Boxing's a Driving Force in Detroit By Martin Mulcahey, MaxBoxing (Jan 29, 2011) Special to Doghouse Boxing - Tweet
The Motor City, as a community and center of boxing, has hit hard times. A fighting spirit still resides in the city and the hope is tonight’s high-profile clash between Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander marks Detroit’s rebirth as a production line of great fighters. Motown has an impressive history, dating back 120 years, as a breeding ground and launch pad for legends such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Thomas Hearns. Its history is not limited to participants inside the ring; Hall of Fame trainers Eddie Futch and Emanuel Steward stepped outside the ropes to lead young boxers to fame and fortune. There is a need for introspection in Detroit to remember what it can become again.
The immediate association most boxing fans make with Detroit is the illustrious Kronk gym and the boxing dynasty Steward nurtured in 1980s. Eight decades earlier the Detroit Athletic Club began hosting fights, fostering young Canadian Tommy Burns (fighting there six times) who became the world heavyweight champion in three years time. Another early heavyweight association was Jim Jeffries retaining his world heavyweight title at Detroit’s Light Guard Armory in 1900. Memorable for its quickness, Jeffries only needed 55 seconds to dispatch John Finnegan. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Finnegan landed the first blow as they came to the center of the ring, and Jeffries then put his left on the Pittsburgh man's jaw and he went to the floor.” A record that stands today. Joe Gans (the first African-American world champion) defended his title in 1904, fighting at Detroit’s Metropolitan Athletic Club, knocking Willie Fitzgerald down four times in a ten-round rout.
For the next quarter-century, Detroit experienced a title fight drought, nearly broken when world middleweight champion Harry Greb took on Detroit’s own Bob Sage at The Arena Gardens. However, no title was reported to be at stake by the media of the day or in most of today’s reputable record books. The Detroit Athletic Club and Arena Gardens slowly gave way to the Olympia Stadium (christened in 1927 and closed in 1980), which opened its boxing run with a title fight between Jackie Fields and “Young” Jack Thompson in 1930. An inauspicious debut for champions at the building, with fan and betting favored Fields upset over 15 rounds by Thompson. Referee and sole scoring judge Elmer McClelland gave ten rounds to Thompson and three to Fields. The rest of the decade featured notable elimination bouts, such as Tom HeeneyJohnny Risko but no belts were hoisted or changed hands in the city.
In 1940, Detroit hosted the Billy Conn-Gus Lesnevich title rematch at The Olympia stadium, with Conn winning a slightly closer 15-round unanimous decision. The main rival to the Olympia were the Arcadia Ballroom and the Naval Armory but both were seen as a steppingstones for local boys who wanted to move on to the bigger venue. After World War II, Detroit began to burgeon as a boxing capital, due to an influx of African-American families from the South swayed to the city by the promise of jobs and better living conditions. It coincided with the Joe Louis era (Louis was born in Alabama but grew up in Detroit) and the city adopted “The Brown Bomber” like no other before or since. Detroit honored Joe Louis by naming an Arena after him, opened in 1979 for a cost of 57 million dollars. It famously houses the Detroit Redwings hockey team and their league record 11 NHL titles.
Joe Louis fought in Detroit eight times, including two title defenses held at Briggs stadium, which also housed the Detroit Tigers baseball team. A crowd of 32,199 came out to see Louis’ 11th -round knockout of Bob Pastor in 1939 and a similar turnout watched him destroy Abe Simon two years later as part of his famous “Bum of the Month” club. The last time Louis threw a punch in Detroit was 1951, a ten-round decision over Cuban power-puncher Omelio Agramonte. Louis said of his first experience of Detroit, “You can’t imagine the impact the city had. People dressed different and then I realized that even with those brand new overalls, I wasn’t dressed right. But one thing I knew, Detroit looked awfully good to me.”
The greatest boxer ever, an unequaled Sugar Ray Robinson endured his first professional loss in Detroit. Though associated mostly with New York City, Robinson states in his autobiography he was born in Detroit (some records suggest Ailey, Georgia) as Walker Smith but left at age eight to make a name for himself in New York City. Jake LaMotta famously handed Sugar Ray Robinson his first setback at the Olympia Stadium in 1943, knocking Robinson through the ropes in the eighth round. Three weeks later, Robinson got his revenge, at the same venue, with a ten-round decision. In 1947, Robinson made his only title defense in Detroit, knocking Chuck Taylor down twice in the sixth round for the stoppage. Rival Jake LaMotta returned in 1949 to defend his world middleweight title, at the larger Briggs stadium, against Frenchman Marcel Cerdan. LaMotta was a fan favorite in Detroit, calling it his second home and fighting there 21 times.
The size and importance of events scaled back in the 1950s, with the small Motor City Gym hosting fights regularly. It became famous, like Philadelphia’s Blue Horizon in the 1990s, as one of the first venues to televise its bouts. The Arcadia and Arena Gardens continued their club shows as well but lacked the free publicity of television. Detroit hosted another heavyweight title, when Ezzard Charles decisioned Jersey Joe Walcott at the Olympia stadium. 20 years followed in which no title came to Detroit. The rise of boxing on TV had much to do with that, with New York City’s TV rights worth more than live gates in Michigan. Television did give rise to one local pug, with favorite son Chuck Davey one of the first boxers pegged as a “TV fighter.” Davey was well-spoken, white, a college graduate, and a southpaw who could box well enough to get a title shot. Davey’s celebrated run ended when Hall-of-Famer Kid Gavilan knocked him out in ten rounds.
