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Javon ‘Sugar’ Hill Keeps the Kronk Flame Burning in Banged-up Detroit

Arne K. Lang

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Anthony Dirrell, who risks his WBC 168-pound world title against former title-holder David Benavidez this Saturday, Sept. 28, is one of the last of a dying breed, one of the last active fighters who earned his spurs at the fabled Kronk Gym, by which we mean the original Kronk Gym at 5555 McGraw Street on Detroit’s west side, the place that the late great trainer Emanuel Steward put on the map.

Steward, an electrician by trade and former National Golden Gloves champion, built an amateur boxing powerhouse in the basement of the Kronk Rec Center before attracting national notice for his work with Kronk alumni who turned pro, most notably Tommy Hearns. Anthony Dirrell and his older brother Andre Dirrell represented Kronk as amateurs. They learned their craft in the original gym, often with Emanuel Steward present, watching over them like a mother hen and giving pointers.

Steward always had assistants (in the beginning unpaid volunteers) and their roles became larger as Steward became the sport’s most prominent hired gun, taking him away from Detroit for long stretches to coach such notables as Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, plus serving as a member of HBO’s boxing broadcasting team. The most prominent of the assistants were Johnathon Banks, who currently trains Gennady Golovkin, and Javon “Sugar” Hill who will be in Anthony Dirrell’s corner on Sept. 28, having trained both Dirrell brothers off and on since their amateur days.

Emanuel Steward died in 2012 after a short illness at age 68. By then the Kronk Rec Center, built in 1921 when the area around it was heavily Polish, was no more. As the economy of Detroit worsened – the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 – instances of vandalism increased as desperate people took to stealing anything that could be sold on the black market. In September of 2006, thieves entered the rec center in the still of the night and disemboweled it, removing all the copper fixtures. With its budget strapped, the city couldn’t afford the cost of repairs. Six years later, most of the building was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. Last year, what was left of the structure was finally demolished.

But the Kronk Gym, a hallowed name in boxing, never perished; just the place where Emanuel Steward worked his magic. The gym is currently housed in a former church, school and convent that has passed through several hands since being closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. There you will find Javon “Sugar” Hill when he’s not out of town at an amateur boxing tournament or on the road with a professional fighter. The 48-year-old Hill, above all others, is the man keeping the Kronk flame burning.

It was inevitable that Javon Hill would take on this responsibility; he is Emanuel Steward’s nephew. “Emanuel was his parents only boy,” notes Javon, “and I am my parents only boy.” That common circumstance strengthened their tie. For much of his youth and into his adult years, Hill resided in Steward’s home.

Hill spent 12 years on the Detroit police force. In 2007 he took an early retirement so that he could focus more fully on the gym. “When I was growing up,” he says, “I never thought about becoming a policeman. For me, it was an opportunity to get off the street and keep myself out of trouble.” (With his uncle Emanuel looking after his welfare, it’s doubtful that Hill would have strayed too far from the straight and narrow, but we will take him at his word.)

When Emanuel Steward died, Wladimir Klitschko went with the aforementioned Banks as his new trainer. Hill wasn’t resentful – he and Banks are best buddies – although he had more longevity with Kronk.

“Johnathon had been with Emanuel at Klitschko’s training camps and he and Wladimir had developed a special relationship. I was less involved because of Adonis Stevenson. Adonis wasn’t yet a champion when Emanuel died and I had the satisfaction of helping him grow into a world champion.”

Stevenson suffered a traumatic brain injury in the 10th defense of his world title on Dec. 1 of last year when he was stopped in the 11th round by Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

How is he doing? “We talk quite a bit,” says Hill, “and he is making steady progress.”

Hill draws a comparison between Stevenson’s current situation and one of those old dial-up computers that took forever to download a song. But little by little, things are slowly getting back to speed for him. “He can’t drive yet, but he can communicate in French, English, or Creole,” Hills says of the ex-champion who was born in Haiti and grew up in Montreal.

In the heyday of Kronk, the program had a big booster in Coleman Young, the city’s five-term mayor whose 20-year reign began in 1974. Subsequent mayors have been far less supportive (understandable considering the budget constraints), making it that much harder to recapture the glory days anytime soon.

