Shooting stars to shots fired
From the memoirs of John Lepak…
Boxing, the beautiful and barbaric act of violence known the “Sweet Science,” captures the imagination of hardcore fans, casual fans and even those who can relate to a plain old “down on your luck” storyline. It can be a meteoric ride to the top and many of the people you see on the way there – providing you stick around long enough – will take the dramatic fall from grace on the way back down. In the world of boxing, for every shooting star boarding the express to stardom, many more are boarding a slow train headed for Palookaville.
In boxing, you will find that shooting stars are not born with silver spoons in their mouths but rather a hunger in their bellies from having no spoon at all. Long before they lace up gloves and face their first opponents in the ring, they have fought their share of battles under the street lights of the tough neighborhoods in which they grew up or in the darkness that we all battle internally in our own minds. On the corner of Junction and McGraw on Detroit’s West Side was the exit where the express to stardom and train to Lookalike both met. There in the basement of the John Kronk Community Center was a scorching hot inferno known as the Kronk Boxing Gym. In that gym, a young underdog from a broken home, suffering from neglect and abuse, was given a fighting chance like so many others who came there to join the boxing program.
He fought and beat some of the toughest fighters in the world as an amateur and stood to make millions of dollars as a professional. He turned pro and was undefeated but struggled with the demons he battled internally and wound up going to prison for armed robbery. After being away from the ring for almost 16 years, with the help of a real friend on the outside who never gave up on him and a great support system in place, he was a free man and the shooting star of old began a comeback. With the odds stacked against him, that star was once again burning bright and on the rise as the media closely followed his story. He had just won his most recent fight in front of 11,000 of his hometown fans and his undefeated record remained intact. What no one could see was, internally, those demons were still there, punching harder than ever before. A couple weeks after that victory, he sat down on the couch in front of his wife, placed a gun to his head, pulled the trigger and ended his life.
That man (may he rest in peace) was Ricky Womack. As an amateur, Ricky had beaten Evander Holyfield twice (splitting four bouts even) and is the person Holyfield always calls the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. After losing to Holyfield in the 1984 Olympic Trials, Ricky signed a professional contract with Emanuel Steward and his E.S.C.O.T Boxing Enterprises (along with ’84 gold medalist Stevie McCrory) that guaranteed him several hundreds of thousands of dollars in purse money and numerous television appearances. Womack had a Volvo, lived in a rent-free condo equipped with a 26” color television and a VHS player. He was fierce, ferocious and undefeated and by 1985, he had also became violent outside the ring as he pistol-whipped a clerk in a video store where he stole a few hundred dollars. Months later on June 9, 1986, Ricky was arrested after he was caught for a second armed robbery where things went wrong. He shot a customer and police found his wallet and car keys at the scene of the crime, giving prosecutors all they needed to get him convicted. Womack was only 22 years old and sentenced to 12-to-25 years after making a plea deal.
Almost 15 years into his sentence, Ricky was released from prison in Nov. of 2000 when he was 39-years-old and while his better years in the ring were behind him, he wanted to make a comeback. With his close and dear friend, Dr. Stuart Kirschenbaum as his manager, Bill “Pops” Miller and Rick Griffith working as his trainers, Bill Kozerski once again promoting him and a new wife by his side, he managed to beat four opponents to bring his record to 11-0. They were realistic knowing that chances of Ricky becoming heavyweight champion were not likely. All members of his team were there as a support system, more interested in him making a life this time. No man had beaten Ricky inside the boxing ring; sadly, he couldn’t defeat the demons inside him. On Jan. 19, 2002, for Ricky Womack, the fight was finally over.
“Mr. Wonderful” Ricky Womack was not the first nor the last boxer to come out of the Kronk boxing program in Detroit to experience the rise of a shooting star only to have his life tragically ended by gunshots.
“Mr. Excitement” Dujuan Johnson was only 23 years old and despite losing a world title fight to Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor, was on his way to get another shot at the 140-pound title. Before he could get another title shot, however, sadly, Johnson was shot and killed on Aug. 19, 1984 in what was said to be a dispute over a $200 debt. JL “Poison” Ivey was a talented professional with 23 pro fights but never got the title shot he had hoped for. He was suspended after he believed he got a poor decision one night at the Pontiac Silverdome and reached over the ropes to attack two ringside judges. At just 26 years of age, he was shot dead by a drug dealer in New York.
Duane Thomas was said to be the “leader” of a group of Kronk boxers known as the “Marx Street Six.” He along with Milton and Stevie McCrory, Jimmy and Danny Paul and Stanley Longstreet all grew up on the same block on Detroit’s tough East Side. Thomas had his amateur career derailed when he unloaded a shotgun at a high school after being jumped by a rival gang but got things in order and began his comeback. As Milton and Jimmy both won world championships and Stevie had won a gold medal in Olympics, Duane’s professional career came to a halt when he was shot in his face at point blank range, shattering both his jaw bones when he simply approached a car that had just crashed into his.
