The Kronk Khronicles: The men, the myths, the legends – Looking back at 1984
It was a time before smart phones but, in 1984 Detroit, high-rollers carried Motorola beepers and portable phones in shoulder bags. Long before Twitter could send a message virally in seconds, the word on the street in “The D” could arguably reach the West Side from the East Side and north of 8 Mile just as fast.
A young Eddie Murphy played the role of a street smart detective named Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop,” that brought Detroit to the big screen. The nightly news brought Detroit into the living rooms of mainstream America as the city finished a close second to Miami for the crown of Murder Capital of the U.S., with 514 murders on record, averaging 47.1 for every 100,000 residents.
On Oct. 13, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series, defeating the San Diego Padres, wrapping up the regular season with a record of 104-58. As “Senor Smoke” Aurelio Lopez and the rest of the Tigers celebrated their victory, the smell of a far more dangerous smoke hovered in the air for weeks after Halloween, resulting from over 800 fires that were reported in 72 hours. People from all over the United States tuned in to the nightly news and saw images of a city on fire, all surrounding something we knew as “Devil’s Night.”
In November, Prince kicked off his “Purple Rain” tour with a seven-night stand at Joe Louis Arena, the same arena that saw Kronk crown its first world champion, Hilmer Kenty. And just two months prior to Prince launching the tour that propelled him to superstardom, Kenty wound his career down, closing out 1984 and hanging ’em up for good on Aug. 16 versus Dave Odem, in what the late Sammy Poe told me was his all-time favorite performance from Kenty because of how deep the former lightweight champion had to dig down in that reservoir of energy, will and determination, leaving it all in the ring that night to earn the final victory of his career.
As a result of the negative publicity Detroit was getting for its murder rate, Thomas Hearns was caught in the middle of a “makeover” of sorts, as the Palm Beach Post reported. As the “Motor City Cobra” bought a new Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II, it was the “Hitman” who won his second world title in the form of the WBC super welterweight crown. The Motor City Cobra put on, what I feel, was his most complete display of boxing ever, winning a 12-round decision over Luigi Minchillo but the Hitman delivered arguably the most devastating knockout of his highlight reel career with a second-round destruction of Roberto Duran (being the only man in over 100 fights then to ever knock Duran out cold!) as well as a third win over Fred Hutchings. The Hitman was back and the Hutchings victory set up his big showdown versus Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1985. Hearns came up short versus Hagler but Detroit finished No. 1 and earned the title for Murder Capital with 636 murders, nearly twice that of Chicago.
Admittedly, Hearns’ loss to Sugar Ray Leonard years before still bothered the Kronk Goldfather Emanuel Steward but Steward had discovered that success was the greatest form of revenge. No longer did the media want to turn every interview into a discussion about Leonard-Hearns I because, under the guidance of Steward, Prentiss Byrd, Walter Smith, Luther Burgess, Bill Miller, Jackie Kallen and Bill Kozerski, Detroit was producing more hot fighters than the once-mighty assembly lines turned out quality American-made automobiles. The pro stable, along with Hearns, consisted of Detroit’s first born and raised hometown world champion Milton McCrory, who fought three times in ’84, twice defending his WBC welterweight crown. McCrory’s Marx Street neighbors Jimmy “Ringmaster” Paul won the USBA lightweight title (and would go on to win the IBF world title in 1985) and Duane Thomas won the USBA super welterweight title (eventually going on to win the WBC super welterweight crown, in a couple years time).
In a place just as hot as the Detroit auto plants, the basement inferno of the Kronk Gym kept on producing. Darnell Knox and Mickey Goodwin both captured the Michigan State titles. With a series of quality wins and top-notch sparring, Hurley Snead put himself in position to win the USBA title in January of ’85. Kronk had two NABF champions as Jackie Beard had captured the featherweight title and David “Machine Gun” Braxton now held the super welterweight title. Heavyweight prospect Tony Tucker moved to 25-0 that year (eventually winning the IBF title and earning a unification fight with “Iron” Mike Tyson). By the time Tyson-Tucker took place, Steward still held a piece of Tucker’s contract, despite him leaving Kronk. It was under the direction of Tony’s father Bob, who sold so many pieces of his contract, HBO actually dedicated an entire pre-fight segment to the Bernie Madoff-like investment plan!
Future IBF featherweight champion Jesse Benavidez was now 2-0 and Tyrone Trice, a then-undefeated prospect – made it no secret he wanted to get some fights under his belt, and follow Tucker’s departure, so he could get the one-on-one attention he felt he deserved.
Trice was not the only fighter feeling neglected. Mike “The Bodysnatcher” McCallum grew tired of waiting behind Hearns and, after some very questionable happenings surrounding a proposed and promised fight versus Roberto Duran, that fell through to see Hearns fight Duran, he jumped ship to sign with the rival team at Main Events under the charge of the Duva family. McCallum would go on to capture several world titles, including the WBA junior middleweight title Duran vacated to face Hearns, soon thereafter, and eventually go undefeated vs. Kronk fighters, beating both David Braxton and Milton McCrory.
But if there was any consolation, as The Bodysnatcher flew the coop, “Neon Leon” Spinks was all too happy to find a place where he could start over, for what seemed like the 10th time in the last couple of years. A couple of close friends of Steward’s and financial supporters signed Leon to a management contract and, well…even though he got a couple wins on the Cobo Hall Kronk fight cards, let’s just say that did not turn out too well for Leon in Detroit.
