With auto sales down 24% from 1979, inflation up to nearly 20%, and unemployment in Motown a ghastly 15-18%, Detroit sputtered into the 1980s like something produced by American Motors. Add Uniroyal stock spiraling down the proverbial drain, Chrysler, now with Lee Iacocca in charge, still reeling from the 1970s, and one manufacturing plant after another shuttering its doors, and the gloomy citizens of Detroit hardly seemed to have a reason to celebrate. But on March, 2, 1980, whoop it up it they did, and in style, when Hilmer Kenty faced Ernesto España for the WBA lightweight championship.
Over 13,000 fans packed the new Joe Louis Arena to see local favorite Kenty make history. At ringside sat “The Brown Bomber” himself, gaudy print shirt crowned by jumbo collars, only a year or so away from the grave after recently suffering a stroke, but ready to see a world title brought back to Detroit for the first time since Louis himself was in the midst of his heavyweight reign of terror.
Kenty, who had moved to Detroit from Ohio to train at McGraw Street, was also the first world champion produced by Emanuel Steward. But the fight nearly slipped from his grasp. In order to secure Kenty a title shot, Steward had to pay tribute to the new Mafiosi in boxing: banana republic sanctioning bodies. Yes, the likes of Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo, and Eddie Coco had been replaced by a conjunto of prizefight grifters in Panama, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. Pepe Cordero, outed by Bob Arum as a WBA “Bagman” in 1983 and a one-man-gang of graft, opened his sit-down with Steward in Puerto Rico by placing a gun on his desk as a preamble to negotiations. Unfortunately, Steward was a little light in the wallet for Cordero, who, presumably, did not accept personal checks or Layaway. Steward returned to Detroit, hocked what he could, and finally managed to raise the kickback. It was done: Hilmer Kenty would be fighting for the lightweight title.
España, from Venezuela, was a WBA prodigal son. From 1979—when he won the lightweight title vacated by Roberto Duran—to 1982, when he got his last gratuitous payday against Ray Mancini—España had someone to watch over him: a Purple Gang in pastel colors. But sometimes all it takes to run out of luck in boxing is a stiff jab and a whistling right and Kenty brought both of these with him to the riverfront. Before a national television audience on ABC, Kenty rebounded from an early knockdown, mixed it up freely, and left España looking like someone had dropped a Plymouth Volaré on him. Although Kenty, at nearly 5’11, was as skinny as David Bowie was during his “Thin White Duke” phase, he chose to pressure España from the opening bell. “We outpsyched him,” Kenty said after the fight. “He thought we were going to run from him, but I told him that when the bell rung I’d be dead in his face and I was.” In the 9th round, Kenty battered a helpless España around the ring, forcing referee Larry Rozadilla to intervene, and bedlam took over the Joe Louis Arena.
By the mid-1980s, Steward had already established the Kronk Gym as an assembly line of topnotch prizefighters, but Hilmer Kenty, who had been a 5-1 underdog against España, provided the raw material for his first world champion. A few months later, of course, it would be Thomas Hearns who would rally Detroit. In the midst of a staggering recession, it was, incredibly, two prizefighters and an extraordinary manager/trainer who brought a sliver of hope to a ragged metropolis. “Having a world champion right here in your own hometown is something kids can identify with,” Steward told KO in 1982. “The kids living in this neighborhood can walk by and see the Cadillacs, Corvettes, and Rolls-Royces in the parking lot and what it tells them is that they can be a success, too. It’s uplifting.” It certainly was in 1980. For Kenty, for Steward and, especially, for thousands of weary citizens, it was a brief reminder that Detroit, with its Art Deco skyscrapers reaching for the stars downtown, was once the City of Dreams.