Thomas showed his toughness and once again came back and in 1986, pulled off one of the biggest upsets in boxing at the time, winning the WBC junior middleweight championship. There was more talk of Thomas’ notorious short fuse than his discipline to training and he lost the title in his first defense. Thomas had a couple of confrontations with manager/trainer Emanuel Steward, including one in which he was said to have slapped Steward in the face in front of a crowded Kronk Gym over what Thomas claimed was money he earned from sparring. It appeared that was it for Thomas and he was out of boxing.
After being retired for several years, in April of 2000 at the age of 39, Thomas reconciled with Steward and, to the amazement of many, made yet another successful comeback winning a bout on the undercard of a promotion headlined by Thomas Hearns. He had talked to Steward about getting involved in a youth program and talked about family life. Two months later, Thomas was shot dead reportedly in a “drug dispute” in front of a liquor store on Detroit’s East Side.
Detroit’s rich sports history has produced many shooting stars that burned out just as fast as they rose to stardom. What separates the boxer from other athletes is that while you can play baseball, football and hockey, you can’t play boxing. It’s like the struggles with the internal demons almost draw troubled young men to boxing in the first place. When a person gets drafted into the NFL, there are countless training programs for rookies where they are mentored by veterans to help them with all aspects of their careers, on and off the field. Unlike football, in boxing, there is no draft, no barrier for entry to almost all people involved and very few fighters are lucky to have a solid support system that can help them prepare and deal with the pressures that plague all athletes in sports today.
Just two weeks ago, I saw current IBF middleweight champion Jermain Taylor in an all-too-familiar situation that tied him to a series of shootings and, most recently, at a Martin Luther King Day gathering. Taylor himself, once a shooting star, had trained at the Original Kronk Gym in Detroit under the guidance of Steward just before the doors finally closed. After being viciously knocked out twice in less than six months, it was believed his career was over. After he passed a series of medical tests that cleared him to fight again, advisers, trainers and promoters embraced Taylor with open arms, welcoming him back to the sport that had been so financially rewarding but took a serious toll on his health. To Jermain and his team’s credit, he again became a world champion but the victory parade did not last long when Taylor began to display a pattern of strange and violent behavior that was uncharacteristic in previous years.
Back when Taylor was training at Kronk, I was impressed by a HBO pre-fight segment on him and was backing him to win a fight when my close friend Tarick Salmaci (a highly decorated Kronk fighter in his own day) told me,”Just because he is wearing Kronk trunks does not make him a Kronk fighter.” Tarick was right in many aspects back then but after reading what took place during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Taylor reminded us just how much he represented so much of the Kronk tragedy I had been all too familiar with throughout the years. I could not help but remember so many fighters I had heard about as a kid lingering around the Kronk Gym or some I had boxed with years later at Kronk. I was numb as I remembered so many conversations at the gym and on the phone with Fadi Faraj, a tough light heavyweight with a piston-like jab. Undefeated, Faraj now sits in prison for shooting someone to death in a dispute that erupted during a game of basketball. I couldn’t help but to think about all the pressure placed on the shoulders of a young man I looked at as a little brother, Octavio Lara. Lara was just a teenager when Steward decided he who would wear the crown to represent the Kronk Kingdom (a great responsibility for a grown man, let alone a teenage boy). He too saw his promising boxing career derailed when he was a passenger in a car when gun shots were exchanged with a rival group. In many ways, it may have been a strange blessing as heavy is the head that wears a crown. While I wanted to see him win a world championship, I am even more proud of Octavio as he is a husband and a loving father today who got away from the sport that, from all I have seen, takes so much more from fighters than it ever gives them.
Many boxers fight well past their primes because it is easier to be defeated in the ring, than to attempt to win the battles that wait for them in retirement. Regardless, in the end, Father Time is the opponent no one can beat and all must eventually hang up the gloves. Boxing is, without question, a very physically demanding sport but I believe it to be only 20% physical and 80% mental.
Just like those stories of the shooting stars and the classic underdog that draw us all to the sport of boxing, there is, in fact, a fighter who lives inside each and every one of us. It is the voice that tells us to get up when life knocks us down. Ironically, Detroit, the once powerful automobile capital of the world, is knocked down and battling through bankruptcy while her citizens are fighting every day harder than ever to just survive. Maybe, in part, it is the fighter inside us who made us root for the underdogs and comeback stories of so many of those fighters who climbed in the ring wearing the famous Kronk Boxing Team gold trunks (representing all of Detroit – north and south of 8-Mile). These fighters represented the struggle, the pain and that quest for fame. But for all the support and love given to the fighters from their families, friends, team and the great citizens of Metro-Detroit, sadly, the only love the sport of boxing knows how to offer a boxer in return for their blood, sweat and tears is tough love. That love is so tough, it broke even the greatest of champions to ever step into a boxing ring.
In Memory of “Mr. Wonderful,” Ricky Womack