The Kronk Gym Wars: Let the Beatings Begin!
Back when I was a “22-year-old welterweight,” as described in a special feature titled, “A Pilgrimage to the Kronk,” who served as a “tour guide” of sorts, the action that took place in the ring was described thusly, “There is no sparring, just fighting. The gym is legendary for its rustic ring wars.” By the time we made the drive from Emanuel Steward’s house and arrived at the Kronk Gym, Thomas Hearns and Anthony “Baby” Jones had just wrapped up their workouts. There were only around 15 boxers remaining in the small basement sweatbox.
By the end of the “tour”, there was one fighter who got cut so bad, the action had to be stopped. The bleeding got to the point where it looked like the old, tattered, white canvas had a fresh coat of red paint. The next sparring session ended when Hearns’ sparring partner, Willie “Dynamite” Smith got knocked out cold by a fighter whose name slips my mind. When asked about what the journalist witnessed that day, I said, “This is what it’s like every day.” Steward followed with, “It’s like no other place in the world. These guys at Kronk, they’re fighting for their very lives and they’ve got to get better or they get out.”
The original Kronk Gym will always be remembered for its legendary gym wars. These were the type of match-ups whose sheer quality would headline a pay-per-view card these days. Here are just a few:
Top 10-ranked light heavyweights Thomas Hearns vs. Ka-Dy King.
WBO middleweight champion Gerald McClellan vs. WBO light heavyweight champion Michael Moorer.
Undefeated welterweight sensation Oba Carr vs. the veteran Stanley Longstreet.
Hearns vs. top 10-ranked Mike McCallum.
Hearns vs. Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland.
Moorer vs. former light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad (Saad ended up with a fractured rib).
And one of my all time favorites featured rising middleweight contenders McClellan and James Toney battling for two days – and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.
At one time in particular from middleweight to light heavyweight, the gym saw the likes of Hearns, Moorer, Dennis Andries, King, Leeonzer Barber, Frankie Liles, McClellan, Rick Jester and Fabian Williams – among many others.
If not for Steward’s belief in the importance of sparring, these legendary gym wars might never have taken place regardless of the talent pool over the years. “I believe in a lot of boxing,” he told Sports Illustrated in a 1981 interview. “You can train and work on the speed bag and heavy bag but when you get in the ring with another fighter, it’s a different story. The punches are coming at you; there’s physical contact, muscle against muscle. It’s like a guy shooting baskets. He can sit in the backyard and shoot baskets and he can be a genius at it and then he gets in an actual game and guys are coming at him from every direction and now he’s got to shoot fast from every position and it’s a different ball game. So I think that sparring a lot is very, very good. Even if you wear headgear, blows are partially going through and I think the muscle and tissue alongside the jaw get strengthened.”
Up until that point, Steward never had a fighter knocked out in a professional bout in which he worked the corner.
I first walked into the Kronk Gym around 1988. I spent the next 12 years experiencing countless battles of the present day but also learning of the legendary wars that took place in days gone by. They were brutal, barbaric and bloody but at the same time, they were graceful, scientific and masterful.
When it was time to set up camp for Hearns to prepare for his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard, rather than head off to a remote location, Steward chose to set up training camp inside the Kronk Gym in Detroit. It was a return to the roots of where it all began. Chairs were set up for the media who came from around the world to watch Hearns train. It was also a chance for all the lesser-known fighters in the gym to also make a name for themselves with the media looking on. Hearns’ primary sparring partner was a young pro named Lon Smith. Nicknamed “Sugar Ray,” in camp, Lon was nowhere near the caliber of Hearns at the time. He was, however, the perfect boxer to imitate the moves of Ray Leonard, sticking and moving, fast and slick. In fact, between rounds in the onset of the Hearns vs. Leonard rematch, you can hear Steward say to Hearns, “He’s not as fast as Lon.”
For a period of couple years, I handled a variety of tasks for Steward and a handful of the fighters he would train. It was one thing to sit with Emanuel in his living room and watch a live fight as we often did but it was something special, almost magical, when he would break out an old VHS tape with sparring footage from the past years at Kronk. It was as if we took a time machine back to 1984 and were watching fighters like Mark Breland, Hearns, Stevie McCrory, Frank Tate, Milton McCrory and Jimmy Paul all displaying their ring genius with both skill and will. The videos we watched showcased perhaps the most perfect display of the “Sweet Science” I ever witnessed in training. Slipping, taking half-steps backward with check hooks, delivering snapping left jabs and crisp right hands. The punches were lightning fast. The technique was perfect. The feints, gauging distance, up-and-down motions and combinations of right and left movements were all an example of Emanuel’s emphasis on proper footwork and balance at all times. For every move, there was a counter.
Downstairs in the basement of Steward’s “training camp” house in the upscale neighborhood of Rosedale Park Detroit was the favored place for visiting boxers to spend their time equipped with a pool table and big screen TV. It was where Michael Moorer spent a great deal of time and was profiled on an HBO pre-fight special. While the pool table had its share of wars, the big screen was also where many fighters would gather and watch those tapes of Kronk sparring from days of old. I recall many occasions when Darnell “Doc” Nicholson, Mike Clark, Antwon Leach and I would walk to the corner store and load up on snack food and return on a Friday night. But there was no movie; only footage from the Kronk archives was available fare for viewing.
Regardless of a fighter’s status outside of Kronk, when they boxed with great boxers, they all performed better. It elevated every fighter’s game. Have you ever heard the saying that high tide raises all boats?
