Niyo: Odd couple is trying to revive the boxing scene in Detroit

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Promoter Dmitriy Salita, left, and trainer Javan Hill are working to restore Detroit’s rich boxing history at Kronk’s newest home on the city’s northwest side.

Detroit — Looks can be deceiving. Legacies can be, too.

Javan Hill knew that long before Dmitriy Salita walked in the door at the historic Kronk Boxing gym several years ago, hoping to jump-start his boxing career with the help of Hill and his uncle, legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward.

Salita knew it, too, partly because he’d practically grown up in a place like this, learning the fight game — and so much more — from another renowned trainer, Jimmy O’Pharrow, at New York’s famed Starrett City Boxing Club.

And in a sport too often held hostage by matchmakers, maybe it’s fitting that this latest against-the-odds bid to revive the local boxing scene in Detroit is being led by such an oddly-perfect coupling.

In one corner, there’s Salita, the Ukrainian-born Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn who was once a lightweight title contender — “Kid Kosher,” they used to call him — and now is a rising star as a promoter, with a roster that includes world champion Claressa Shields, Flint’s two-time Olympic gold medalist. In the other, there’s Hill, the former Detroit police officer everyone knows as “Sugar,” a mainstay at the Kronk showing the ropes to up-and-coming boxers for more than a decade.

But here in the basement of the former Our Lady Gate of Heaven church — Kronk’s newest home on the city’s northwest side — when the subject inevitably turns to the sport’s glory days in Detroit, both men become sparring partners.

It was 80 years ago this summer that Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling to become an American hero. And nearly 40 years since the Kronk became a hotbed for amateur boxing with Steward training future champions like Hilmer Kenty and Thomas Hearns, Mickey Goodwin and the McCrory brothers, Jimmy Paul and Duane Thomas, and on and on.

Yet as those memories faded — like all those old newspaper clippings on the wall — so did Detroit’s boxing reputation, a trend Steward never stopped fighting before his passing in 2012.

“It was frustrating because people were talking bad about boxing in Detroit and I knew why, we all did,” Hill, 47, said. “Detroit fans, they know what real boxing is.”

They just haven’t seen nearly enough of it lately here in a place that birthed Hall of Fame careers and served as a part-time training base to so many other champions, from Hector Camacho to Lennox Lewis to Wladimir Klitschko. The number of professional boxing matches staged here annually has dwindled to barely a dozen — in the entire state — over the last decade. And the ones that boxing fans do get to see? Well, they haven’t been much to look at, by comparison.

To wit: A pro card at the Motor City Casino last fall included a 57-year-old squaring off against a 43-year-old, and four undercard bouts that featured five boxers with losing records. Others in the area routinely feature record-padding mismatches. And while the occasional no-show at weigh-ins or post-fight squabbles over purse money are hardly unique to Detroit, Salita was among those dismayed by what he saw.

Late-career fights

Salita was 35-2-1 as a professional fighter — the first of those losses coming in 2009 with a world light-welterweight title on the line against British star Amir Khan — and he got his start as a promoter hyping his own late-career fights in New York while training in Detroit.

“The level of fighters here — amateur and pro — was still very high,” said Salita, who fought his last pro bout in late 2013. “But then I went to a boxing show and it was nothing like what you’d see in the gym. It was depressing, honestly. Being from New York City, I’d never been to such a low-class boxing show. I mean, it was terrible. It was cops and robbers, almost staged. If you know anything about boxing, you would know the guys that were meant to win and the guys that were meant to lose just by the way they were dressed. … And that immediately sparked some ideas in my head.”

Those ideas are more than a spark now for the 36-year-old Salita, who moved with his family to Michigan in 2015 after his wife, Alona, was accepted to Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He gets fired up talking about the potential he sees as a promoter in this market as well as the obstacles in the way — from venues to sponsors to media coverage.

Hill does, too, mostly because he’s seen too much potential “go to waste” in recent years.

“Because these young guys, they’re not fighting competitive fights to grow,” Hill said. “That's something that we talked about, me and Dmitriy, back when he was promoting fights in New York. We needed somebody here in Michigan to put on shows like we used to do back in the day with Emanuel. Back when boxing was strong and we had champions coming out of this gym.”

They were both in that gym Monday afternoon, and Salita’s influence was hard to ignore as Hill put a group of Russian boxers through their paces in the ring, testing his own Rosetta Stone-aided vocabulary — “Golova! Golova!” he yells, reminding them to move their head — in the process.

