R.I.P. John Kronk Community Center: From the heat, greatness was formed

Photo credit: Kirthmon F. Dozier DFP

 

Proverbs 27:21 – As the furnace for gold (bring forth all the impurities of the metal), so let a man be in his trial of praise (ridding himself of all that is base or insincere, for a man is judged by what he praises and of what he boasts).

 

Thomas Hearns became known as the “Hitman” for his devastating knockout power. Jimmy Paul was known as the “Ringmaster” for his sound technical boxing ability. Milton McCrory became known as the “Ice Man” because when he knocked people out, they froze. Boxers earned their nicknames based on a combination of the skills they displayed in the ring and their personalities. While Gerald McClellan had a ferocious left hook to the body, Anthony “Baby” Jones was known for his trademark leather cap. For every jab that was taught and combination learned on the heavy-bag, many other lessons were learned in the boxing gym that reached far beyond the ropes of a ring.

 

In its heyday, the Kronk Community Center provided a shelter from the harsh conditions of dangerous streets that surrounded it. Once inside the big brick building, things such as thick steel doors and windows, covered by latticed iron cages, kept those harsh conditions outside. The city of Detroit provided the building and the resources to run it while Emanuel Steward, along with his trusted training staff, invested their time and energy into the Kronk Boxing Team. Together the two groups were, in fact, investing in the youth in several ways that would hopefully make an impact for the future of Detroit and all things associated with the great city. In 1981, when Thomas Hearns lost to Sugar Ray Leonard, the stories of people mortgaging their houses to bet on Hearns were true. This is how much Detroiters banked and believed on and in their beloved Kronk fighters. That was also an enormous amount of pressure placed upon on the narrow shoulders of a young man.

 

Young boxers who trained at the Kronk were far more advanced in the hard lessons of life they learned as a result growing up in the various neighborhoods that made up Detroit and some of its surrounding suburbs. The toughness inside them was already there. In earlier years, writers often described the Kronk Boxing Team as skinny and undernourished but what they lacked in size, they made up with plenty of heart. The one thing you could not teach in boxing was heart and none of the youngsters who made it in the Kronk program lacked it. Most of the young men were natural leaders and responded well to the discipline and structure that boxing gave them. National tournaments like the Ohio State Fair in the 1980s brought together the best of the best from across the country. When the kids from Kronk team stepped off the bus in their famous gold and red varsity jackets and their matching gym bags and a serious look in their eyes, they looked more like a combination of the Marines and a professional sports team than a group of pre-teen and teenage boys.

 

People often spoke about the “Kronk Style” the same way they spoke about the “Cus D’Amato style” of boxing. Back in the “good old days,” trainers actually served something called an apprenticeship. These days, far too often, people try to imitate something they see on YouTube. You can imitate the moves to perfection but it will still not be effective, as you need to go to the root to understand their true meaning. Anyone can watch a video of Emanuel Steward giving pad work but for it to be effective you understand the ideologies and reasoning behind the lessons. I was fortunate enough to spend countless hours watching Emanuel work in the basement of the Kronk center as well as his private gym on McNichols on Detroit’s west side and several training camps. One thing he always stressed was the importance of balance and footwork. I remember when he first began training Lennox Lewis. The first lessons were in regard to his balance. They were, in fact, basics that were time-tested and proven and Emanuel was a master at keeping things simple and not over-complicating things.

 

I recently paid one of Emanuel’s former fighters the compliment, saying he did a great job learning the basics and he took it as an insult. In reality, it was meant as the ultimate compliment because I saw Emanuel do the same things with not only Lennox but Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. and Jeff Fenech as well. He also mentioned it to me in a few conversations we had when he was asking me about gauging Mike Tyson’s interest in making a comeback (something I never mentioned to Mike).

 

Joining Steward in the Kronk training staff were the men who handled much of the day-to-day training for many of the legends Kronk produced. They were a group of old-timers who came from the Brewster Center, that had been around during Joe Louis’s heyday and, later, a young Emanuel Steward’s, legendary trainers like Bill “Pops” Miller, Walter Smith and Luther Burgess. There were also Floyd Logan and Sammy Poe, among others. After Steward became more involved with training his professional fighters, almost every amateur who came out of the Kronk program, in later years, learned how to throw a jab from Mr. Logan. Every time you saw Emanuel Steward in the corner of Thomas Hearns, you saw Walter Smith. Smith was a boxing genius who would have no doubt gone on to have more renown, if he went out on his own.

