“Inkster, Michigan is a smaller version of Detroit, Michigan,” middleweight prospect J’Leon Love, 11-0, 7 knockouts told Maxboxing.com earlier this week. “It is a small city. It is kind of in a shadow under Detroit, Michigan. A lot of talent comes out of Inkster but it’s a bad town, a bad city but I love it because it is where I am from.”
It is in this shadow that a fighter has grown from the confines of the legendary basement gym known to boxing fans simply as “The Kronk” to the dream-paved roads of Las Vegas where he now resides. It is here Love will make his Las Vegas debut on the undercard of the HBO-televised Amir Khan vs. Danny Garcia junior welterweight unification fight at the Mandalay Bay.
“I am so excited,” Love told me over the phone, his youthful voice so exuberant I could almost feel his smile lighting up at the mere thought of a big casino fight. “This is where I belong. This is a dream of mine to fight in Las Vegas. I get to fight on a great card with Danny Garcia and Amir Khan. So I am more than happy. I just have to do what I have to do.”
From an early age, Love took to fighting naturally. Whether it is literally in street fights or the classic fight between criminal life and the straight and narrow, most young men don’t have a choice on the hard streets of Inkster.
“Most definitely,” agreed Love. “I mean, the streets are pretty much about you in Inkster. It kind of comes natural to fall to the streets. Growing up there, if you don’t have your focus, your God, the good people around you that take you in and get you to a higher level, then you will definitely fall to the streets.”
Love is one of the lucky ones who had a good family around him who would not allow him to waste his natural gifts.
“When I started in boxing, I went to the original Kronk Gym in Detroit where Tommy Hearns, Milton McCrory, the whole nine . . . I started there. What brought me down to the gym, I was a knucklehead. I was fighting two-three times a day. I was fighting guys way older than me. Guys I shouldn’t have been fighting at a young age. My dad pretty much told me ’Look, man. Either stay out of the streets or we’re going to have to find something else for you to do.’ I had that ‘no-nonsense mentality where I am not afraid of nobody and nothing. So my Dad said ‘You know what? I know where to take you.’ and we went to the gym. Him and my cousin took me down to Kronk Boxing Gym and that’s where it all started.”
The Kronk Boxing Gym, owned and operated by Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, is one with a storied history. Legends like Tommy Hearns, Milton McCrory, and Hilmer Kenty to name just a few once graced the basement gym. Over the years fighters as varied as Julio Cesar Chavez, Lennox Lewis, Andy Lee, Wladimir Klitschko, Kermit Cintron, Jermain Taylor, Evander Holyfield, and Chad Dawson have come and gone through the gym. It was the Wild Card of its day and to this day it carries with it a certain mystique. If you can train in the heat of that gym and handle the wars you will certainly face in an endless quest to gain both knowledge and respect, you can train anywhere.
“[Steward] has that red door, it’s like a 105 degrees down there,” Love said of his day passing through the red door to the gym which reads ‘This door has led many to fame and pain.’ “When I walked in that first day, it was kind of like a challenge to me. When your dad approaches you and says ‘I am going to take you someplace where guys really know how to fight,’ it’s kind of like a challenge. You say ’I’m not scared. I’m up for it.’ So that’s what we did and we went straight there.”
Fighters generally have three careers: street fighting, the amateurs and then the pros. Love is no exception. In fact, it was his talent on the street that made him a natural in the gym.
“Fighting in the street, man, I don’t think I ever lost a street fight,” he said, somehow managing to not sound like he was boasting. Slightly laughing, Love explained “I think I lost to my older brother a few times but I was a lot younger than him. Yeah definitely, man, walking into the Kronk Gym, you know you are in a gym where everyone is fighting.”
Love first trained under the late Walter Smith, the long-time chief second to Steward. Love credited Smith with teaching him the basics including his lightning quick jab which can shoot out of either the left or right hand lead stance. Later on, Steward’s nephew Sugar Hill took Love through a stellar middleweight amateur career that saw him amass an 80-5 record and such accolades as Detroit Golden Gloves Champion (2006-2009), US Michigan State Champion (2006-2008), 2007 National Ringside World Champion, 2007 National Golden Gloves Silver Medalist, and 2007 National PAL Silver Medalist.
But it was within the confines of the Kronk’s ring that Love got his real education.
“You learn how to fight. Flat out. I can box. I can bang. I can do whatever it is that I have to do in that ring. That’s what you take from it,” explained Love.
Hearing him describe fights in Kronk, I could hear the memories flood his mind. You can hit a bag, jump rope, work the mitts or any other type of training. But it’s facing men just as hungry as you are in the ring that teaches you all you ever need to know.
