Al Low, 62, is a lifelong Michigan resident who has boxing in his blood. He has spent over 30 years as a boxing promoter and manager, and now has given the sport a new home in Waterford with his new effort, the Waterford Fight Club. The facility opened on Feb. 27, 2010 at 1585 Crescent Lake Road and has become a place where people of all ages and backgrounds — from amateur to professional, from boxing to mixed martial arts (MMA) — have come to get in shape or prepare for the next big fight. The Fight Club is another extension of Long’s influence, including his promotions company, Big Al’s Promotions, and the years he has spent working with top-class fighters, including world champions Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and Leon Spinks. Long also spent nine years as the chairman of the Michigan Boxing Commission and was instrumental in getting professional mixed martial arts legalized in Michigan and the commission being renamed as the Unarmed Combat Commission before he retired last November.
SCN: Tell us about the Waterford Fight Club Proving Grounds and how it came to be. Who can join and what classes are available to those interested in being members?
AL: Almost two years ago, we met with the owners of the building, the folks from Mt. Zion Church in Waterford, and discussed doing a fitness program in their facility on Crescent Lake Road and we came across Pastor Dan who had a background in martial arts and was very familiar with what we were going to attempt to do and he’s been very instrumental in helping us.
I was still serving the (Michigan Boxing) commission at the time, so I couldn’t get too involved. When I retired about a year ago, we went full blast at the fitness and now we have many new programs for junior jujitsu, a lot of fitness programs and of course our fight training and mixed martial arts training programs. We’re just now really starting to get back into the boxing, amateur and pro. So it’s been very eventful, a lot of fun setting that up. We have a lot of youths from the area, junior and high school kids, and it’s just really developing into exactly what we felt it was going to do.
The gym is open to everybody. We have every level you can think of, from very beginners to some of the best pros in the state that come in and work out there. We’re very geared towards a lot of youth programs. Every Saturday morning, we have a great junior jujitsu class that my partner Joe Battaglia does. He’s a fourth-degree black belt and that class has really grown, we have kids from 8 to 13 years old in that class.
Our boxing class, like I said, is really starting to grow now and we have every level you can think of. We have kids who can’t even jump a rope yet who are coming in and then we have Steve Forbes there three times a week. He’s the Super Featherweight champion of the world — he’s fought on HBO and he placed runner-up on the third season of “The Contender.”
A lot of martial arts, again from beginners to some of the best pros in Michigan come in and work out in the evenings. So we’ve got a real mixture and we’re very excited about that.
SCN: You also run a promotion company called Big Al’s Promotions. Tell us a little more about your company and how it’s working to grow the sports of boxing and mixed martial arts in the lakes area.
AL: I’ve been involved in boxing for almost 35 years now and we originally started Big Al’s Boxing when I was on the (boxing) commission.
We oversaw all the pro events that took place in Michigan, so we couldn’t involved in the pros at that time and we started Big Al’s Promotion. We were doing events all through lower Michigan and we would adopt a gym and do a fight fundraiser for that particular gym, so that’s how Big Al’s Promotion started out. We had about eight or nine gyms that we raised over $10,000 for, so that was a lot of fun.
Big Al’s Promotion is now going to expand and we’re going to be doing some pro events. We’re kicking one off in May up at the Soaring Eagle Casino and we’re also looking at doing another event at 59 West in Highland.
SCN: How did you first get your start in boxing and what drew you to the sport? Who are a couple of your favorite fighters that you have managed? What is your favorite memory of serving as a promoter and manager?
AL: Originally, I was on staff at a church in Warren and we started promoting contemporary Christian concerts and I started working for youth speakers that would go around to different churches and speak.
We worked with Rick Stanley, who was Elvis Presley’s stepbrother, and a fellow by the name of Bill Murray (a preacher), so we put them together and they would go around to different churches all over the country, so I helped them do a lot of booking. They would do youth programs and that worked very well.