 

Bruce Lee perhaps said it best, “The individual is more important than any style or system.” From the journey down those steps to the basement of the Kronk Community Center, deep in the heat, taught them lessons that helped them overcome social and economic barriers. The skills Steward taught them in the ring could apply to any aspect of life outside of it, self esteem, confidence, respect and, with those skills, they could open doors to success that extended far beyond the one that prophetically would lead them to “Pain and Fame.”

 

Most of the young men who came to the Kronk Gym were very accustomed to varied and unpredictable forms of violence. They had an understanding of predatory, kill-or-be-killed instincts that made boxing the natural sport of choice. Michael Moorer had once said in an interview leading up to an HBO fight that “Violence is golden.”

 

Despite it being a sport in which each needed to succeed individually, Kronk had a team atmosphere in which, for a single, three-minute round, you might be trying to knock each other’s heads off but when the bell sounded, ending the round, you hugged each other and acknowledged that this was just business, nothing personal. Respect was earned.

 

In the book “Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice and the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms” Jim Lommasson described a boxing gym as a “lifeline for troubled kids, safe havens in tough neighborhoods and living shrines to the tradition of the sport.” The Kronk was a place where young kids could dream big and see examples of the reality of those dreams come to life. Many kids in inner cities across America are lured into the dangers of drug dealing, often because of the flashy cars the dealers drive. It is hard to tell a young kid that riding the bus is a way to one day drive a fancy car if he wanted one but any young fighter who rode the bus to the gym and got off at the same bus stop Thomas Hearns once did, years before them, could look up and see the Hitman’s shiny new Rolls Royce parked outside as a status symbol of success that came from working hard.

 

This was a place of escape from their environment, as well. It was a safe haven. It was a place to dream but also a place where nightmares came alive. Clearly the lessons taught did not help as many as the media and Steward claimed over the years or much of the news back then would not have been filled with so much tragedy and failure, not to mention, since then, how much more has gone bad for so many. It was a place where, in some ways, lost souls gathered.

 

 

Talent displayed inside Kronk Gym

 

The boxing that took place inside the Kronk gym was the most complete display of the “Sweet Science” I ever witnessed. The décor, however, was the result of the “Sweat Science”! I will never forget a man telling me, “Son, there is spit on the walls in here older than you!”

 

Inside the John Kronk Community Center, there was a dimly-lit stairway with narrow steps covered by steel plates that you took to the basement that housed the boxing gym. The journey to the basement gym was very symbolic, as it represented a journey deep into the core or, if you will, the souls of all those who entered. As you got closer to the bottom of the winding staircase, you could hear the sounds of rhythmic rattling of a speed bag, leather gloves popping off heavy-bags and the loud yells and battle cries from those watching some of the most legendary sparring sessions to have ever taken place in a boxing gym.

 

As the butterflies grew to more like the size of bats in a person’s stomach, entering the first time, you came to a red door that read, “This Door Has Lead Many To Pain And Fame.” It had a small window that many would just peek through and not even have enough courage to enter. It was that door that was a test that many would not even pass. Bruce Lee once said, “Most people do not respond well to challenging self for truth.” If you walked through that door, you would be opening the door not only to the Kronk boxing gym but the truth to all that was inside you. The legendary trainer and mentor of Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato described it best: “Fire is like fear. It can give you warmth, light and cook your food. But if you do not learn to control it, it will destroy everything around it.”

 

It was so hot inside the gym that even the metal door handle was hot when you held on to it. Once you opened that door, you were hit with a blast of energy that no writer has even been able to explain in detail, regardless of his or her greatness. There was, of course, that wave of heat that was so thick, you could hardly take your first breath and you already could feel the sweat coming down your brow. Several would make the mistake of holding that heavy door open from fear or from the heat, and they were soon met with some menacing snarls to shut the door. While the gym was small and you could look over it all in a matter of seconds, it might as well have been an eternity for those who entered to sign up to box for the first time. Calls of “Fresh meat!” were about the kindest of words one could expect to hear in the form of a welcome. Most just received hard looks from even the lowest on the food chain, as if to say, “I’ve been tired of getting my ass kicked all this time. Now I finally got someone’s ass to kick!”

