The Kronk Khronicles: The forgotten warriors of Kronk
From the memoirs of John Lepak – Pain and fame
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and, who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Teddy Roosevelt
The complex emotions with which a fighter must deal in the ring are something the “armchair fighter” will never understand. Despite the confidence displayed from the comfort of La-Z-Boy recliners, while armed with TV remote in right hand and ice-cold beer in left, these critics would never be able to even understand these emotions, let alone face them in the ring. Sorry middle-aged weekend warriors; fitness boxing does not count!
Even with all my experiences from the gym, the ring, the locker rooms to the corners, I admit, at times, I have found myself being unfairly critical of a boxer’s performance. One such occasion, while I was pointing out what was obvious to our seasoned eyes, as we watched on the television, Mike Tyson turned and calmly said to me, “We can beat them all from the couch, brother.” It hit me hard when he said it and it rings true, in so many situations I continue to encounter in life, far away from the courage that two men/women display when climbing into the ring for our entertainment.
Even if one is brave enough to face those emotions and climb into the ring, before you can even dare dream of beating a Tommy Hearns, you have to be able to endure what guys like “Sugar Ray” Lon Myers did (Kronk’s version of Ray Leonard, who helped prep Hearns for the Leonard rematch) and absorb eight weeks of Hearn’s bullwhip-snapping jab in training camp. Oh, how so many desire to bask in the glory but most could not endure the story.
Regardless of the outcome of any contest, amateur or professional (some even in the gym sparring), win, lose or draw, all boxers are deserving of some degree of respect. They are individuals who possess a unique mixture of heart, balls, discipline and courage. Many enter a ring to risk their lives (yes, people have died from punishment received in the ring), in exchange for rent money or to just keep some food on the table for their families. And for the armchair fighter, these brave men provide just the right type entertainment through which to live vicariously or verbally attack for reasons more to do with their own shortcomings in life. These discount Eddie Futches or couch-bound Emanuel Stewards are often those who refer to the fighters with the losing records as “bums” or “tomato cans.”
We all have heard these Mike Tysons of the sofa boast to their friends, at a pay-per-view gathering, how they would “get in the ring with that guy for $1,000,000.” If they only could be held accountable to such statements because, in most cases, they would not even exit the locker room when the knock came: “Let’s go! Its time!” The courage it takes just for a man to make that walk to the ring is something the man who only leaves the sofa to get a cold beer from the fridge will never understand, not even if he’s logged a couple hundred rounds hitting the heavy-bag in his garage or at the local boxing fitness club.
It is in recognition of the all blood, sweat and tears so many gave to the fans over the years to which I dedicate this article. They may not have become world champions in boxing but they are men whom, at times, displayed all the characteristics that define and crown champions. It is with honor, respect and dignity that I salute you all.
The champions and contenders whom came out of Detroit’s Kronk Gym have been well documented over the years. And for every contender, there were dozens of hard-working fighters who came to Kronk on a daily basis for years, often only to be on the receiving end of a horrific beating from some of the stars on the Kronk roster. For every great champion like Thomas Hearns, there was a loyal sparring partner like Willie “Dynamite” Smith, who helped the “Hitman” prepare for so many of his championship fights.
Smith, who won his share of amateur bouts, had several opportunities to turn pro early on but he found that matching his skills with the Hitman on a daily basis was far more rewarding for him than any pro bout could offer him, at the time. He turned pro later in life and, while his record may only be 1-5 on paper, he helped Hearns and so many other Kronk champions – in sweltering 115-degree heat – prepare for victories that propelled them to fame and fortune.
Have passport, will travel…will fight
Emanuel Steward stated many times that one of the most talented fighters he ever worked with was two-time middleweight champion Gerald McClellan. Despite winning the WBC and WBO world championships, he never reached his full potential and tragically lost all of his sight and over 90% of his hearing after a brutal bout, in which he challenged Nigel Benn for the WBC super middleweight championship in London, England. McClellan was one of the most feared and ferocious punchers ever to come out of the Kronk Gym.
Prior to McClellan meeting John “The Beast” Mugabi for the WBO middleweight crown, Mugabi needed a tune-up of sorts and it was decided that sending a fighter from Detroit would be perfect to add an element of promotional hype necessary for the upcoming title fight in the overseas market. A deal was made to send another fighter who trained out of the Kronk Gym, Kevin Whaley-El. Considering the promoter was already saying McClellan would be coming for revenge before Mugabi even fought Kevin gives you an idea how much of a chance Kevin was given to upset the man known as “The Beast.” After all, Mugabi had given Marvelous Marvin Hagler one of his toughest fights of his legendary career.