Unlike the Tigers, who had a set schedule and home venue owned by Mike Ilitch, that helped provide the structure for them to reach the crown, no such thing existed for the Kronk team. In stepped a young Bill Kozerski, who became the official promoter for the Kronk Team, in which he created the Little Caesars fights (an Ilitch-owned pizza chain) and shouldered all the financial risk, building and developing the talent with the right matches being made by his longtime matchmaker Tom Vacca. There were approximately five cards in the Ilitch-owned Cobo Arena, three cards in the Cobo Hall, one card at the Joe Louis Arena and a few more scattered around other Michigan at non-Ilitch-owned venues like the Saginaw Civic Center.
Kronk fighters found themselves the hottest ticket in boxing, fighting in destinations like the south of France, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, New York, Arizona and Florida, to name a few.
1984 was also an Olympic year and it was looking like it would boast one of the best Olympic amateur programs the United States had ever seen. The Kronk Gym was being represented by the little brother of Milton McCrory, Stevie McCrory, as well as light heavyweight Rickey Womack (who battled Evander Holyfield in some of the most legendary fights in amateur boxing history) and 156-pound Detroiter Frank Tate. Another fighter who was also going to make the Olympic team was close enough to drive to Detroit and train at Kronk, Columbus, Ohio’s Jerry Page – Hilmer Kenty’s cousin.
In fact, the sparring was so good at Kronk, that arguably the greatest amateur in the history of USA boxing Mark Breland came to Detroit to train with Steward and his team. Accompanying Mark were Pernell Whitaker and Tyrell Biggs. Of the bunch, Womack was the only one who did not make the Olympic team. Womack lost a somewhat controversial fight to Holyfield in the final day of the Trials and it was getting harder than ever to see through the murkiness surrounding the ’84 Olympic Village, as lucrative professional contracts and television deals were being discussed.
Emanuel once told me Olympic Coach Pat Nappi (in Breland’s case, he refused to even shake Nappi’s hand) was secretly on the payroll of the new power-player on the block, promoter Josephine Abercrombie. The daughter of an oil tycoon, Abercrombie had recently spent a couple million dollars on building a living quarters, a state-of-the-art training facility and signing the fighters she wanted. Clearly money was not going to be an issue.
If that wasn’t enough to worry about, also coming up hard and heavy was the Duva-ran Main Events Monitor (later known as Main Events) group with former rock-and-roll business legend Shelly Finkel handling all the primary managing of the fighters. Finkel went on to sign Breland, Whitaker, Biggs, Holyfield and Taylor. It was my understanding that some were being offered $1,000,000 annuity funds as signing bonuses back then!
So while Kronk had a very successful year overall in the pro game, Steward and Byrd missed out on signing the best group of young men in USA Olympic history, outside the Class of 1976. Perhaps most disappointing was a young man who grew up in the Kronk Gym, Frank Tate, who accepted an offer from Abercrombie and decided to relocate to Texas (where eventually his younger brother Thomas would join him and Tony Tucker!) The word was, while Steward and Byrd had offered him a $90,000 home and a new Pontiac, they were titled in the name of Kronk, not true bonuses to Tate personally.
Despite losing Tate to Abercrombie, Steward did not come out of the 1984 Olympics empty-handed. Upon returning to Detroit, he signed Womack, who refused to even go to Los Angeles as an alternate and Stevie McCrory, who, with his gold medal still draped around his neck, posed for a photo with Womack in the back of Steward’s limo, where they signed their professional contracts.
(It should be noted that, years later, both Holyfield and Breland reached out to Steward and returned to Kronk to have him train them.)
So many tales have came from the Kronk Gym in the year of 1984 but one that remains clouded in controversy was when a young Hector “Macho” Camacho was training in Detroit and cleaning out every gym he walked into. From what I was told by those in attendance, a young Camacho handled every fighter Emanuel Steward put in front of him including guys like JL “Poison” Ivey and Joe Manley.
So one day, the sparring moved from the basement of the Kronk Gym over to the private office/gym on McNichols, where Camacho came to spar Pernell Whitaker. Only a small handful of people were on hand to bear witness, including Steward, a couple of Whitaker’s ’84 Olympic teammates and Camacho’s manager Billy Giles, along with his trainer Pops and a very close and trusted friend of mine.
According to Steward, in an Atlantic City Daily Press article published in 1990, Whitaker beat Camacho so bad, Macho became frustrated and tried to hit Pernell after the third round was over. In the article, Steward also denied ever going to his office and getting a gun and that Camacho and Giles immediately left the gym that day.
According to my VERY trusted source (who understands certain repercussions come with telling non-truths) told me Camacho actually beat Whitaker so bad, he cracked one of his molars! He told me Macho was so sharp in sparring, that no one could handle him throughout Kronk (and this I have heard from multiple sources in Detroit over the years) and Steward became so frustrated, after some verbal exchanges, he made like he was going to his office to retrieve a gun (this is where the rumor started) as the two New Yorkers (Giles and Camacho) made it clear they weren’t taking any shit. Giles told Steward that if he ever pulled his gun, he’d better use it. Giles went on to say that, if it weren’t for him helping Emanuel, Tommy would not have gotten to 20-0. As the story ends – as it was told to me – Steward left the office/gym that day.
Thankfully no one pulled a gun and no one got shot on that heated afternoon at the Kronk Gym…1984, what a year it was!