Detroit Brawl gives Gordie Russ, SugarHill Steward chance to carry on rich legacy

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Saturday night in Dearborn, Detroit boxer Gordie Russ II plans to beat his opponent with an old family recipe.

There’s only one ingredient.

“It’s always a knockout,” said his cousin and trainer SugarHill Steward. 

Gordie Russ II

Steward — a former Detroit police officer — is fresh off training heavyweight champion Tyson Fury to consecutive victories over Deontay Wilder via KO, so one can presume he knows what he’s talking about. 

At the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, his cousin will have the same mission on a much smaller stage. Russ (2-0, 0 KO) looks to stay unbeaten as a pro in a four-round welterweight bout against 36-year-old Leslie Michael Klekotta at Salita Promotion’s Detroit Brawl.

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But getting a win won’t be the only thing occupying the minds of these two family members: It’s a homecoming fight, and the first time that Steward will get the chance to be in Russ’ corner.

“It’s a great honor. Finally, I’m reunited with my family,” Russ said.

“At the same time, I still want to put on for my city. … Like I can’t go out there and look like a bum in front of my people. I can’t have my name looking bad, so I’ve gotta go out there and look good, like Hill tells me all the time: When you go out there, you’ve gotta look good.”

That’s created quite a deal of pressure. It’s pressure that Russ can handle, but still certainly feels. 

Russ estimates he was about 8 years old when his cousin SugarHill first started teaching him how to box; how to wrap his gloves and throw a combo punch. Years before that, though, it was their shared uncle, Emanuel Steward (known as the Godfather of Detroit boxing), that brought Russ up in the sport by having him hang around his gym — the world-famous Kronk Gym — as early as 2 years old.

Emanuel Steward died in 2012 and SugarHill has been around the world accomplishing a laundry list of accolades as a trainer. In the meantime, Detroit’s Tony Harrison, who chased down a light middleweight title of his own in 2018 and trained at Kronk under Emanuel, took Russ under his wing. 

“That’s like my big brother,” Russ said of Harrison. “Tony Harrison raised me from the time I was 12.”

And that’s why you’ll hear legacy talk coming out of the 20-year-old Russ’ mouth. Not because he’s already thinking of what his legacy will be, but because he knows that every move he’ll make in the sport of boxing shifts the dial on a legacy that began long before he was born.

“It was instilled in me early. Once I started learning the heritage of my family, where I really come from … that’s when it started setting in and clicking,” Russ said. “Then when I started being around more of the fighters, they were like, ‘Oh, you’re Emanuel Steward’s brother. You’re SugarHill’s blood. You’re cut from their cloth. It just falls on my shoulders. …

“I gotta carry them on. I gotta carry the city on.”

That second part is true as well, and important to note. Detroit’s standing as a "boxing city" probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Emanuel Steward led Kronk Gym as it became one of the world’s most famous training centers in the 1980’s. They accomplished a lot there. They won world title after world title. They gave back and inspired. But because the sport’s popularity at large has declined, that generation doesn’t get as much credit for what it did to inspire the next generation — which is still here and winning, without fanfare.

“Emanuel was so involved with the city back in the 80’s, it was a lot different,” SugarHill said. “Times have changed a bit in the world.”

As things have changed in Detroit, he’s changed things for the sport of boxing on a macro level. Now, he’s returned to his hometown to see how things have changed on a micro level. 

“It does feel a bit different (to be back),” SugarHill said. “It feels like a homecoming to me. Like a real homecoming. 

“It’s something that’s been a part of everybody’s generation. Being a part of bringing it back and reviving boxing here in Detroit, it means a lot to me, from the things I learned from Emanuel, and the things I’ve been doing that he taught me, and this will be another one. I want to accomplish this: help bring the big-time boxing back to Detroit.”

Dmitriy Salita, head of Salita Promotions, is on the same mission and has been for some time. Salita also trained at Kronk Gym, and has worked tirelessly to coordinate fight nights like the Detroit Brawl.

The main event features a 10-round bout between the ninth- and 15th-ranked middleweight fighters. Two Michigan natives are making their pro debuts. Detroit natives Winfred Harris and undefeated middleweight prospect Marlon Harrington will also take part in the home cooking.

Tyson Fury, left, and his trainer SugarHill Steward.

These events are important, Salita said, because it not only gives local fighters an opportunity to fight in their hometown, but because it also "exposes Detroit as a boxing hub nationally."

Salita believes people like SugarHill are capable of making a reality out of his dreams.

“One of the reasons SugarHill is as great as he is, is because since he’s been a kid he’s been around the atmosphere of world champions, and one of the greatest trainers of our sport in Emanuel Steward,” Salita said. 

“He cares about the sport of boxing at a very basic level. It’s not about the money, it’s not about the fame. He loves the sport of boxing.”

And at the end of the day, that’s what Saturday night is about: The sport of boxing in its purest form; it’s draped with intensity and love and respect, and the weight of the opportunity to push a story forward — Detroit’s story, Russ’ story, the story of Emanuel Steward and his prolific nephew SugarHill. 

With so much to consider, it makes sense that there will only be one thing in Russ’ mind when he steps into the ring with his cousin SugarHill in his corner.

“Knockouts,” Russ said. “That’s all we’re looking for.”

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

Detroit Brawl

►When: 7 p.m., Saturday

►Where: Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, Dearborn

►Tickets: Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online or the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center Box Office (313-943-2354)