In his quest to make boxing relevant again in Detroit, Hill found an unlikely ally in Ukrainian-born Dmitriy Salita. A former world title challenger who retired with a record of 35-2-1, Salita launched Salita Promotions in his hometown of Brooklyn as his career was winding down. When the New York Athletic Commission effectively put him out of business by adopting more stringent insurance requirements, prohibitively expensive for a grass-roots promoter, Salita shifted his base to Detroit where he had trained for his last few pro fights.

Salita, 37, has made great strides as a promoter. His clients include Claressa Shields, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller and Norway’s newest sporting hero, Otto Wallin. Salita has also roped in a number of promising prospects from Russia and her former satellites, the most arresting of whom is Uzbekistani knockout artist Shohjahon Ergashev (17-0, 15 KOs), currently ranked #6 at junior welterweight by the IBF. Ergashev trains at Kronk as do three fighters who appeared on the same card last week in Grozny, Russia: heavyweight Apti Davtaev, light heavyweight Umar Salamov, and super middleweight Aslambek Idigov.

The Eastern European contingent has introduced a new strain into Kronk’s inner city vibe. It’s also made life somewhat more challenging for Javon Hill, especially on those occasions when he is working a corner and has only 60 seconds before the start of the next round to convey the message he wants to convey. But, Hill insists, it hasn’t been as challenging as one might think.

“Boxing is a universal language,” he says. “All of our foreign fighters take classes in English.” Alexey Zubov, a 32-year-old Russian cruiserweight with a 17-2 record, speaks almost flawless English and is often there when a translator is needed.

Kronk Gym became something of a foster child when the rec center shut down. For a time, Kronk fighters trained in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. The gym’s current home, at 9520 Mettetal, six miles away from where it all started, suits Javon Hill to a tee because the surroundings so closely mirror the original.

“We’re back in the basement again, just like the old days,” says Hill, “and in a place very much like a rec center. Upstairs there are programs for adults that teach certain skills. And I like the fact it’s a small gym, just like our old gym.”

In a big gym, notes Hill, it’s harder to know when someone is slacking off. When a boxer hits a heavy bag and does it correctly, it emits a certain sound. A good trainer in a gym where there’s a lot going on, knows how to keep tabs on things with his ears as well as his eyes. “Here,” he says, “I can hear everything going on.”

The boxers who work out at Kronk are as young as eight years old. When school is out, says Hill, there may be as many as 25 or 30 amateurs on the premises. Emanuel Steward, were he alive, wouldn’t have it any other way. Steward believed that if a gym had a strong amateur program, the professional side would evolve organically.

If boxing in Detroit never gets back to where it once was, it won’t be for lack of trying. And the man doing the heavy lifting is Javon “Sugar” Hill, Emanuel Steward’s nephew and surrogate son.

Anthony Dirrell

Anthony Dirrell (pictured below) turns 35 next month. His fight this coming Saturday with undefeated and heavily favored David Benavidez, 12 years his junior, may be his last rodeo. He has hinted at retirement.

dirrell

It’s hard not to root for him as few fighters have overcome as much adversity. Born and raised in hardscrabble Flint, Michigan, Dirrell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in December of 2006. He was out of action for 22 months while undergoing chemotherapy. In May of 2012, he broke his leg and fractured his arm in a motorcycle accident. That dictated another long layoff. But he persevered and on Aug 16, 2014, he won the WBC world 168-pound title with a unanimous decision over Sakio Bika in a rematch after their first encounter ended in a draw.

Dirrell lost the belt in his first defense on a close decision to Badou Jack, but regained it earlier this year at the expense of Turkey’s Avni Yildirin after the title became vacant when Benavidez was stripped of it for testing positive for cocaine. His fight with Yildirin was stopped by the ringside physician after 10 rounds because of a worsening cut caused when the fighters clashed heads three rounds earlier, sending the fight to the scorecards. It was a tougher-than-expected fight for Dirrell who prevailed on a split decision.

The bout between Dirrell (33-1-1, 24 KOs) and Benavidez (21-0, 18 KOs) is the chief undercard bout underneath the welterweight title unification fight between Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn Porter. It will air on FOX pay-per-view.

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Remembering Leotis Martin who KOed Sonny Liston 50 Years Ago Today

Arne K. Lang

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On Dec. 6, 1969, 50 years ago today, former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston fought former sparring partner Leotis Martin on the stage of the showroom of the newly built International Hotel in Las Vegas, a property that subsequently took the name Las Vegas Hilton and is called the Westgate today. The Sunday afternoon fight was televised by ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with Howard Cosell behind the mic. The match was slated for 12 rounds. The victor would be recognized as the heavyweight champion of the newly formed North American Boxing Federation.

