A son of Detroit and a nephew of fighting royalty, Javan “Sugar” Hill’s dedication to establishing boxing once again in The Motor City is unrivalled. A figurehead at the illustrious Kronk gym, where tough men were churned out as frequently as the automobiles in the nearby, now defunct, motor factories, Hill knows all about rise and falls, but it’s his expertise in the former that fills him with a glowing confidence that the Michigan region can come again.
“The whole mindset in this city has got to change,” declared a knowing Hill referring to the problems currently gripping not only Detroit, but the vast majority of working class American neighbourhoods. “Kids don’t fight no more. They either go grab a gun or pull a knife because they ain’t man enough or strong enough to look themselves in the mirror and tell their sorry ass that they just been fucked up. It’s ok to lose a fight. We lose in life.”
Hill’s apprenticeship in boxing came under the studious eyes of his uncle and mentor, the late Emanuel Steward. A young boy in a female family dominated environment, Hill was pulled away from jovial encounters with Steward’s two daughters and thrust straight into a world of fistic combat that has refused to ease its vice’like grip on him ever since. The Kronk production line, situated in the basement of a Detroit community centre named after John Kronk, a Polish born councilman, was school for Hill, and the education he received there has made a greater contribution to his existence than any of the classes he was sometimes bothered to take at more formal educational institutions.
The discipline he has today did not arrive in a straightforward manner yet the values of dedication and team work trapped within the suffocating hot air of the Kronk were inhaled by Hill on a daily basis as he watched Steward create a boxing dynasty from scratch. With a buzz firmly established on the amateur circuit, several Kronk boxers transferred their successes to the paid code as Hilmer Kenty, Tommy Hearns and Milton McCrory all raced to world titles. In a relatively short timeframe, Steward’s initial community purpose snowballed into something far bigger as he became one of the most sought after trainers in boxing with the Kronk, and Detroit, firmly on the sporting map.
“The Kronk was like a boxing team for Detroit that the whole city got behind,” reflects Hill with a laugh. “Detroit has the Pistons and the Lions, but back then they also had the Kronk like we were some sort of sporting franchise. It was a like a big squad with my uncle as the coach and Hearns being the star player. Rumours would be flying round about who would be joining the gym next because everybody came to my uncle and it gave this place an identity it needed.
“Some of my earliest memories of boxing in this city would be meeting at the gym to drive round the country to take part in all the different tournaments that went on back then. The support for the amateur boxers used to be something real special, and that support would come from everybody from the local communities all the way up to the mayor. The Kronk gym had big support back then. Those competitions would be wild, but every single person in attendance knew who the Kronk gym was because we fought hard and we fought in a way that kept the crowd on their feet. Once that show was over, everybody in attendance knew all about the gold and red of the Kronk gym.”
The glowing testimonials afforded to Steward and his famed gym were richly deserved throughout the 1980s as the unforgiving streets of Southeast Michigan spat out countless fighters of prestigious standing. The honours collected via Detroit natives stretched from an Olympic gold medal courtesy of Steve McCrory at the Los Angeles Games, to some of the biggest nights boxing has granted its audience due to the sterling efforts of Hearns as he took on Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler in grand surroundings. Steward’s reputation grew quicker than the fighters he prepared and it wasn’t only nearby pugilists who required his services.
With Steward seemingly becoming hired gun to turn good fighters into great boxers, his time spent in the Kronk gym was restricted as he took to more lavish landscapes such as Big Bear in California or the Pennsylvania Poconos. Steward was alongside Evander Holyfield and Oscar De La Hoya for brief periods, but accompanying Lennox Lewis following his shock loss to Oliver McCall (Steward worked McCall’s corner for that monumental upset) swallowed the latter years of his coaching career.
Like all of Detroit, the Kronk faced crippling problems and several fundraisers were organised to ensure the gym continued to breathe, but each effort to provide life would be thwarted shortly after due to a variety of reasons ranging from finance to vandalism. Today, the name still lives on with the gym taking up residency at 9520 Mettetal in the city, and the legacy left by Steward is one that Hill wants to maintain.
“I’m here to spend time with the next generation now. Sometimes it can be hard as my fighters such as Adonis Stevenson and Anthony Dirrell want me closer to them when they got fights coming up so perhaps I haven’t been able to give my all to Detroit, but I’m here now with more time and I want to do what’s right for the people of this city and get Detroit back to where it once was. It wasn’t a fluke what happened all those years ago. It was my uncle’s vision and one that he believed in, and stuck to, and it’s definitely something that I want to do moving forward.”
Hill has already served his city in a prominent capacity due to his longstanding service with the Detroit police department, a position he stepped down from in 2007, but the donations to sport provided by his “Uncle Manny” serve as a priority motivation to him, and he’s eager to resume the work of his teacher who sadly passed away in October 2012.
“We’ve got to get boxing back in this city and quick,” declared a passionate Hill moving to a tone of seriousness from the laidback one that has dominated our conversation. “Dimitri Salita is putting on shows here that could get TV stations coming back to Detroit, and there’s people like Claressa Shields who is having such an amazing impact on young people in Michigan. Boxing can be as big as it wants to be if people pull together in the right direction and we have to start now. Detroit has given so much to this sport, and we have to go back to basics so we can give it even more. That means working for each other and putting the sport first.”