“It’s a gym full of dogs. Full of animals, you know what I mean? Guys that can actually fight. Guys that have been around for a long time,” said Love. “So at the end of the day, growing up there, those are some of the worst gym battles you will ever see down there. That is just some of the stuff you take from it. I know some places that have gym wars but if you sit down there for about an hour, you will see some incredible wars.”
Now a middleweight prospect with a bright future, Love has come a long way from his street fighting days. He has come to understand exactly what he was made to be: a fighter.
“I know God when he made me he said ’This guy has to be a world champion. Pound for Pound the best in the world.’ That’s what it is,” Love said simply. “I am created for boxing. I’ve been through a lot but I am created definitely for boxing.”
Finding out who you are, what you are meant for and then doing it is what life is all about. But that isn’t the hard part. The hard part is fighting through every obstacle life throws at you in an attempt to find out if you have the stuff to act upon those discoveries. Love got his toughest test in 2006 driving home from a tournament.
“I qualified for the US Championships. That was the qualification and you would advance to the Nationals. [If you won there] you would qualify for the Olympic Trials. But on my way home coming back from Upper Michigan, I was in a car accident. So I had to sit out and watch and heal. It was a long healing process. I had broken my C-3. I had brain swelling. It was a pretty bad accident,” Love explained.
In boxing, winning easy isn’t how your character is discovered and defined. That develops through hardship, pain and loss. Love displayed quickly who he is and what he is made of.
“The first thing I asked when I came to was ‘Would I box again?’ The injury was very bad. But you know, God is good and you always go for a second opinion,” said Love whose faith in himself and his god were solidified throughout this ordeal. “A guy can tell me ’You will never fight again’ but it’s not a guy plan. It’s a God plan. And we healed. That next year, we won [the silver medal] in the National Golden Gloves and we were right back in the game.”
Love was out almost a year. In that time, his desire to fight never wavered even if medical opinions remained grim.
“Nine months, almost a year. Around that nine month period I got the OK,” said Love. “It was kind of crazy how it happened. We kept getting a lot of "No’s" and a lot of "No’s." But with prayer and with God we just had that ’yes.’ We absolutely did.”
Love turned pro in 2010 under the now defunct TKO Promotions banner. He ran his record to 5-0 with 4 knockouts. Then the company went under and Love found himself sitting on the bench for eight months with precious time ticking away. But once again, the boxing gods smiled on him. He was released from his contract and quickly signed with promoter Lou Dibella.
“The business of boxing is a crazy business. You don’t just get released from a contract and picked up by another top promoter like Lou DiBella but that is kind of how it happened,” said Love who had nothing negative to say about his former promotional and management team.
Perhaps that mixture of class with a pure fighter’s mentality is something he picked up from his favorite fighter.
“My fighter is Marvin Hagler. That was my favorite fighter. I don’t try to emulate him as far as I am a right-handed fighter. I can fight both southpaw and right hand and he was a southpaw,” said Love. “[Hagler] was beast. He fought and he won and destroyed guys. That’s what I like to do. I like to fight. Box or bang. It doesn’t ’matter who I fight. Of course we have to go through the process of building my record and going through the proper steps. To me, I am a fighter. I just like to fight.”
That building process has taken him to Las Vegas, NV where he relocated in December, and the Mayweather Gym. It is from this stage that he has continued to win and hone his fighter identity.
“A lot of people ask me if I try to be like Miguel Cotto because I have been in so many camps to emulate Miguel Cotto,” said Love. “But I tell people ’No. I’m J’Leon. I have my own style.’ My body structure is different. The way I throw my punches is different. I know what I am. I know what I am capable of. I know what I can take. I know what I can dish out. So at the end of the day, man, I definitely know who I am. It’s just about each test and who I gotta beat. I am in the learning stage of the game and am pretty much just being a sponge. I am just learning each and every day; watching, learning, picking up different things. That’s what a young guy like me has to do.”
His next test comes tonight against Joseph De La Santos, 11-9-3 with 4 knockouts. As he has been all his fighting career from the street to now, the twenty-four year old Love may not know every little detail about his opponent but he is prepared for anything.
“I don’t know too much about him. I know he fought Eddie Gomez and [he] is a pretty solid fighter. So I know that they went to a decision,” said Love. Gomez is an undefeated prospect who beat Santos by split decision in June. “There’s not really any film on it or on him. What we are doing, we are just preparing for whatever. Southpaw works. Right hand works. Whatever. I am a veteran of a boxing gym where you got solid fighters. I am getting some of the best work around [at the Mayweather Gym]. Whatever I have to do, I can execute it. We are 100% prepared for this fight.”