And then I got involved more with the singing and we went to Nashville and did a couple albums and there’s a young man right here from Michigan that I started with, Dr. Tim Coldiron, who currently owns Children’s Promise Village and they house about 12 or 13 state boys and he does a real good job with that.
So we originally started out in music and entertainment and, as we got pretty good at what we were doing, some of the boxing folks, Leon Spinks and Thomas Hearns came to us, so we started working with Thomas and we promoted three of Thomas’ fights here in Detroit. In fact, we promoted the largest fight in the history of Detroit with Thomas.
And then I started getting involved in management and we managed a lot of boxers. I managed Leon Spinks for seven years and traveled the world doing boxing shows and fundraisers and all kinds of things. It was a wonderful experience and then it just went from there.
Leon was incredible. He won the gold medal in the Olympics and he became the heavyweight champion of the world and his brother did the exact same thing, so that was always an incredible experience to be with those two. I often say that Leon was my college education because we traveled so much — just a great athlete and a wonderful human being. He was notorious for getting himself in trouble over the years, but that was just Leon — there wasn’t much you could do about that.
Hands down, Thomas Hearns is one of the most incredible individuals I’ve ever met. His work ethic was just second-to-none and there was no question of why he became a seven-time world belt holder in seven different weight classes, so to have that exposure to see Tommy come up from a skinny little kid to a seven-time world champion was a phenomenal experience.
We spent a lot of time with Muhammad Ali during those years because of his relationship with Leon and that also was incredible. I got to know his whole family, we even had (his daughter) Laila on a couple of our boxing cards and he would always come in for that. Not too many people have gotten to see or have the exposure that I did during those years with those folks.
There are so many memories. For the first 10 years I was involved in boxing, I practically lived at the old Kronk Gym and it’s just one story after another. There would be some guys there every day that were 80, 90 years old that told you about old fights back in the day, so you would learn from that.
And then you would watch these kids, we literally brought up 38 world champions out of the Kronk Gym off the streets of Detroit for the most part, so that’s an incredible story. I don’t know if anything like that will ever happen again, it was just incredible. Every famous boxer at that time, they were all at one point or another at the Kronk Gym.
SCN: You also served as the Chairman of the Michigan Boxing Commission before it became Unarmed Combat Commission after being appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Tell us about some of your responsibilities as chairman. What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced while serving in that position? What was the key to getting professional MMA legalized?
AL: We had a commission at the time of seven people from all different walks of life, so that was interesting putting all that together and Ms. Granholm just put a great commission together. In fact, we were able to update the boxing rules that hadn’t been updated in Michigan for about 40 years, so we were part of that and brought a lot of new fighter safety rules to Michigan. And then we had some great shows over the time in Michigan that we would oversee.
Boxing is my first love so it was a very important time for me to hold that type of responsibility for something that I love so much. So we’re very proud of our record.
Dealing with some of the promoters and trying to get together and work together, but it’s a natural occurrence — they’re competitors — so they’re always out there thinking of new ways that they can do this and do that. During our commission time, putting fighter safety was always No. 1, so we were always on the lookout for promoters that would try to skirt some of that and do some things that weren’t quite right, so that was always a challenge.
(With MMA), because it was so new and so few people knew anything about and I have to admit when we first started on it originally, I thought it was the Roman gladiator days. I wasn’t into it and over that period of two years, I really came full circle on it.
I had the opportunity to meet some of the real legends of MMA — Pat Miletich, Dan Severn, who’s from Michigan, Ken Shamrock — so that was a great experience and when you start getting to know these guys and their work ethic, one of things that always impressed me is that these guys would go out and really fight each other and when the last bell rings they would hug. There’s just a lot of respect in this sport. I really admire that. They’re really some of the best athletes in the world, there’s no question about it.
When we started to do the legislation, I brought it to the governor and she didn’t feel at the time that it was something that was going to work in Michigan, so we kept going and we got some figures on how much Ohio that year prior in taxes and revenue because of mixed martial arts and we started to go from there. It took about two years, it was a very interesting time and we learned a lot from it.
