After decades of decline, Detroit, Michigan attempted to reverse the years of stagnation and neglect and reassert itself in the late 70s as one of America’s great cities. A significant part of the resurgence was the construction of a new sports and entertainment venue on the riverfront named for the city’s legendary native son and one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time. Joe Louis Arena opened in December of 1979 and the following March hosted a special boxing card that attracted thousands of fans to pay tribute to Louis himself, and to cheer on two of the city’s most promising young fighters. To say the event was a success would be something of an understatement.
First 21-year-old Thomas Hearns took on former welterweight champion Angel Espada and what should have been a competitive battle proved to be a mismatch. Hearns dominated and battered the obviously over-the-hill Espada, knocking him down twice in the third round and again in the fourth, prompting both the referee to stop the fight and the crowd to start up a chant of “We Want Leonard! We Want Leonard!” which reverberated through the new arena’s rafters, a reference of course to Sugar Ray Leonard, the new welterweight world champion and the other young star in the division.
Then lightweight Hilmer Kenty, a stablemate of Hearns, climbed into the ring to challenge Venezuelan Ernesto Espana for the WBA world title. It had been almost two decades since an American had worn the lightweight crown and with only sixteen pro bouts to his credit, Kenty appeared to most an unlikely champion. Espana was experienced, accomplished, and appeared to be the successor to Roberto Duran, while Kenty was a relative novice. Few thought he could stand up to Espana’s powerful right hand and he and his trainer Emanuel Steward, owner of the famed Kronk Gym, talked openly about wanting to box defensively and use the ring to stay away from the champion’s power. Young Hilmer Kenty came in to the match as a five-to-one underdog.
And yet, when the bell rang, and with Joe Louis himself a spectator, the supposed “novice” charged Espana, willingly engaging in a slugfest. All the pre-fight talk of wanting to carefully box the champion turned out to be a ruse, a psych job. Instead of sticking and moving like Willie Pep, Kenty swarmed all over his opponent like Jake LaMotta.
The young challenger’s aggressive attack almost led to disaster in the first round when he ran into a sharp right from the champion and briefly hit the deck. But Kenty immediately got to his feet and, unhurt, resumed his assault. His greater speed and mobility along with his astonishing punch output gave Espana severe trouble. The champion lacked the speed or the defense to cope with the hometown hero’s non-stop attack. Setting a wicked pace, Kenty battered Espana from corner to corner in almost every round.
Aside from the knockdown in the opening frame, the only round that remotely belonged to Espana was the eighth, when the pace and Kenty’s attack slowed slightly. Planting his feet, the champion dug some hard shots to the challenger’s belly, but still, the truly damaging punches were scored by Kenty as he pasted Espana with three hard rights before the bell. In the ninth, Kenty went into fifth gear, his two-fisted, whirlwind attack finally putting Espana in deep trouble, his legs buckling, his body going limp as the challenger chased him to the ropes and unloaded. Punch after punch snapped Espana’s head back until finally the referee moved in to stop the one-sided beating and declare Hilmer Kenty the winner and new champion.
Jubilation erupted as the hometown hero, and the first of many world titlists from the fabled Kronk Gym, was crowned. No doubt, the great Joe Louis, looking on from ringside, approved.
— Robert Portis