Under the boardwalk life is a bit seamy


The avenues of Atlantic City are named for oceans and the streets are named for US states. You'll know this if you ever saw the original version of the board game Monopoly. Apart from the Monopoly knick-knacks and the broad, blue ocean, there are just two things in Atlantic City which are worth seeing today: the museum and the parking lot.

The museum doesn't specialise in any particular period or form. Ripley's Believe It Or Not just doesn't work like that. It's the indoor version of the old freak shows which used to line the boardwalk before the casinos came along.

The parking lot is the nearest thing the city has to a symbol of its own wretched standard. When the civic fathers noticed several years ago that their domain was merely a slum with some big casinos attached, they offered tax breaks for city beautification schemes. They had to draw the line when Donald Trump tried to have the massive white concrete parking garage of Trump Plaza declared a work of art.

You never know it all until you've seen it. Until this weekend, for instance, this column would have solemnly sworn that, in Las Vegas, the world had found what is the appropriate spiritual home for professional boxing. Lots of tack and just that distinct whiff of disreputability to keep you on your toes.

Well, wrong again. The mecca towards which all pro boxing people should face is Atlantic City. To see the professional boxing family in action is to walk through Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Some of these guys are such pieces of work they should get tax breaks.

It was like wandering from set to set in a movie studio on Saturday night to pass from the press conference given by Naseem Hamed to his adoring posse, through the empty arena where a clutch of the event's promoters were hard-balling it in their suits, and out onto the boardwalk where the last of the tricolour brigade were soothing the wounds by losing money, being sick or being drunk.

Atlantic City is the lodestone. Here the casinos face the sea and behind them the town rots away miserably. On Pacific Avenue, the main drag through the town, the casinos have placed their backsides on one sidewalk while the town's drab utilities exist on the other side.

On the steps of the post office, during the day, drunk men and women lie around like seals basking on rocks. The high school sits on what back in the optimistic 1920s must have been a handsome site. The cracked windows and dusty, paint-peeling interior bear testimony to its neglect.

Compared to this place, Las Vegas is a model community.

Atlantic City has had legalised gambling for 22 years and illegal gambling for a lot longer, but only recently did it get its first cinema. For theatre, however, it shall never want. Not as long as the boxing repertory company keeps coming to town.

The best story of Saturday outside of McCullough's performance lay in the preparation for Prince Naseem's much celebrated (or dreaded, depending on your viewpoint) ring-walk. What was once a simple trip from dressing-room to boxing ring has become such an overblown piece of theatre that it would have been no surprise to learn that Naseem had set out on the early stages of his epic journey on Friday afternoon.

Alas, that wasn't possible, because back then debate was raging and hasty changes were being made to the choreography and scenery. It being Hallowe'en, see, and the promotion being entitled Fright Night, see, the artistic director had hatched a concept whereby Naseem would progress towards the ring caped and hooded. Meanwhile, lots of spooky screams, owl hoots and wind whistling through trees stuff would play over the public address system.

The touch of genius was that The Prince's pathway would be tricked up to look just like a graveyard at night and would be strewn with headstones. On Saturday morning it became apparent that the gravestones would bear the names of all those boxers Hamed had dispatched in the past. The last stone would have Wayne McCullough's name on it.

Some bleeding heart pointed out that the TV people (HBO) will be running a benefit in New York next month for the family of Gerald McLennan, almost killed in the ring a couple of years ago.

And, well, support card fighter Richie "The Lionheart" Wenton had been the boxer against whom Bradley Stone had just fought when, as the press release put it, "the celebrations were short lived as Bradley fell ill and later tragically passed away". It was pointed out, too, that Hamed had been promising to beat McCullough up so badly that he would never fight again.

So even the Naseem Hamed camp got the uneasy feeling that the tombstone business was, well, overkill, in the bad taste department. And by Saturday afternoon the HBO man was saying indignantly that, look, it wasn't tombstones each with a name on it, it was one big stone at the end with all the names on it. Now it's been painted over. Alright already?

The graveyard shift was tacky and it was ugly, but so too were the scenes after Saturday's fight when Irish fight fans caused scuffles as Naseem Hamed and his family left the ring.

It was an oddly jarring night in that way. McCullough's gallant dignity in defeat made a point which many of his fans missed. As the Hameds passed down the gangway, shouts of "Up the RA" and "Go Home Paki" sailed after them, as did a confetti of paper cups, popcorn, soft drinks and anything else which came to hand. And, of course, our old Irish lament: there's no justice.

Low rent. Atlantic City is the founding place of the Miss America Pageant and, before legalising gambling, played home to such respected institutions as Skinny d'Amato's 500 Club and Charlie Schwartz's Bath and Turf Club. Today you can enjoy "finest gourmet dining - all you can eat. $15.99" and buy into the frail illusion of refinement.

Just as in boxing, you can wear the tuxedo, talk about the noble art and close your eyes to the spivs, crooks and hoodlums who are taking your money and pretend it is something which isn't low rent now and never was low rent before. You can shout yourself hoarse and shout "Up the RA" because this evening the boy from the Shankill fits your prejudices better than a paki from Sheffield.

So it was that boxing came home on Saturday night. And if Wayne McCullough got out of town with his honour, his health and a little bit of wealth, he is as lucky as a mug punter leaving a casino with a pocketful of cash. As lucky as he deserves to be.