Javan "Sugar" Hill loves a good fight. At 38 years old, the native Detroiter is a retired crime fighter from the Detroit Police Department. He's now devoting his energy to his biggest battle of all — heading up Detroit's historic Kronk Boxing Team. It's the kind of thing nobody does unless they truly love boxing. And this warm, friendly guy's eyes just sparkle when he talks about fighting. For Hill, boxing helps people develop nerve, not just muscle. "It gives self-control, discipline, drive and motivation," Hill says, eyes aglitter.
Kronk ain't what it used to be back in the '80s. Under the guidance of Hill's uncle, Emmanuel Steward, the Kronk Boxing Team, based at the Kronk Recreation Center in a gritty neighborhood on Detroit's west side, was sometimes billed as "the most famous rec center in the world." It was there that head trainer Steward groomed Detroit's Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns for the welterweight championships in the late 1970s and '80s. Steward went on to establish successful satellite boxing programs in Europe and Arizona.
But the Kronk team has fallen on some hard times. Real hard. When Emmanuel Steward moved his operations largely out of town, the team lost his star billing. What's worse, in 2006, scrappers broke into the city-owned gym and stripped it of all its copper plumbing. The city refused to repair the facility, and closed the famous gym.
"Their attitude was, 'You've gotten enough from the city,'" Hill says with a grimace.
Hoping to keep the Kronk name alive, Hill spent months shuttling between Dearborn, Southfield and southwest Detroit, putting in time with Kronk fighters throughout the day. This April, the team came back from championships to find they had been shut out of their favored practice space in Dearborn.
"We lost the fight, and then came home and lost our gym," Hill says.
Now, the Kronk Boxing Team, with about a half dozen fighters, is practicing out of a "former hand car wash" on St. Aubin, along a stretch of urban prairie. The space also sits across the tracks from Eastern Market, where the group's monthly fight nights at Bert's Warehouse Theater can draw as many as 1,500 people. The matches help raise crucial funds to send the team's fighters to championship matches. For the plucky team, harbored for now in the cinderblock building, the news isn't all bad. During a recent trip outstate to the Golden Gloves championships, Hill says they did well.
"I'm just following Emmanuel Steward's blueprint," Hill says. "If Emmanuel Steward can do it, I can do it."
THE BUILDING on St. Aubin they practice out of is actually a small gym in disguise. It's the home of the Downtown Boxing club, which has opened its doors to Kronk's fighters.
You'd miss the squat building with a fenced-in lot if not for a small, hand-painted sign in the scrubby, vacant lot across the street reading "Downtown Boxing." They don't even pull the gate shut most of the time: With the building often full of fit, experienced fighters, this is one parking lot on St. Aubin that's safe.
Entering the space, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the cool fluorescent lights. Then it all comes into view: Banners and medals upon the flat-gray cinderblock walls, a regulation ring off to the right, and heavy bags suspended from the sturdy new trusses holding up the ceiling. It smells clean and cool, out of the heat on a sunny warm afternoon.
Hill is here early, sitting ringside with 24-year-old Irish middleweight Andy Lee, a 6-foot, 2-inch dude who moved to Detroit to fight with the Kronk team. Hill tapes up Lee's hands while they smile and chat quietly. Lee seems charming but diffident, possessing the same gentle, friendly air all Hill's fighters do. It's early yet, and only a few fighters have shown up for today's training. But the energy in the room is already building. A boom box in the corner is playing high-energy tracks. Kronk super middleweight Aaron Pryor Junior stands nearby, walking the floor, stopping to shake out his arms before a wall mirror, working on his form. The fighters lace up their boxing boots, then put themselves through regimens of stretching, some of them touching the ground with the points of their hands. Before long, more fighters arrive, kids in tow. It's a family affair that recalls trainer Hill's own childhood. While the fighters warm up, their youngsters are all over, scrambling under the hem of the ring in search of equipment, jabbing at heavy bags or jumping rope. Are they serious about fitness, blowing off steam, or only emulating their elders? It's likely a mixture of all three, but the serious intent in their young eyes is impressive.
A ringside timer pierces the air, marking off one-minute rounds with three-minute breaks. Every few minutes, the door opens, sending a shaft of daylight into the space, heralding the arrival of other fighters, like Olympic qualifier and light middleweight Domonique Dolton, now rummaging through his bag, or LaTonya King, featured in USA Today, JET Magazine and on PBS' Tavis Smiley. They warm up in the small space without crowding each other, and the room fills with movement and sound, rhythmic punching, jumping, jabbing and bobbing. The speed bag accelerates through a workout with a whum-pa-pa, whum-pa-pa, growing louder and faster. Concussions hit the heavy bags, rattling through the ceiling trusses. In the ring now, Hill is holding out the punching gloves and Lee is jabbing out, tarring the glove with heavy blows. King boxes into the mirror, going from photogenic young lady to formidable opponent. She hunches forward into a fighting stance, feinting, protecting, jabbing, hissing through her teeth as she jabs and punches.