Leotis Martin, who resided in Philadelphia, was a former national Golden Gloves and national AAU middleweight champion. As a pro, he was 30-5 with 18 knockouts. But he was given scant chance of defeating Sonny Liston (49-3, 38 KOs) who had won 14 in a row, 13 inside the distance, since his second defeat to Muhammad Ali. Although Liston had defeated no one of note during this run, he had yet re-established himself in the public mind as one of the hardest hitting punchers ever.

Martin had several other things working against him. He was a small heavyweight. Liston, who came in at 220, would out-weigh him by 21 pounds. And he wasn’t a full-time boxer. In Philadelphia, he was a machinist for the Budd Company, one of America’s leading manufacturers of metal components for automobiles and railroad cars.

Martin had helped Liston train for his matches with Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. When a big name fighter is matched against a former sparring partner, there is always the suspicion that a gentleman’s agreement is in effect.

Liston vs Martin played out somewhat like the recent fight between Deontay Wilder and Luis Ortiz although it lasted two rounds longer.

After eight frames, Liston was ahead by two points on one of the scorecards and by three points on the others on Nevada’s “five-point-must” system. A flash knockdown of Martin in round four contributed to the imbalance.

Martin could sense that Liston was tiring, but it wasn’t apparent to those in the audience – reportedly 1,800 paid – and that made the drama that was about to unfold all the more dramatic.

In round nine, Leotis landed three unanswered combinations, one right after the other. The third was the classic one-two: left to the body, right to the jaw. Sonny Liston pitched forward, landing face first to the canvas, dead to the world. The ref counted “10” over his prone body. “He could have counted to 300,” said Review-Journal ringside reporter Jimmy Cox.

Nevada’s ringside physician, Dr. Donald Romeo, came equipped with capsules of ammonia. The first one that he broke and waved under Sonny’s nose had no effect. The second capsule brought Liston out of his slumber.

Sonny Liston was reportedly 39 years old, but was widely considered to be somewhat older than his listed age. The brutal manner in which he succumbed to Leotis Martin seemingly indicated that he had reached the end of the line, but he wasn’t done quite yet. Six months later, at the Armory in Jersey City, he butchered Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” in a fight stopped by the ring doctor after nine rounds.

That would prove to be his final fight. On Jan. 5, 1971, Sonny’s wife Geraldine returned to their home in Las Vegas from a 12-day holiday trip to St. Louis, her hometown, and found her husband dead in their bedroom. Rigor mortis had already set in.  The coroner’s report said Liston died from congestive heart failure, but that didn’t explain what brought on the coronary and there’s strong circumstantial evidence that he was a victim of foul play.

Leotis Martin’s triumph elevated him to #1 in the heavyweight rankings of the WBA, the sport’s paramount sanctioning body. A fight with fellow Philadelphian Smokin’ Joe Frazier was his likely reward. But it wasn’t to be.

Martin emerged from his fight with Liston with a detached retina. Back in those days, retinal detachment surgery was a hit-and-miss proposition. The most famous boxer to have his retina repaired mid-career was Sugar Ray Leonard, but that didn’t happen until 1982 and it was a far more complicated procedure than what it is nowadays. Three ophthalmic surgeons attended Sugar Ray during his two-hour operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Leotis Martin basically had no choice but to retire. His signature win would be the final fight of his career.

Martin returned to Philadelphia and to his job in the foundry and lived out his days quietly in the city’s racially diverse Mount Airy neighborhood. In November of 1995 he passed away after suffering a stroke brought on by diabetes and hypertension. He was 56 years old.

By the way, Tim Dahlberg was one of the ringside reporters. This was his first prizefight. In time he would travel the globe as the National Sports Columnist for the Associated Press and he’s still going strong today.

Reminiscing about his first prizefight with Las Vegas sports columnist Ron Kantowski, Dahlberg recalled that there was a young heavyweight on the Liston-Martin undercard that looked pretty good.

The kid’s name was George Foreman.

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Downtown LA Fight Results From the Exchange

David A. Avila

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Downtown LA Fight Results From the Exchange

LOS ANGELES-Built in 1931 the Exchange was the former home of the stock market exchange for the West Coast. On Thursday night it was the home for professional boxing.