SCN: Recently, it seems as MMA has been steadily rising in popularity while boxing’s influence has declined. Having been involved in both sports, to what do you attribute this to? Do you foresee this trend continuing in the future?
AL: I’ve seen MMA all over the world. We spent a couple weeks in Dubai and it’s just so popular all over the world, not just here in the United States. It’s huge.
You could put on a boxing show right now and spend thousands of dollars in advertising and get 30 people to show up but and you can do two cents worth of advertising on an MMA show and sell the place out. That’s just how it is.
When we start getting some boxing events back like we used to have when Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Haggler and Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran, when we get those types of competitive bouts back in, boxing in my mind, no doubt, we be popular again. But right now, mixed martial arts is huge all over the world. I see (this trend) continuing for awhile, boxing just doesn’t have the personalities that it had.
Boxing has always had its ups and downs and then a guy comes along like Mike Tyson and it’s the biggest thing in the world again. It always has that potential, but it’s going to take those types of personalities (to make it work), and that will happen again.
SCN: What is your opinion on the state of boxing and MMA in the state of Michigan and in our local vicinities?
AL: The UFC fight (at the Palace of Auburn Hills) was great for Michigan. I think they’re still working on how much that created. But I went around for days in restaurants and there was just buzzing and it was such a great feeling. (UFC President) Dana White and the UFC crew have that down to a science and they were tremendous to work with.
When we were putting the legislation through, I tried to couple in with the pro regulations amateur regulations and that didn’t go through, so that has been a problem here recently.
Any given weekend here in Michigan, there’s four or five amateur shows taking place and the amateur program is so important to make the whole thing work. It’s their farm system and these young men and women are learning this sport, so we’ve been working diligently on trying to create some amateur MMA regulations.
There’s one new bill that’s in the process right now written by one of the state representatives from the west side of the state. However, it has a few problems. It’s calling for regulation from the department like the pros. We feel that there’s just too many of these shows for the department to be able to handle manpower-wise and also financially, so we’re trying to correct that right now.
But, we feel very dedicated to getting some sort of amateur regulation here in Michigan, so I’ll feel a lot better when that’s done. There’s a lot of new gyms now opening because of MMA and clothing and equipment stores are opening because of that. We just need the regulation to protect these young guys, you have promoters putting pros against amateurs.
Boxing is really good here in Michigan right now. The Eastern and Western Golden Gloves program have been built up. Floyd Mayweather Jr. just made a huge contribution to the west side Golden Gloves program.
I’m very disappointed in the Detroit Golden Gloves. I’ve done many events down in Detroit so it’s a special place and it’s a very historical and special place for boxing. I’m really hoping we can start getting that built back up.
If we can get that good amateur Detroit program going again, we’ll see a lot of big fights in Michigan again. A lot of it is based on local talent and that’s why I did so well for so many years. Emanuel Steward was instrumental in that and there’s a lot of people all over the state, there’s so many boxing fans.
We have a tremendous commission and they’re always working diligently on getting the big pro fights here, we’ve developed some real good relationships over the years with many folks at ESPN and Teddy Atlas helps me a lot. We have to get more active in Detroit again.
SCN: What are your future plans and what is your ultimate hope for the Waterford Fight Club?
AL: We’re going to continue on the path that we’re going. We’re developing a lot of new fitness classes. We’re the Fight Club and every one of our instructors is a pro fighter, but we’re developing a lot of fitness classes and new youth programs.
The most rewarding thing that I have the most fun with is seeing some of these kids come in with their heads down and a little pudgy and they haven’t done much in the way of sports, and to see them six or seven months later walking around like they’re the heavyweight champion of the world, slimmed down and very active and proud of themselves, holding their heads high. So I know we’re going to continue in that direction because that’s what makes me the happiest.