The 1960s saw the opening of Cobo Hall on the banks of Detroit River, that doubled as the home of the newly-founded Detroit Pistons. Future world champion Joey Giardello was brought in to open the hall against exciting Detroit-based Henry Hank. The local boy made good before the 6,000 in attendance, scoring a unanimous decision win. For the rest of the decade, Detroit hosted similarly stimulating bouts but none that caused waves nationally. The amateurs that would rescue Detroit a decade later emerged around this time, with regular shows at the St. Clair Shores Civic Arena. The 1970s were the darkness before the dawn, with Eddie Futch leaving the city and local talent like Hedgemon Lewis and Al “Blue” Lewis traveling for good paydays. One title fight took place when Joe Frazier defended against Bob Foster in 1970, a one-round blowout that reminded me of Jim Jeffries’ demolition of Finnegan 70 years earlier. It was not until the end of the decade that the future became the now, when the Joe Louis Arena was opened in 1979.
The most famous training facility in Detroit resided at the Brewster Recreation Center, with the Coleman Young Recreation Center producing serviceable pros as well. Joe Louis gave rise to Brewster’s fame, training there as an amateur, and Eddie Futch carried on that tradition as the lead trainer of the center. Emanuel Steward gave rise to Kronk Gym (located in the basement of the city’s oldest recreation center), although he was once a celebrated boxer at Brewster’s, winning the 1963 Golden Gloves title. Kronk exceeded Brewster’s in fame, becoming recognizable internationally, with heralded boxers like Julio Cesar Chavez and Ricky Hatton traveling there to soak up the hot and raw ambiance. Kronk now lends its name, synonymous with excitement and knockouts, to gyms in London and Belfast, Ireland.
Detroit hit its heyday in the decade of the 80s, with Steward morphing into a great trainer who served the dual role of manager to a legion of champions. Kronk Gym created and molded champions celebrated the world over. Hilmer Kenty, not Thomas Hearns, won Kronk its first world title. It was the only time Kenty beat his famous stablemate to the punch, defeating Ernesto Espana in March of 1980 to best Hearns by five months. An aging Joe Louis was ringside, in a wheelchair, to cheer the city’s first champion since he left. Most of that duo’s bouts took place at the old Olympia stadium, where Thomas “The Motor City Hitman” Hearns became a local legend, even before challenging for the title at the Joe Louis Arena.
It was Hearns who came to represent the toughness and vibrancy of the city in the 1980s, emasculating feared Mexican Pipino Cuevas at the Joe Louis Arena to win his title. In fact, Hearns became too popular, his talents and financial aspiration outgrowing what the city could provide. Hearns had to travel to the new Mecca of boxing, Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace, to challenge Sugar Ray Leonard in one of the most exciting welterweight wars ever staged. Hearns lead Leonard on the scorecards in a seesaw affair before his legs gave out in the fatal 14th round. But Detroit was now a boxing city, with Larry Holmes defending his title against Leon Spinks in 1981. Numerous Detroit stars flowed from the Kronk system, adding to its fame and mystique. Milton McCrory, Tony Tucker, Lindell Holmes, and Duane Thomas all won world titles. With them, and Hearns, Detroit had reached the pinnacle of success.
In ensuing years Detroit battlers like Jimmy Paul, Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson, and Michael Moorer donned Kronk’s famous colors (gold and red) to win world titles. Foreign imports like Lennox Lewis, Mike McCallum, and even Wladimir Klitschko trained in Kronk gear. Others like incredibly talented Bernard “Superbad” Mays and Dujuan Johnson were not as fortunate, falling victim to violence and drugs found on Detroit streets. The late 1990s saw a minor rebirth for boxing and a move to nearby Auburn Hills. The Palace hosted many midlevel fights aired nationally by the USA network’s celebrated “Tuesday Night Fights.” James Toney and Michael Moorer developed at The Palace, along with a comebacking George Foreman. Other championship-level boxers like Thomas Tate and Oba Carr became staples, achieving national recognition but never won world titles.
Detroit’s struggle for recognition was seemingly snapped in 2000, when the highly-lauded Naseem Hamed (in late 1999) sought out the large Arabic and Muslim population to perform in front of at the Joe Louis Arena. On the undercard, Erik Morales fought Wayne McCullough; the pair stole the show from the eccentric Englishman who struggled in an ugly bout against Cesar Soto. The Mike Tyson circus hit town in 2000 and turned into a predictable disaster when Andrew Golota refused to come out of his corner after the second round. On his way back to the dressing room, Golota was pelted with garbage and drinks, while Tyson tested positive for marijuana the same night. Similarly polarizing Floyd Mayweather Jr. fought in 2000 as well, against Emanuel Augustus, scoring a ninth-round stoppage at Cobo Hall as part of HBO’s ill-faded “KO Nation” series.
As quickly as the big fights came to Detroit in 2000, they dissolved, leaving the city as the economy dried up along with the capital that produced site fees. For a while, Emanuel Steward championed talented amateur Octavio Lara, whom he brought up through the Kronk system, as Detroit’s new star. Lara fizzled quickly, seemingly burned out, not even fighting ten times professionally. Currently, 23-0 Vernon Paris is hailed as the city’s big hope and as such, spent time training at Kronk’s facility. Paris fights on tonight’s undercard against the same Emanuel Augustus Floyd Mayweather Jr. bested a decade ago. For now, in spite of the city’s rich boxing history, two elite fighters from California and St. Louis are left to bring big time boxing back to Detroit.