Fighting for Flint

Photo by Kent Photography Anthony Dirrell in his fight with Avni Yildirim

Anthony Dirrell is scheduled this Saturday, Sept. 28 to make his first defense of the WBC Super Middleweight title he won in February in Minneapolis. But whenever Dirrell (33-1-1) steps into the ring, he is fighting for more than the belt he currently possesses. He’s also fighting for his hometown of Flint, Mich.

The water in Michigan’s seventh-largest city is still bad. Some believe that the health of at least four generations, current and future, will be adversely affected because of bad decisions by elected officials or governmental appointees who, in 2014, changed the city’s primary water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River without treating it first.

It is estimated that between 6,000 and 12,000 children along with countless adults were exposed to high levels of lead from drinking the contaminated water. The deaths of at least 12 persons between 2013 and 2015 have been directly linked to the bad water.

“The water is still messed up,” Dirrell said in an MSR phone interview. “Are we doing better? Of course, but it’s not where it needs to be. Flint is not fully back.”

Dirrell is as passionate about his hometown as he is about being a two-time world champion. A year after his pro debut in 2005, he learned he had cancer after doctors found a baseball-sized tumor. The 34-year-old boxer had to put his career on hold for a fight much larger than his belt.

He endured eight months of chemotherapy as well as six hours on the operating table to remove the tumor. Two years later in 2008, Dirrell was declared cancer-free.

Like Flint, Dirrell, whose nickname is “The Dog,” is a survivor. “I’m a warrior from Flint,” he proudly declared.

Photo by Kent Photography Anthony Dirrell with his championship belt

Then Dirrell overcame a second setback when he suffered a broken leg in a 2012 motorcycle accident. He came back to win his first WBC title in 2014 but lost it in his first defense a year later.

Last winter at the Armory in Minneapolis, Dirrell regained the title in controversial fashion when he defeated Avni Yildirim by technical split decision—the fight was stopped in the 10th round after Dirrell suffered a bad head cut. “He head-butted me twice,” the fighter explained of the win.

Two judges scored the fight, scheduled for 12-rounds, in his favor. “I honestly thought I was winning by a bigger margin than I did. You can’t stop and see what the judges are seeing. It’s their point of view,” Dirrell said.

“I landed way more punches, over 100 more punches than [Yildirim].” Nonetheless, the fight’s ending left many in attendance that night, including this reporter, bewildered. Some booed because they thought the fight was stopped prematurely.

“Fans like to see knockouts,” Dirrell said.  “[But] you have to fight for you, fight for the win, even if it’s a boring fight.”

No matter what happens this weekend, Dirrell has proven he’s a survivor and a winner. “With cancer, you think of death,” he admitted, “and I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind. I am back where I once was [before the illness] and won a world title again.”

Dirrell says he believes Flint will eventually be back where it once was. “I’m helping in any way possible,” he said, including raising funds for a new Boys and Girls Club building in the city. “Once we get it back up and back rolling, it will be a place again where people want to come and visit.”