HEAVY WEIGHTS: Claressa Shields and Hanna Gabriels display their belts at a press conference hyping their June 3 fight at Little Caesars Arena. Flanking the fighters are Shields’ manager Mark Taffet, promoter Dmitry Salita and 313 Presents President Howard Handler. (Courtesy Venue)
Bout ties into city’s rich boxing history
Little Caesars Arena hosts its first boxing event June 3, with middleweight world champion Claressa Shields fighting four-division champ Hanna Gabriels in a rematch that brings big-time boxing back to the big stage in Detroit.
The bout is a co-promotion between boxing promoter Salita Promotions and 313 Presents, the company that produces concerts and special events at Little Caesars Arena. Ilitch Sports + Entertainment, recently rebranded from Olympia Entertainment, runs the arena, which is owned by the Downtown Development Authority.
“It’s been our priority for some time to diversify our event mix and to develop new event franchises, and boxing just felt like a natural,” said 313 Presents President Howard Handler, a Detroit native whose uncle was a boxing referee for major boxing matches dating to the 1950s.
Shields, a native of nearby Flint, Michigan, where she still resides, is a two-time Olympic Gold medal winner coming off her biggest win, a victory against Savannah Marshall in December at The O2 arena in London. That fight made her the undisputed middleweight champion and was the most-watched women’s sporting event ever on UK-based Sky Sports, according to promoter Dmitry Salita.
The Detroit fight is a rematch after Shields beat Gabriels won by decision in 2018 at the Masonic Temple in Detroit.
It’s common for a boxing match to take place in a fighter’s home market. Detroit has a rich history in the sport and the investors behind the event have more at stake at the home of the Red Wings and Pistons. Joe Louis Arena, former home of the Red Wings, is believed to be the only big league building named for a boxer. The Joe played host to some major fights over the years before it was demolished in 2020, three years after Little Caesars Arena opened in 2017.
“The best thing for Shields to do was to have a homecoming in the city of Detroit, where Tommy Hearns won his first title at Joe Louis Arena in 1980,” said Salita, who splits time between offices in Detroit and New York City. Salita, a former pro boxer himself and Golden Gloves champion, notes the rich history of boxing in the Motor City and the current stable of fighters in Michigan. Detroit itself is known for the renowned Kronk Boxing Gym, once led by Emanuel Steward and still producing top boxers.
In a sport where negotiations are notoriously fraught and sometimes public between multiple promoters representing each side, “I’m grateful for partners on both sides” in making this fight happen, says Salita.
The event will be broadcast on boxing subscription service DAZN.
“Claressa is the one that’s going to spark the fire for there to be consistent professional boxing events in Detroit,” Salita said.
He credits Little Caesars Arena as a world-class facility, and hopes to promote more boxing events at the venue for marquee fighters and to showcase locally talent on undercards.
With a full arena calendar between the NBA and NHL tenants, plus special events, Handler says he hopes to continue hosting and co-promoting boxing events. The city provides an ideal backdrop with three downtown casinos.
“Salita Promotions bring their expertise in the fight game while we are delivering our best-in-class venue management and event promotion,” Handler said, also noting Shields’ manager, Mark Taffet, credited with developing and overseeing the HBO pay-per-view model during his 32 years as an HBO Sports executive. He left the cable network in 2015.
“It’s a great model for co-promotion when we’re sharing risk with with an event that we all believe in, but we’re all bringing unique skills and assets and capabilities to make this a success,” Handler said.
Salita and Handler declined to share specifics but said they were pleased by the fight’s ticket presale results. Ticket prices range from $15 for nosebleeds to $500 for ringside, with most reserved seats at $45 and 75 and floor seats between $155 and $199. The fight is included within suite holders’ ticket package, according to a 313 Presents representative.
Salita emigrated from Soviet-era Ukraine to New York with his family when he was 9 years old. He represents other top fighters, including heavyweights Otto Wallin, Jarrell Miller and Jermaine Franklin.
In a sport dominated by a handful of prominent promoters, including Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Sport, Bob Arum’s Top Rank and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy, Salita has found his way into the business side by identifying top talent early in their careers and putting fighters’ interests first. He says Shields has the talent to succeed at the highest level of boxing and her appeal transcends the sport.
“Claressa to me is the Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, the Muhammad Ali of this generation,” Salita said. “Her success in sports has crossed over and she’s using boxing as a vehicle to progress, to affect change and social empowerment and progress for women in the U.S. and worldwide.”
Shields, whose self-created ring nickname is the GWOAT (“Greatest Woman of All Time”), is the only boxer to hold all four major world title belts simultaneously in two weight classes.
“The fight will gain momentum as we get closer and closer,” Salita says. “ I always say to people, for a Shields fight, you should save her ticket because it’s going to be a collector’s item.”