by Lindy Lindell
It’s gone now: boxing in Detroit has been so marginalized and fractured into bits that it’s hard to imagine that the sport used to be the second most important in terms of fan interest in America.
But there was a time in Detroit when boxing was a decided, living phenomena in the lineaments of Detroit city life. Natives of a certain age will tell you that their father or uncle was a Detroit city Golden Gloves participant. Now, only the most diehard boxing buff could tell you the name of the heavyweight champion. (There are actually three heavyweight champions recognized by four sanctioning bodies—and this “confusion” is part of boxing’s problem).
At the Detroit Historical Museum recently, David Maraniss, the nationally known biographer (of Obama, Clinton and Vince Lombardi) and contemporary historian, was in town to plug his new book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. The week before, The Detroit Free Press had splattered most of three pages with big pictures of Maraniss (one showing him in his old Detroit neighborhood on the west side, from which he and family moved to Wisconsin when he was just six); an extensive interview; and ahealthychunk from the book itself in whichMaraniss tellsof being inspired by the 2012 Chrysler ad premiering at the Super Bowl in which Eminem approaches the Fox Theatre (“the backbeat hypnotic”); steps from the sedan; strides pasta black gospel choir; and then from amid the darkness, “silence, and Eminem pointing at the camera: This is the Motor City. This is what we do.”
Maraniss admits that he had no interest in buying the car, but he was inspired to write about the story of Detroit within the period of late-1962 to early-1964 in which his novelistic-flow narrative sweeps up accountings of “car guy” Henry II, labor leader Walter Reuther, music mogul Berry Gordy, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and the mayor during this time, Jerome p. Cavanagh. By the time I approached the museum, I had already checked the index of Maraniss’ book and saw no reference to Forrest Foster, the cop and wanna-be boxing manager, who between Detroit appearances of Martin Luther King. Jr. (who marched down Woodward in the summer of ’63 and who inaugurated the “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit) and Malcolm X, Foster murdered a black boxing trainer, stuffed his body into his volkswagon, and may have gotten away with it, had he not run out of gas. But when he pulled into a gas station just south of Mt. Clemens on Gratiot, the unknowing attendant, perhaps thinking in checking the car’s dipstick that itwas in front, opened it to find the deceased boxing trainer. I don’t want to relate the whole story here except to say that it was thecrime for the period of time covered by Marannis, and it included in its dramatis personae thecity’s most famous lawyer and the future trainer of the Kronk gym and molder of boxing champions, Emanuel Steward.
At the presentation, Troy judge Mark Kavanagh (son of Mayor Cavanagh) introduced Marannis and participated in the q and a that followed. I had/have been looking for subjects to film a documentary about former Detroiters returning to their old neighborhoods and was/am thinking that I didn’t want to have a sameness in the subjects returning to dilapidated neighborhoods (a friend told me that Mayor Cavanagh and family had lived in a still well-maintained neighborhood northeast of the University of Detroit), and I wanted to be careful to have subjects who spoke forthrightly and with crisp articulation. Cavanagh seemed to fill the bill on both counts.
But I also wanted to speak with Cavanagh on the matter of another boxing story that I’ve been working on. In 1970, the deposed Mayor Cavanagh, whose political career had been destroyed by the 1967 Detroit riots, was enticed to take on the project of being a kind of spokesman-promoter for what turned out to thegenerally-acknowledgedFight of the 20thcentury–involving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a fight that was set for Detroit in late 1970, but was junked and later took place in New York City in 1971. I was anxious to find out what Mark Cavanagh knew about his father’s involvement with the promotion and why it was moved from Detroit. Again, I am not telling about the guts of the story at this time, partly because I am still assembling information about it, but I want to find out what Mark Cavanagh knew about the match that became known as The Fight.
After the presentation concluded, I approached Cavanagh and asked him about participating in the filming of the documentary and about what he knew about his father’s involvement with the Ali-Frazier fight. He said he’d be interested in participating in the documentary, but he was stumped about his father and the boxing promotion: “You know more about it than I do. To me, it’s like it’s some kind of urban legend.”
These two happenings—a then-notorious murder (which might have precipitated the ’67 riots four years earlier) and the canceled Fight of the Century (I don’t call it that idly; even Frank Sinatra, denied a ticket, hired on as Life Magazine’s photographer so he could be ringside for the Ali-Frazier fight at NYC’s Madison Square Garden) are two happenings/non-happenings that are lost to history unless diggers are hired to excavate them from microfilm. The late Allen Rosenfeld made a point in telling me that one should mine newspaper microfilms for the gold they contain. Mining for gold is damn hard work, and, oh, is it tedious! But that’s where the real stuff is, Rosenfeld told me. Looking at microfilm for more than two hours straight can make one dizzy, but Rosenfeld was right: if you want the real stuff, you’ve got to dig for it.