While it was no set-up and no one was paying Kevin to take a dive, Mugabi’s promoters looked at Kevin as a very safe fight for the aging Mugabi. Kevin had a record of 8-6 (5) at the time and chances were, he was never going to get a shot at a world championship – but, for fighters like Kevin, this is their world title fight. It was the chance to not only go and earn a few thousand dollars but to perhaps – just maybe – land a big one, score an upset, hit the jackpot and secure a much bigger payday.
Armchair experts and the novice beginners always like to talk about how they would compare to the champions and top-ranked guys but how can you pretend to pull off the accomplishments of the best when you are not even capable of doing what the guys they beat along the way could?
Kevin had a role to contribute in boxing and, without guys like him, there would have been no WBO middleweight title fight for McClellan. It almost didn’t happen as it was because someone forgot to tell Kevin he was the “tune-up”! Kevin went over to the United Kingdom, in September of 1991, and gave it all he had and surprised Mugabi by stinging him before being TKO’d in the fourth round. After the fight, Mugabi’s handlers called the Kronk office and asked if they had tried to pull a fast one and get Mugabi knocked off before the title fight. Everyone talked about that story for years afterward, more so than McClellan’s TKO over Mugabi, two months later, to win the title.
Kevin trained his entire career at the Kronk Gym but he never wore the famous gold trunks. He was a respected journeyman who never turned down a fight. If the pay phone in the gym rang and anyone offered Kevin a fight remotely close to his weight class, he took it. He never said “no” nor did he ever have an excuse for a loss. He never laid down in any loss and always went out on his shield.
Kevin took on some very good fighters like Lonny Beasley, world champions Crisanto Espana and Graciano Rocchigiani. Thanks to boxing, Kevin experienced cultures and traveled to places like Germany, Italy, Canada, Denmark and all over the United States. Kevin finished his professional career with a record of 10-27-1 (7). His passport would indicate he was a journeyman but one stamp he gets in my book is RESPECT!
The mad dog from Marx Street
Marx Street might go down in history as boasting the toughest city block in boxing history. One city block on Detroit’s East Side produced three world champions, one gold medal winner, one contender and finally an unknown, tough-as-nails fighter known as “Mad Dog.” To the casual fan, Danny Paul might be best known as the older brother of former IBF lightweight champion Jimmy Paul but, to those who saw him fight, or heard the stories, he was a “fighter’s fighter.”
Little brother Jimmy was nicknamed “The Ringmaster” for how he put it all together inside the ropes and, equally as fitting, big brother Danny’s nickname told you all you needed to know about what you could expect when you signed the dotted line to face the Mad Dog.
Danny have never got a shot at the world title but he was a main event fighter and a fan favorite wherever he fought. He headlined many cards in Metro-Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s and also fought in the co-main event supporting an up-and-coming Thomas Hearns.
Not to sound like that grumpy old man in the barber shop arguing about yesteryear but I would put my dollar on Mad Dog over a number of today’s “contenders.” He was relentless. He was a consummate professional. He gave his all to boxing. He helped promoters and matchmakers breathe a sigh of relief because he would be there on fight night and give fans their money’s worth. Paul gave many managers a means to measure how their own fighters would hold up under pressure and he would expose any holes in those he fought, whom apprised opposing trainers of what they would need to work on in the gym.
In his day, Paul was appreciated. Today I am not sure if many so-called “prospects” would want to risk their padded records facing him. Mad Dog provided a real test for many future champions and title challengers, like a young Marlon Starling (who was 18-0 at the time), Nino La Rocca (who was 44-0), Pedro Vilella (who was 12-0-1), Maurice Blocker (who was 12-0), Lloyd Honeyghan (who was 23-0) and, to his credit, none of them stopped Mad Dog, who retired with a record of 22-8 (11). He was only stopped once!
My favorite story that sums up the kind of fighter and man Paul was was told to me by the former Michigan Boxing Commissioner Wolf Mueller. At the time, Wolf was a young man working his way through college, doing security gigs at night, one of which was at the Premier Center, where Paul dug down deep one night and gave the fans the type of fight they paid to see. Exhausted, swollen and bleeding, Paul politely asked Wolf for a glass of water. Wolf was amazed at how the man who just gave his all as the Mad Dog was just a humble, kind, simple man who appreciated the most simple things in life, like a glass of cold water after a hard night on the job.
You might win but you were going to get your ass kicked in the process
Detroit has produced many tough fighters, whose names now rest in the record books as “Ws” on great champions’ records but, to those who saw them fight, the thrills they gave us continue to live on in splendid glory in our memories.
Some were referred to as “gatekeepers,” “journeymen” or “opponents,” others “contenders,” but they were fighters…and they were all brave men. Men with surnames like Goodwin, Haakim, Johnson, Lawhorn, Moore, Seals, Snead, Summers, Trusel, Hayes, Lopez, Chambers, Jester, Lee, Gardner, Wilson, Armstrong, Beard, Favors, Riggs, Manley, Johnson, Trusel, Vining, Wynn, Gardner, Beard and so many more.