DETROIT—Inside the MotorCity Casino one recent night, there were roars from the crowd as boxer after boxer was knocked out. A few laughs, too, when a fighter’s vomit stopped one bout and another was delayed because a competitor failed to put on a protective cup.
Watching from a front-row seat was Thomas Hearns, the revered fighter known as “The Hitman.” Now 64, he was hailed by the approximately 2,000 fans when hightlights were shown of his career that included titles in five weight classes.
“I like what I’m seeing,” Hearns told The Associated Press between fights on an 11-bout card. “Fighters are getting more action.”
The bad news for the event, and for Detroit’s once-fabled boxing scene in general, was that Hearns was easily the biggest name on hand. The best active boxer from Detroit is fighting on the other side of the world this weekend because his hometown does not host big-time bouts these days.
Former champion Tony Harrison (29-3-1, 21 KOs) is fighting Australian Tim Tszyu (21-0, 15-0 KOs) on Sunday in Sydney for the vacant WBO 154-pound title. Showtime will air the fight in the US on Saturday night.
The 32-year-old Harrison, who was managed early in his career by famed trainer Emanuel Steward, had his fourth fight at the MotorCity Casino. His last fight in Detroit, though, was nearly a decade ago in the Cobo Center Ballroom.
Little Caesars Arena, home of the Red Wings and Pistons, has not had a boxing event and doesn’t have one on the calendar any time soon.
“There’s no support for fighters no more,” Harrison told AP from Australia, wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. “It should be the highest support for fighting because people from Detroit, they know how to do one thing and that’s fight. Inside the ring. Outside the ring. Fighting paycheck to paycheck, rent to rent.”
While Harrison has trained in Detroit at his own gym, he has been forced to go from coast to coast and other countries to compete. The fighter known as Superbad, a nickanme Steward gave him, handed Jermell Charlo his only loss and took his 154-pound title in New York in 2018, then lost the championship in Canada a year later in an 11-round rematch.
“It’s so sad that Tony doesn’t have opportunities here because he’s an accomplished fighter,” said Jackie Kallen, who was Hearns’ publicist and managed former champion and Michigan native James Toney. “Hopefully, he will win this weekend to help put him on the map with more people.”
Joe Louis, a famed boxer who moved to the Motor City as a child, Sugar Ray Robinson and Hearns represented the city as world champions and are regarded as all-time greats. Fighters from around the world, including former heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and Wladimir Klitschko, were schooled by Detroit-based trainers Eddie Futch and Steward.
When Louis started his career in the late 1930s and boxed for more than a decade, Detroit had more than 1.5 million residents and was the fourth or fifth-largest city in the United States, a foundational cradle of the nation’s automaking industry. The fights at Olympia Stadium and Cobo Arena, where the Red Wings and Pistons once played, were legendary for decades.
By the time Hearns was done throwing his feared right hand in 2006, the city had taken so many blows of its own over the decades that its population was knocked out of the country’s top 20 towns.
These days, the city and the sport are fighting to get up off the mat. But boxing is still here, if at a smaller scale.
In addition to the low-level professional fights, the sport will draw more than 1,000 competitors on March 25 for a weeklong USA Boxing qualifer in a convention center just down the street from “The Fist,” the 24-foot bronze sculpture that honors Louis in downtown Detroit.
Boxing is also used as a vehicle to enrich the lives of children with after-school programs.
“It’s not the sport of boxing that keeps the kid off the street,” said Khali Sweeney, founder and CEO of the Downtown Boxing Gym. “It’s the connection that you make with the kid. Boxing is just the icebreaker.”
Harrison’s gym, Superbad Fitness, also fights for children in Detroit to give them an athletic, academic and social outlet to stay off the streets.
“For me, winning in life is helping other kids be successful in life,” Harrison said.
A pair of promoters, Carlos Llinas and Dmitriy Salita, are pushing the sport in the Detroit area with a periodic series of bouts in smaller venues in hopes of bringing it back to the masses.
“That’s definitely the ultimate goal, to be at Little Caesars and be able to fill that arena the way we fill this consistently,” Llinas said backstage at the MotorCity Casino. “That just goes to show that people are hungry for boxing. What it is going to take is that next superstar that will develop from this, I like to call it a farm league.”
Llinas and Salita each are aiming to promote several boxing cards this year.
“I really believe that Detroit could and should be one of the hubs of professional boxing in the United States,” said Salita, who also manages women’s world middleweight champion Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan. “The state of Michigan and the city of Detroit has produced some of the greatest fighters in our sport. Greatest fighters, greatest trainers. There’s such a rich boxing culture here.”