The owner of the space is here. Khali Muhammad, head trainer of Downtown Boxing, wants to help keep the Kronk name alive.
"I opened my doors for these guys 24 hours," he says, watching them practice. "I got a guy from Ireland training in my gym. How about that? What are the chances of that happening?"
ON A LATER visit to the gym, Muhammad is there, but the Kronk team is out of town. They're off in Germany, or Austria, he thinks. The gym is a lot quieter without them. Perhaps hoping to set things straight about Detroit boxing, Muhammad pulls my ear about it.
"When people come around to cover boxing, they're like, 'Kronk, Kronk, Kronk,'" Muhammad says, sounding a little glum about competing for attention with the mythic name. "I mean, Emmanuel Steward and Tommy Hearns? That's over.
"There are lots of other boxing clubs in Detroit. ... Not just my Downtown Boxing, but what about Coleman Young Boxing? Or [former U.S. Olympic coach] Ted Palac's gym in Hamtramck?" He makes a good point. The clubs are competing for scarce attention and resources. Despite his complaint, Muhammad beams with a smile about "Sugar" Hill. "Don't say I told you anything negative about him. I help Hill out because he's sincere in his love of the sport. He'd do it for free if he had to."
IT'S THE FIRST Friday night of June, and the parking lots around Bert's Warehouse Theatre in Eastern Market are packed full of gleaming fuel hogs. A crowd is filtering in to see tonight's fight card — 10 amateur bouts, four professional. At $12 a pop, that'll raise money and give Detroit-area fighters a little more ring time. And Bert Dearing's sprawling market theater is the perfect spot for it, decked out in Detroit memorabilia that includes a Joe Louis mural in its lobby. Inside, the bar is doing fair business. A remix of "Rock with You" jazzes up a crowd that already numbers more than 100 people. Fighters are already parading through the cabaret seating with belts over their shoulders.
By 8:30 p.m. the fights are a half-hour late, and the word is that the pro fighters have canceled. Instead of the professional matches promised, the audience is only treated to a handful of amateur bouts, with fighters from groups like the fighters of the Coleman A. Young rec center on the near east side and Warren's Motown Boxing Club, as well as Windsor's Border City Boxing. Most disappointing of all, King's opponent is a no-show. Some of the team's most promising fighters won't have their match made tonight.
Lindy Lindell, 64, writer for sportssummary.com, is at the bar, a guy with "almost 30 years in the fight game." What does he think of Kronk? He thinks they're "their own worst enemy."
Pressed on that, the former booking agent and matchmaker says, "They're trying to do it on the cheap. They don't want to pay for a matchmaker."
It's hard to argue with Lindell. Matchmakers have "the toughest job in boxing." They're the managers who not only arrange bouts where fighters show up, but give them the best chance to progress — putting a fighter on a track to experience. Whether the Kronk team can afford these services, though, is another question.
I call Lindell on it a few weeks later, asking about the cash-poor team. Can they really afford to pay a matchmaker? Lindy gives me an earful.
"A real matchmaker requires some payment of some magnitude these days, because it's such a mind-fraying job," he tells me, but "they're going to spend more money if they don't have a matchmaker, scrambling around, than if they were to have a matchmaker."
He concedes that matchmaking isn't the only problem. To Lindell, the entire Detroit boxing scene is lagging under poor publicity, lax regulation, fighters who "reach a certain stage and leave Detroit," and "fighters who won't fight, sometimes not by their own fault, but by the people who handle them being very cautious to ensure their fighters are undefeated at all costs."
Lindell may dismiss these "small club shows" out of hand — and their future is uncertain — but they're still exciting. Certainly, for all the fighters in the ring at Bert's, it's the real thing. The roar of the crowd when the tide turns. Concussions you can hear at 20 yards. The telltale spray of sweat from a direct blow. At some points in the night, folks in the audience, notably women, cry out lustily.
"Knock him out!"
But even the fiercest battles of the night end in chunked gloves or a quick hug, showing good sportsmanship. These guys are grateful for the chance to show their skill, drive and discipline. Whatever comes of Kronk, Detroit boxing or their individual dreams, they're the champs tonight.Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]