmes at the top is a dreary muddle. Hagler is the only valid idol and he is without a solid opponent. The networks have cut far back on fight shows and have no continuity. That's what ESPN has, continuity, Arum says. And all parties -- fighters, fans, advertisers, promoters and the casino -- are so very joyed.