Detroits Boxing Scene on the Upswing


By Jackie Kallen

Detroit was once an esteemed boxing city. This was even before the Kronk Gym ruled the roost from the late 1970s until last year when Emanuel Steward died. During Joe Louis’s heyday, the city was bustling with gyms in every neighborhood and amateur shows just about every weekend.

Things change and Detroit’s boxing scene changed along with everything else. In the 1990s, my Galaxy Gym had guys like James Toney, Bronco McKart, Tarick Salmaci, Scotty Buck, Bernard Harris, Johnnie Walker, Warren Jackson, Leo Nolan, Lonnie Beasley and dozens of other guys lining up every day to train and spar.

When we ran out of sparring there was always Kronk, Butzel, Livonia Boxing, SAL in Pontiac, Aztreca and other gyms to work with. We’d go there or they’d bring their guys to us. The sparring was always varied and top-notch. The exchanges between James Toney and Gerald McClellan were just the tip of the iceberg. For most guys, their sparring was tougher than their actual fights.

The cooperation between gyms was so imperative to the progress and growth of the boxers. Everyone improved due to the high level of friendly competition. Hopefully those days will return and the gyms in town will work together to get these hopeful prospects to the next level. It is hard to evolve and improve when you have to spar the same guys day after day.

Today there is Coleman Young Community Center, Empire, Clark Street Gym, World’s Best, Bad Boy Gym, Jab Gym, Downtown Detroit Boxing and others. I recently popped into Coleman Young Recreational Center to check up on my junior middleweight Leandre White. He was doing some light sparring with James Ballard in preparation for his January 10 fight at Masonic Temple. His heavy sparring starts in a week or so.

The Coleman Young Community Center is an impressive building in downtown Detroit. Designed by architect W. Kessler, it opened in 1981, in the height of Mayor Coleman Young’s reign. It is a full-service recreational center, much like the original Kronk Recreation Center was. It has a swimming pool, a basketball court, a boxing gym and a ton of other activities and programs.

White’s trainer, James Lester, runs the boxing program at Coleman Young. When the original trainer John Brown passed away in 2009. Lester took over. Before that, he was Emanuel Steward’s Boxing Coordinator for almost a decade; working with fighters like Naseem Hamad, Hector Camacho and Greg Wright. He was an amateur boxer and won two Golden Gloves titles as a featherweight and his son, James Lester, Jr. is a pro lightweight.

“I am high on the city of Detroit’s boxing future,” says Lester. “There are many talented kids in Detroit and with a few local promoters on the scene now doing regular shows, there is hope for these kids to get the activity they need.”

Leandre White agrees. He is 5-0 and wants to fight as often as possible to build his record and gain experience.

“In the past, there was a lot of action here in Detroit and fighters like James Toney could climb the ladder quickly. Lately it has been a harder road. Not as many shows and not as much opportunity for good sparring and regular fights. I want to stay busy and work my way to the top.”

The Three active promoters in Detroit now are Joe Donofrio, Kaltsas Productions, and Darkside Boxing. All have been doing local shows and both are giving the local boxers a chance to show their skills. Donofrio has been focusing more on MMA, but has done some excellent boxing shows. Earlier in the year, Golden Boy brought the Bundrage/Smith fight here. There is definitely a solid fan base here in Detroit and the better the local kids do–the more the fans will turn out.

I am optimistic that boxing will once again be a key draw in Motown. Thomas Hearns used to pack them in at the old Olympia and then the Joe Louis Arena. James Toney made The Palace of Auburn Hills his home base. Now it’s time for a new, young crop of boxers to take center stage in the Motor City.

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