Jessy Martinez led a slew of prospects ready to showcase their fighting skills among the many business types at the Exchange located on the 600 block of Spring Street. He didn’t need more than one round to reveal his talent at the Bash Boxing show.

Martinez (14-0, 9 KOs) used the first minute or so to determine the incoming fire from Mexico’s Carlos Huerta (6-5-2), a fighter of similar height and speed. Once he learned the magnitude and strength of the punches coming his way, Martinez (pictured on the left) unfurled his own combination and saw his right cross visibly do damage.

A slow developing 12-punch combination by Martinez rocked Huerta who tried to evade the blows to no avail. Finally an overhand right dumped a bleeding Huerta into the ropes as referee Wayne Hedgpeth immediately waved the fight over at 2:26 of the first round.

It was a short but destructive win for Martinez who fights out of toney Woodland Hills, California.

“Hard work pays off,” said Martinez.

Another featured fight saw Compton featherweight Adan Ochoa (11-1, 4 KOs) slug it out with Chile’s Juan “La Maquina” Jimenez (8-9) for five destructive rounds. Though Ochoa had the height, speed and skill advantage, the Chilean fighter walked through every exchange and was cut in the first round because of his reckless charges.

But he fought hard.

Ochoa seemed to have Jimenez in trouble early with single power shots, but was unable to put the final touch. In the fifth round a clash of heads resulted in a gash above Jimenez’s forehead and blood came streaming down. The fight was stopped and due to the cut caused by an accidental clash of heads, the fight was stopped and Ochoa was deemed the winner by technical decision 50-45 twice and 49-46.

“He’s an Hispanic fighter and all Hispanic fighters are tough,” said Ochoa.

A welterweight fight saw Vlad Panin (7-0) use his physical superiority to defeat Mexico’s Daniel Perales (11-19-2) in a four round contest. Panin is a fighter of Belarus lineage and had solid support from his fans who saw him handily defeat Perales by unanimous decision.

Other Bouts

Five of the bouts featured four-round fights and the best of them all saw Orange County-based Victor Rodriguez make his pro debut. He looked very sharp for someone getting his baptism under fire.

Rodriguez (1-0) trains at Grampa’s Gym in Westminster and showed off a very sharp left jab that kept Osman Rivera (2-12-1) from penetrating into the fire zone. Both boxers had large followings and the crowds exchanged competitive cheers for their fighters throughout the four round match. Rodriguez was just a little too sharp for Rivera who was slightly frustrated. All three judges scored the fight 40-36 for Rodriguez.

Other results: Keehwan Kim (4-1) defeat Percy Peterson (3-16-3) by majority decision in a super featherweight contest that opened the show.

Isaac Lucero (1-0) won his debut by knockout in the first round over Anthony Zender (1-6) in a welterweight clash. Lucero floored Zender twice before the fight was stopped at 1:29 of the first round.

Austin Gudino (5-0) remained undefeated by decision after four rounds versus Nobelin Hernandez (0-4) in a super lightweight fight.

Moises Fuentes (4-1) slugged out a win over Sacramento’s tough Moris Rodriguez (8-16-1) after six rounds in a welterweight clash. Each round was hotly contested. The scores were 60-54 twice and 58-56.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Thomas Hauser Enters the Boxing Hall of Fame

Arne K. Lang

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There were 25 names on the Observer Category ballot sent out to those casting votes for the next round of inductions into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Voters could choose as many as five. The top two vote-getters would get in.

A range of disciplines are included in the Observer category: journalists and photo-journalists, TV executives, broadcasters, record-keepers, statisticians, cartoonists. Some of the 25 potential inductees are long dead such as Percy Dana the great photographer who was omnipresent back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the San Francisco Bay area was swarming with big fights. The majority of those on the ballot, however, are still active. They are contemporaries of the electors.

This reporter had a strong feeling that longtime boxing writer and current TSS mainstay Bernard Fernandez would make the cut. Induction into the IBHOF is by nature a lifetime achievement award and Fernandez certainly qualified on that count. Among those stumping for him was ESPN’s Dan Rafael who shares his picks with his readers. Rafael’s opinions circulate widely among his peers.

We guessed right with Fernandez and then had more reason to strut when the other top vote-getter turned out to be frequent TSS contributor Thomas Hauser.