 

The asbestos-insulated pipes overhead were exposed and you could actually see the moisture dripping off them. Asbestos was no match for Kronk boxers; it just made them tougher. The mixture of intense humidity and aura created an air so thick, it could be cut with a knife. It was a room a psychologist would have had a field day trying to analyze, as emotions of fear, supreme levels of confidence, echoes of agonizing pain, body language of deep internal pain and the sound of pure raw power generated through the air.

 

While the John Kronk Recreation Center was several thousand square feet in size and had home to a basketball court, a full-size pool, senior activities rooms, offices and rooms for afterschool programs, the boxing gym was perhaps the smallest of all spaces. It was an old-school boxing gym in the truest sense. It was a sweltering inferno and its gritty interior had many guests fixed on what “pain” might await them inside this pugilistic palace. The paint was peeling off the walls (in my days, the last paint job came around the time Thomas Hearns prepared for his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard). Exposed pipes from the old boiler room furnace pumped a blazing heat into the gym more worthy of a steel mill and, once that heavy red door swung shut, there no was no supply of fresh oxygen.

 

In the center of the gym sat one 18-foot ring, mounted inches off the floor, that had an old white canvas that was covered in speckles of blood and a couple strips of well-worn duct tape to repair a tear. During sparring, when a fighter needed to clear his nose, he would simply just blow and out shot a mixture of Vaseline and snot that landed on that old canvas, to join the blood and sweat stains that decorated it. In two corners were funnels that had pieces of garden hose tapped to them that lead to the spit buckets that collected a mixture of water, spit and blood from busted lips and missing teeth.

 

Other than the ring, there were a couple small wooden benches for hand wrapping (built by a then-young Bill Kozerski, who, years later, rose to boxing prominence as promoter of two-time heavyweight champion Michael Moorer and so many Kronk world champions, he was never given credit for developing), a small area to do sit-ups, an old stationary bike and shoulder machine (both had not seen oil or a tune-up for years), a wooden jump rope platform big enough for three people to skip rope, one working speed bag platform (although a second sat empty for the few years I was there), one small mirror in front of which fighters shadow-boxed, a chin-up bar and two old, worn-out heavy-bags wrapped in duct tape. That was it.

 

Prominently displayed on the four walls inside the gym, showcased behind sheets of clear plastic shields, was the history of the Kronk boxing program. If the old, war-torn ring was Kronk’s version of the old Boston Garden parquet floor, these were its versions of the 16 championship banners that hung in the Garden’s rafters. Kronk history could be traced from Steward’s first fighter to its most recent world champions. There were various home photos featuring Golden Gloves champions and world champions alike. There were the magazine articles and covers from publications like THE RING Magazine, KO and Sports Illustrated. Yellowing newspaper clippings from Detroit and papers that had foreign language showed Kronk reigned supreme on all continents where it traveled. For those who were strong enough to endure the pain, in these displays the fame was displayed. For those who could survive the tough streets of Detroit and the Kronk gym, they too could achieve unimagined greatness. The photos and articles on display showed you to could train hard, beat the odds and make impossible dreams come true. There was an old photo of a very young Stevie McCrory holding a little trophy giving a peace sign and next to it was Stevie, several years later, flashing a big smile with an Olympic gold medal around his neck. Right next to an article that featured Thomas Hearns winning a world championship, a young Kronk fighter could read a news clipping of his recent Silver Gloves championship and even making the local honor roll at school.

 

The history displayed on the walls of the Kronk gym may have been interesting for guests, media and fans alike to read but, for the young kids who trained there, it gave them a more realistic and motivating influence than anything they were being taught in the Detroit Public School system. They could look up from one of those articles that talked about Thomas Hearns earning a $5,000,000 payday, see him training in the same ring as them and know that their dream of living a better life was possible. And just as Hearns may have motivated one of those young aspiring amateurs, by training in the same gym, he himself could stay hungry and constantly be reminded of what it took to get where he is and what must be done to maintain his lifestyle.

