How’s this for a “Where Are They Now” story?
After a tough primary campaign in which there were 120 candidates on the ballot, former lightweight champion Hilmer Kenty has been nominated to run for Detroit City Council in November’s general election.
Eighteen slots on the November ballot were available in the voting that took place this past Tuesday, and Kenty finished with 19,270 votes, good for 13th place. Nine candidates will ultimately be chosen for the Council. Seven incumbents are seeking re-election; all of them have qualified for the general ballot.
Born in Austin and reared in Columbus, Ohio, Kenty was a national amateur champion, and crossed paths with several fighters who went on to legendary careers – in the 1973 National Golden Gloves he lost to Ray Leonard, who apparently hadn’t been sweetened with “Sugar” just yet, and in the 1976 Olympic Trials was bested on points by Aaron Pryor. He became a significant figure in Detroit sports history, as the first member of Emanuel Steward’s Kronk Boxing Team to capture a world championship, having stopped Ernesto Espana in nine rounds in March of 1980 to annex the WBA crown at 135 pounds. Kenty was an underdog and was felt by many experts to be dangerously inexperienced, as he went into the fight with just 16 pro fights and 73 total rounds under his belt.
The first four of those fights were in Ohio, and took place without Steward in his corner. Kenty was not an original member of the Kronk team, and in fact, because he was not a native of Detroit, Steward had some trepidation about taking him on. But ultimately Emanuel agreed to bring him up from Columbus, and along with the now un-retired Thomas Hearns, Kenty became an integral part of a boxing renaissance in the Motor City; a crowd of 14,000 came to the Joe Louis Arena (including Louis himself) to witness his title win, and Steward was off and running to a Hall of Fame career as a trainer and manager. Kenty defended the championship successfully three times before losing to Sean O’Grady in April of 1981.
After the O’Grady fight, Kenty became one of the first fighters to have surgery for a torn retina – something that was a “hot button” topic at the time and was further magnified when Leonard, who had essentially done the same thing, challenged Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title six years later.
The issue over the eye, in a sense, led to Kenty’s departure from the ring. He retired after only 31 pro bouts, in the process doing something highly unusual for a former champion – quitting on a seven-bout winning streak. Although the eye was not giving him a problem, there was quite a bit of controversy about his retinal surgery and commissions were hesitant about approving fighters who had undergone the procedure. Achieving another title opportunity was going to be a gargantuan task.
Kenty eventually became part of Detroit’s business community, forming a company that dealt in electrical supplies. More recently he has been an executive in construction and real estate development. He kept his hand in boxing as well, serving a two-year term with Michigan’s boxing commission, and was briefly the trainer for one-time middleweight prospect Tarick Salmaci. Coming into the City Council race as an advocate for small business, his message was impressive enough to garner endorsements from, among others, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. He celebrated his 50th birthday last Saturday.
Although there is little question that Kenty’s notoriety was instrumental in his primary win, he will face competition in November from someone who is arguably even more well-known: Martha Reeves, former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, who finished ninth in the nomination balloting.