We didn’t see that coming. Yes, we thought that Hauser was more than qualified. Considering some of the “Observers” that were ushered into the Hall before him, his induction was long overdue. But much of Hauser’s work falls under the heading of investigative reporting and he has never been shy about airing his political views so we figured that he had alienated just enough voters to ensure that he would be kept waiting indefinitely.

We miscalculated.

Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser was born in New York City and grew up in Larchmont, an upper-middle-class village roughly 25 miles north of the city in Westchester County. His father was an attorney with a small general practice in the city and Hauser followed him into the practice of law, clerking for a federal judge and then working as a litigator for a Wall Street law firm after graduating from Columbia Law School.

When Hauser got bored with the life of a Wall Street lawyer, he thought he would give writing a try and then hit the jackpot with his very first book. “The Execution of Charles Horman” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award.

Horman was a left-leaning journalist who was murdered while investigating the possible American masterminding of a military coup in Chile. The book spawned the movie “Missing” which earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) and an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for director Costa-Gavras.

The movie put a brighter spotlight on Hauser’s book which was re-titled “Missing” and sent him off on the lecture circuit. Here’s Hauser in 1982 as depicted in a Los Angeles Times story following his talk at UC Irvine.

hauser wong

Hauser went on to write so many books that the exact number is uncertain (but somewhere north of 50). That includes works of fiction, works of general non-fiction and, of course, non-fiction books about boxing of which, at last count, there are eighteen. The opus is “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” Harking in its design to the works of the great Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel, the book, released in 1991, won the William Hill Award for best sports book, a prestigious award in Great Britain.

Completing the book was an arduous task. Hauser interviewed approximately 200 people. He and Ali spent countless days at their respective homes and after the book was published the two went off on a book signing tour that spanned several continents.

Ali TH w book

Hauser had interviewed Ali long before they collaborated on the biography. It came when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Columbia hosting a weekly sports talk radio show on the student-run radio station. Ali was in town to fight Zora Folley at the old Madison Square Garden – Ali’s final fight before his exile – and Hauser wangled his way into Ali’s dressing room after Ali completed a public workout and taped an interview. It wouldn’t be the last time that he wangled his way into a fighter’s dressing room.

Four years later Hauser was at the newly reconstituted Madison Square Garden for the Fight of the Century, the first meeting between Ali and Joe Frazier. It was an epic confrontation, an event that Pete Hamill, writing for Harper’s Bazaar, called the most spectacular event in sports history. Hauser’s ticket bought him a seat in the last row of the mezzanine, as far away from the ring as one could be.

“Muhammad Ali” was actually Hauser’s second boxing book. “The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing,” published in 1986, looks at all the machinations that led up to the Nov. 3, 1984 match between 140-pound title-holder Billy Costello and Saoul Mamby. Hauser’s portrait of Don King jumps off the page.

Hauser’s 2001 book, “A Beautiful Sickness: Reflections on the Sweet Science” is noteworthy because it was published by the University of Arkansas Press which has been publishing a Hauser anthology every year since. The books are compilations of Hauser’s favorite columns from the previous year.

The books invariably include at least one dressing room story as Hauser takes the reader into the dressing room of a fighter before a fight, giving us a peek at what happens during those pregnant moments before a fighter is summoned to the ring. In the fraternity of boxing journalists, Hauser is the consummate fly-on-the-wall.

Another hat he wears is that of a reformer. Boxing has become a niche sport, he laments, and it brought it upon itself, alienating the fans with too many champions and too many mismatches rather than the best fighting the best. “Having three heavyweight champions,” he says, “is like having three Kings of England.”

One of Hauser’s most admired people in boxing is Dr. Margaret Goodman, the Las Vegas neurologist who is the co-founder and the face of VADA, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency. “The most pressing issue facing boxing today,” says Hauser, “is the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs.” Hitting a baseball harder and further is one thing. Hitting a man in the head harder warrants greater reproach.

The new inductees will be formally enshrined in the Hall on Sunday, June 14, the climax of Hall of Fame weekend, a four-day event.

From our perspective here at The Sweet Science, it will be cool to see Thomas Hauser and Bernard Fernandez on the dais together in Canastota. I wonder if we could induce them to wear a “The Sweet Science.com” tee shirt?

Probably not.

Photo (c): Wojtek Urbanek

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