 

There were often lines to use the speed bag and heavy bags but no one complained. There were no “rules” on the walls of the gyms like you might find a fitness club, only a couple slogans like “No Pain, No Gain” and “Turn Up The Heat.” Above the ring, there was a framed box that housed some lights that shined down on the ring and also showcased large photos of Kronk Royalty (although a couple people tried slipping their own photos in there over the years – unauthorized by Emanuel; I might add). In large frames were photos of Kronk champions like Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, Duane Thomas, Milton McCrory, Jimmy Paul, Stevie McCrory, Mark Breland, Michael Moorer, Jessie Benevides, Anthony Jones, Jamal Hinton, Dennis Andries, Leeonzer Barber and Gerald McClellan.

 

When Thomas Hearns was preparing for a big fight and made Kronk home to his training camp, as was the case for the Sugar Ray Leonard rematch, chairs for the media and spectators were brought in. But other than that rare occasion, there was just a single row of old chairs on one side of the ring for people to sit on and enjoy the action in the ring. Have you ever heard the saying, “raised in the gym”? It was common that, on some of those chairs, preschool-aged children of the fighters training there sat, sometimes even the occasional car seat with an infant.

 

That one small gym produced more world champions and contenders than any boxing gym in the sport’s history. No matter how many times you walked down those steps, you would still get butterflies. You would still get goosebumps. No matter how experienced you were, you had a nervous feeling, an excited current running through your body, anticipating the wave of heat that awaited you on the other side of that door that lead so many to pain and fame.

 

 

Shine it up good – Kronk Kleanliness

 

Kronk was no fitness center. This is not for the faint of heart; I shall forewarn you. “Shine it up good!” Anthony “Baby” Jones would shout out, as we moved around the ring, shadow boxing to the rhythms of leather on a heavybag and the rat-a-tat of the speed bag. Those were the lyrics to a popular rap song, at the time, by Flint, Michigan’s MC Breed. There was no music allowed in the Kronk Gym (except only one time in history, I recall, when Michael Moorer blasted a cassette tape by Eazy-E, when he was going through a rebellious stage against Emanuel, prior to parting ways), only the odd rhythms of grunts, bangs and booms. And while the action in the ring was shined up like a fresh new pair of Gators from City Slicker (the famous shoe store in downtown Detroit, where Rick “Maserati” Carter was gunned down), the gym would be better compared to the “spit” than the “shine”!

 

There were no sanitizing wipes to clean off the equipment, no steam cleaning the ring canvas to remove the blood and other bodily fluids that landed on it, nor was there was some fresh mop of the floor every shift rotation or no CPR procedures…Are you starting to get the picture? Safety and cleanliness were two things you could not expect inside Kronk nor any other “real” boxing gym.

 

I recall, on one occasion, watching Thomas Hearns issue a clean bill of health to the ring inside Kronk by bloody a sparring partner, then blowing his nose out, wrapped up with an ab workout, in which he would lie down on the canvas and hold the ankles of a entourage member, who would then proceed to throw his legs toward the ground, where Hearns would stop them before touching the ground, only to repeat the process several times. Triple-checked the Kronk way!

 

Proceed with caution; the ride is about to get even more intense! Blood, sweat and other bodily fluids dripped, rolled and shot off bodies, as punches were exchanged inside the ring. Hearns was not the only one who preferred the ring canvas as opposed to a Kleenex, as several fighters would place a glove up to their noses and blow out a big ball of snot onto the ring, then proceed with the action.

 

If the ring was being used for boxing, there was an old massage table Tommy and others liked to use for their ab work. Other guys, myself included, preferred an old green mat that was so worn out and flat, our butts might as well have just sat directly on the old glued-down tile floor beneath it. You learned to get out of the way from punches and also an occasional mop handle when the gym’s gatekeeper Mr. Logan would come by sloshing an old mop that came out of an old bucket, mixed with Pine-Sol and water, supplied by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

 

“Were gonna get you a Calvin Klein commercial, John!” Baby Jones used to say to me seemingly every day, when I finished my ab work on that raggedy, duct taped green thing that was once a mat. Imagine that: Calvin Klein shooting a commercial at the Kronk Gym? Thinking back, that might have been a project a creative mind on Madison Avenue would have loved to work with. At 6-foot-1 and 140 pounds, soaking wet, I was tall and lanky like a young Hearns. And while I was not 1% of what he was in the ring, I gave 100% effort in his presence, like all inside Kronk.