Kronk could be almost described as a scene from a Western movie but the only difference was there was not just one Clint Eastwood but 25 on any given day within a small, crowded saloon that was hotter than hell, where tension was elevated. As you went about your business, you kept a watchful eye because at any given moment, a shootout could happen. Kronk was home to many gunslingers. Most came from nothing and fought to get something and just when one did, you better be on the lookout because someone was gunning to get what you had.
Emanuel told me tales of the late Mickey Goodwin walking into the gym and just taking off his shirt then getting into the ring while wearing a pair of blue jeans and knocking someone out. In my day, there was Anthony “Baby” Jones, who would come in, drop his bag, get into the ring and proceed to box anyone and everyone within perhaps 20 pounds of him, regardless of age or skill level – for well over 20 rounds. Jones would switch-hit in a way I called a “swimmer”. He could throw endless jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts with power in both hands from all angles. “Shine it up good!” Baby Jones would shout, the lyrics to a then popular rap song by MC Breed titled, “Aint no Future in Yo’ Frontin.” And Kronk was not a place in which you could front nor fake it till you made it.
Jones had two chances at the world championship, first being stopped by a prime Edwin “Chapo” Rosario and then falling to undisputed lightweight king Pernell Whitaker. Jones took the Whitaker bout on a few days notice, spending more time in the sauna than the gym. When he wasn’t in the gym, he was covered in Abilene (a substance boxers used to make them sweat) and wearing a sauna suit. Jones told me he ate a spoonful of oatmeal and a poached egg for breakfast and not much more. There was no fancy meal program by a nutritionist or workout program by strength-and-conditioning coach; this was old-school boxing! Jones gave Whitaker a helluva 12-round tussle that night – but came up short.
Thomas Hearns may have been the unofficial king of Kronk with all he had accomplished as a professional but there was no mistake about who the king of Kronk truly was, it was Marlon “Trouble Man” Thomas. He had paid his dues on the receiving end of more than his share of beatings until he came into his own. While Marlon may not have shined bright in the ring for the big fights, he was the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO, (and any other title you want to throw in) champion inside that ring. While he was only 147 pounds, he would spar anyone who wanted some work. When Steward took him to training camps, Thomas busted up Miguel Angel Gonzalez’s ribs before the Oscar De La Hoya fight (and even the “Golden Boy” himself got a good, old-fashioned Kronk ass whoopin’ all the way to the West Coast when Steward briefly trained him). There was even the time in which Thomas was getting the best of middleweight world champion McClellan and the “G-Man” became so frustrated, he managed to pin Marlon in the corner and tried to beat on him in what could only be described then as a street fight. “Trouble Man” also helped a lot of young fighters mature – me being one of them.
Perhaps my one and only great moment sparring in Kronk came when I hurt Marlon with a body shot and he let loose on me in exchange. He told me years later that he had no choice but to keep me off him. At the same time, I recall Marlon getting on his knees to let a nine-year-old Octavio Lara throw punches at him. He was savvy; he was brash. He could box; he was fast and he conquered all who dared challenge him inside the fabled Kronk.
There were also several boxers you might call “Average Joes” who trained at Kronk and for them, there would never be the big fight in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on pay-per-view. If a contender or champion was caught on an off day, those Average Joes took full advantage of the opportunity and that became their moment of glory. No matter how many times one climbed in that ring, the excitement was in the air just knowing a potential main event-caliber match was about to break out. The Ring magazine might not recognize you as a top 10 contender but in terms of gym talk, you were a minor celebrity as word would spread across the country if you were someone who had put a beating on a well-known fighter in the gym.
Back before the days of social media and the internet, there was the boxing grapevine and many stories took root inside those rings, spreading coast-to-coast via old pay phones in the corners of the gym.
It was under the extreme conditions of the Kronk heat in which Steward could see beyond the obvious physical talents a fighter had to discover what he had deep down inside him, if the fire in his belly was as hot as the heat in the gym. While there were many dazzling displays of boxing, there were also those guys who were tough as nails, who would spit out broken teeth and keep on fighting, like Kevin Whaley-El. It was where fighters were challenged early on and often. It was Whaley-El who baptized me in the ring with a solid right hand on the forehead. Boxers were pushed to dimensions not seen in boxing gyms today; these dimensions made them fighters. It was that intense sparring and fighting with his Kronk teammates that helped push a fighter like Milton McCrory through two grueling, 15-round fights with Colin Jones to win the WBC welterweight championship of the world.
There would be no simple passing of the torch when the “Class of ‘88” came to the Kronk Gym. That group included one of the brightest young stars in boxing at the time, Jamal Hinton, who along with an undefeated record, had a lucrative television deal with USA’s “Tuesday Night Fights.” Thomas Hearns’ younger brother, Billy turned pro in 1983 and had a record of 8-0. He was no longer fighting when Hinton rode into town but on one afternoon, he laced up the gloves to spar Hinton and delivered a knockout that rivaled any of the memorable knockouts his big brother, the “Hitman” pulled off in his entire career. Hinton retired from boxing not long afterward.
On the Showtime series “All Access,” the network tried so desperately to hype how hard the sparring was in Floyd Mayweather’s Las Vegas gym (despite Mayweather saying it was staged for entertainment purposes). They called it the “doghouse” where matches went “to the death” and sometimes for 30 minutes straight without a break. I am not being biased when I say this but I am sure if you phoned anyone who was around Kronk in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early-‘90s, they would all agree there was no comparison – staged or not.
The John Kronk Community Center closed its doors several years ago and the gym wars were over but the legendary war stories shall live forever.