Salita’s family moved to the U.S. when he was nine, right around the time Ukraine declared its independence from the former Soviet Union. He fell in love with boxing soon after his first trip to the Starrett City gym at age 13, beginning an impressive amateur career — highlighted by state and national titles — before turning pro and signing with Top Rank promoter Bob Arum in 2001, the same year as Floyd Mayweather.

“It was a dream come true for the first six months,” he laughs, “and then you start to deal with being a professional athlete.”

A very unique one, at that, as an observant Jew, part of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, eating a strict Kosher diet and refusing to fight on the Sabbath while eschewing modern conveniences — electricity, cars, and so on — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“I had to deal with a lot of issues because of my story, and because of where I came from and certain things I believed in, choices that I made,” he said “And I was very outspoken earlier in my career, ruffled some feathers. But it was all a great learning experience.”

Now he’s passing some of that knowledge on to the next generation. Veteran cruiserweight Alexey Zubov and a trio of other Russian fighters training at the Kronk — heavyweight Apti Davtaev, light heavyweights Umar Salamov and super middleweight Aslambek Idigov — are part of a stable of former Soviet-bloc fighters under Salita’s care now, joining a list of nearly two dozen pro boxers.

Shields is the headliner at the moment, her young pro career already a big hit after just six fights, the last a unanimous decision over Hanna Gabriels at the Masonic Temple on June 22 that gave her world titles in a second weight class, as well as a payday in excess of $75,000.

Shields, the only American boxer to win back-to-back Olympic golds, became the first woman ever to headline a premium TV boxing card in 2017. Since then, she’s made it a regular habit.

Her manager, Mark Taffet, the former HBO Sports executive now backing a mixed martial arts league and a new live-streaming sports network, called last month’s Showtime event “the greatest night of women’s boxing” and the moment “the glass ceiling was broken” in the sport. The live broadcast averaged 376,000 viewers — the network’s best rating since 2014 — and also featured another women’s title fight won by Christina Hammer, setting the stage for middleweight unification bout in October.

Meanwhile, Shields’ ascension also serves as a springboard for Salita’s efforts, filling those televised fight nights — a rarity around here anymore — with bouts featuring some of his other fighters. The 23-year-old Salamov (21-1, 16 KOs) won the vacant IBF North American light heavyweight title with a ninth-round knockout of American Brian Howard at last month’s show at the Masonic Temple. Another regular on Salita’s recent cards has been 23-year-old bantamweight Jarico O’Quinn, a former USA Boxing national champ from Detroit.

“Claressa’s the first fighter in a long time to bring national TV to Detroit, and she’s a symbol of hope and possibility, truly,” Salita said.

Remarkable backstory

But while Shields’ remarkable backstory drew worldwide attention at the last two Olympics — Universal Studios bought the movie rights, and Academy Award-winner Barry Jenkins is writing the screenplay — “it’s still important for her to build a fan base in Detroit, to have significant fights close to home,” the promoter adds. “That’s one of the reasons everybody loves Tommy Hearns here, because Tommy fought so many fights in Detroit coming up.”

Likewise, Hill says, it’s important for the young amateurs coming up today to see the possibilities, not just hear about them.

Promotor Dmitriy Salita, right, laces up the gloves of Umar Salamov, left, who arrived from Russia to train at Kronk Community Center. Brooklyn native and promoter Dmitriy Salita is working to restore Detroit's rich boxing history.

“This is a part of Detroit’s history, the champions training here,” Hill said, motioning around to all the red-and-gold reminders of Kronk’s history. “And this is a part of my life, a part of who I am. Being born and raised in this gym, born and raised around champions. Watching my uncle take the youth of this city and transform them into something that they didn’t think they could be. Giving ’em hope, giving them a chance.”

Chances are, it’ll never be like it once was, long before the original Kronk gym was destroyed by a fire last fall. Boxing as a sport has taken too many hits over the years — some from other combat sports, others self-inflicted. Still, as Salita surveys the landscape now, with Detroit touting itself as the “Comeback City,” he envisions something close to it.

“We still have some challenges that we have to face,” he said. “But what I believe in — and this is the great thing about America, and the American Dream — is that consistent, good product, at the end of the day, is gonna break through barriers.”

And if those sound like fighting words, well, consider the source.