 

I may not have been 1% in the end product but Hearns’ longtime trainer Walter Smith who said, in his distinctive voice, “Baby, if we could get someone down here to see you shadow box, we could all make a million dollars!” This was coming from a man who trained Hearns and boxed with Joe Louis at the Brewster Center, years before. I never let Walt’s words go to my head in the “ego file” but they may have added fuel to my fire in the “boxing business file.” It was true, I would later learn, that there was no barrier to entry for the boxing business. The sport/business drew in suckers and savvy businessmen alike. I saw several people, firsthand, blow through millions of dollars in their pursuit of being a player in a business, in which the rules where as dirty as the Kronk Gym floor. In fact, the rules were so dirty, they might be compared to the law and order that governed a Wild West town. A parallel could easily be drawn between the Wild West and the world of boxing and that made the Kronk Gym the most well-known, rowdy saloon on the frontier, that attracted all the snake oil salesmen, traveling circus characters and people of nobility alike, in hopes of seeing some of the greatest gunslingers of their era. Some watched from the sidelines and some could not resist the attraction and wanted to be a part of the action. Many men pulled up a ringside seat to the equivelant of a modern-day poker table, where con-men, drug dealers, CEOs and savvy attorneys were commonly referred to as “sucker money.” They only folded when they ended up busted and disgusted – another unknown knockout victim quickly forgotten, when the well ran dry.

 

Much like a Wild West “boomtown,” the Kronk Gym attracted gunslingers from all over the world looking to polish their skills. Former WBO heavyweight champion Henry Akinwande was one of those who traveled a long distance to train at Kronk, for what amounted to maybe one poker hand. He left Kronk and headed to his fight but was KO’d before he even could get in the ring, when he tested positive for Hepatitis B. It was the only time I recall a contagious feeling of fear in the thick hot air inside the gym. “Hepa-what? Can you die from it? How do you get it?” After a couple weeks, it was quickly forgotten and we never heard about it again. That is how we all found out that, even if it was contagious, Kronk KO’d Hepatitis B. Nothing could stop Kronk, it appeared, as long as the city of Detroit was left like any other sucker at the table willing to pick up the tab just to hear war stories that TV execs avoided like the plague. Maybe the Kronk mystic was so strong, the City of Detroit felt no need to send anyone over from the health department and conduct a health inspection of sorts…That was business as usual at the Kronk. Like the case of Hepatitis B, Akinwande was forgotten as well, as he remains just another name in the books of those who came and went.

 

Inside the locker room are a large number of metal lockers and a large shower area. It was common for to open up a locker and duck a flying roach the size of a golf ball, from within. Think I’m kidding? Ask anyone who used those lockers. Roach spray – or an atomic bomb, for that matter – could not stop these alien creatures. The only thing tougher than the boxers in Kronk were the roaches! I tried to remember to shake my gym bag out before I left the gym each day because I knew if they got in my car, they would destroy it more than the notorious potholes and salt Detroit used to melt the winter snow and ice.

 

There was also a locker room reserved for “Champions only” that was supposed to be a bit more like a luxury suite of sorts because it had a small air conditioner unit and somehow managed to stay somewhat cleaner. It was tight and had room for maybe eight people at a time, at the most. It was the favorite of Hearns, Moorer and others. I was in there on a few occasions in the company of Hearns and a couple members of his entourage. (His regular, full-time entourage could have filled up the entire gym, forget that small locker room!)

 

Ka-Dy, Tarick, Trouble Man, Willie Dynamite, Frank, Doc, Octavio, K9, Baby Jones, Leeonzer, Double M, Fabulous Frankie, Kevin, Keith, Tommy, Jerry, Jimmy, Hilmer, Milton, Jeff Tuttle, Ms. Steward, Slyvia, Slyvette, Ms. Lannie, Ishmale, Tony and to many more who are running through my mind as I write this, if not for you all, I would not be who I am today. I love and appreciate each and every one of you. Thank you for being a part of my journey and allowing me to be a part of yours.

 

My times spent at the John Kronk Community Center will forever be a part of me. While I was just a spoke in the mighty Kronk wheel, I am forever grateful for the life lessons I learned there and those legendary fighters I was fortunate enough to spend time around.

 

 

 

You can follow Mr. John Lepak on Twitter @Lightning_JL and on Instagram @lightning_lepak.

 

 

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