A visit to a legendary spot in the boxing community as it fights, once again, to hold on to tradition.
When I say it’s good that the Kronk is open again, one of the fighters shrugs his shoulders.
“We’ll see,” he says.
In Detroit, nothing gets taken for granted. And why should it? This town was the engine that drove the American economy, a city as grand and unstoppable as the massive finned machines it turned out of its numerous auto plants. This is where Joe Louis trained. Sugar Ray Robinson. Where Barry Gordy formed a tiny record label called Motown, whose driving, joyous sound blasted great music by great artists onto trans-oceanic airwaves.
Then, in July of 1967 the city burst into flame. Long simmering racial tensions exploded, then exploded again. Mitt Romney’s dad ordered in the National Guard and President Johnson called out the 82nd and 101st airborne. There were tanks in the streets and some 2,000 buildings burned. For five days a near state of war existed in this great city, and when it was over forty-three people were dead and over 1,100 were injured.
National Guard troops and firefighters during the ’67 riots. (photo: Reuther Library)
The story for years has been that “white flight” from Detroit began with those riots. The reality is that, while the riots were certainly an accelerant, the process was already underway in the years after World War II. In 1950, the population of Detroit was nearly 2 million people, with whites making up about 84 percent of that. By 1960, seven years before the riots, nearly 350,000 whites had left the city limits. By 1980, that number was over a million.
When people say Detroit was never the same again after the riots, it’s true. It’s also a way of deflecting the ugliness of what was already going down here long before 1967. What happened in Detroit that summer didn’t come out of a vacuum. Suburbs with “White Tenants Only” signs. Police carrying out indiscriminate raids in black communities. The long-standing segregation of northern cities did not escape Detroit, and despite the success of the auto industry, the city was already losing jobs to the suburbs. As the moneyed classes of the city moved into the outlying areas, they took pieces of the city with them. The suburbs remained affluent, and Detroit became a national punchline, an example of a city where everything was and would always be wrong.
So the noncommittal answer I get when I talk about the Kronk being back makes perfect sense. Detroit has been declared dead. Detroit has been declared reborn. Neither are really true. The city survives, just like the gym that produced one of its greatest trainers and one of its greatest fighters. And as for what comes next, well, we’ll see.
* * *
The third incarnation of the Kronk is located in the basement of the Fountain of Life Church on Mettetal Street, and from its fearsome reputation, it’s a surprise to walk into such a modest little space. You don’t get the sense of what’s going on in here until you look around at the walls, taking in the posters and the photos of famous champions. This gym wasn’t just a proving ground for the great fighters of Detroit, it was a beacon for champions from all over the country.
There was a reason for that, and his name was Emanuel Steward.
Born in West Virginia and raised in Detroit, Steward was a fearsome young fighter, winning 94 of 97 fights as an amateur and taking the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963. After passing on the chance at a professional career, he became an electrician for Detroit Edison, and might never have gone back to boxing if it hadn’t been for his brother James, who convinced Emanuel to take him to the nearby Kronk Recreation Center and show him some moves.
The original Kronk boxing gym was located in the recreation center’s basement. Built in 1921 and named after city councilman John Kronk, the old building sits abandoned today. The windows are knocked out and the brick is sprayed with graffiti. A playground behind the building is covered in overgrown grass. I stopped there to look at it and, to my own shame and discredit, I took a few photos. I’m not sorry I went to see the place, but it was wrong of me to take the pictures and I erased them minutes later. It’s not my place to show pictures of abandoned temples like this. I watched people do this for years in New Orleans, riding through the neighborhoods in air-conditioned busses with tinted windows, snapping photos of the New Orleans they saw on TV, taking home souvenirs of devastated neighborhoods as their driver droned on like they were doing a tour of the zoo.
The original Kronk Recreation Center is destroyed, and will likely never have the funding to get fixed up. If you’re a disaster pornographer, you can go take photos of it and post them on your Instagram and call them art. If you’re a boxing fan, stay away. Read about it. The old place, I’m sorry to say, is gone.
* * *
Six months after Emanuel Steward’s first session with his brother, James was a Detroit Golden Gloves champion. Shortly after, Emanuel was asked to be the head coach of the Kronk’s boxing program. He took the job at a salary of 35 dollars a week and began one of the most impressive runs of success of any trainer in history. He was named U.S. National Coach of the year in 1977. In 1980, he coached Hilmer Kenty to a title shot in the lightweight division, where Kenty became the first world champion boxer from Detroit since Joe Louis. Over the years, Steward would train a multitude of champions, from Lennox Lewis to Michael Moorer to current linear heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitchko.
But of all the champions Steward worked with, none was more closely associated with him, or with the Kronk, than Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.
Thomas Hearns with Emanuel Steward. (photo: Boxingfutures.com)
Tommy Hearns. The Motor City Cobra. The Hitman. A tall, wiry kid who didn’t look like a fighter when he first entered the gym. He came in because he wanted a way to fight back against bigger kids who kept stealing from him. His first day in the ring, a better fighter broke his nose. Hearns straightened it out and came right back. Eight years later, he won his first professional title.
He was an extraordinary fighter, preposterously tall and thin, with long arms that gave him a reach advantage over almost anyone in his weight class. A fighter with those natural advantages often develops as a pure boxer, a quick moving dart thrower who depends on outpointing their opponents and keeping them at bay with their jab. What separated Hearns was that, in addition to his boxing skills, he possessed a right hand punch that could separate any normal human being from the planet. It was brutal, demonic. He would hit good fighters, even great fighters, and they would fold like a tent. He scored one of the greatest knockouts in history when he floored Roberto Duran in Las Vegas with a punch you could feel through the TV screen. At the time, Duran (one of the five greatest fighters ever to put on the gloves) had never been knocked out in 82 professional fights. Hearns totalled him in the second round. The knockout punch is impossible. It’s the only punch I’ve ever seen that looks just as fast in slow motion as it does at regular speed.
The knockout punch comes at 0:35. It is not for the faint of heart.
It was the partnership of Steward and Hearns that made the Kronk an internationally recognized name in the boxing community, but it was the conditions that made the fighters who came out of it so strong. Steward liked to crank up the heat in the basement of the building to over 90 degrees. Fighters would pour sweat as they trained. Steward would move through the haze, offering encouragement, dispensing advice. It was the kind of place that fighters would call magic, and mean it.
And, as noted, the original is gone. Like the old 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach where Muhammad Ali cut his teeth, like Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philadelphia, the original had to be replaced when the situation became untenable. In 2006, thieves stole the building’s copper piping. With no money coming in to replace or repair what needed replacing and repairing, the building closed, and the gym moved to a storefront in Dearborn, continuing with the original Kronk name.
That the Kronk survived its original shutdown was largely due to the force and reputation of Emanuel Steward. But when Steward passed away in 2012, the second location went with him.
It took three years to find a new home. Then, this past Memorial Day, with Tommy Hearns on hand, the Kronk quietly reopened in its new location at 9520 Mettetal Street.
When I walk in, four months after the grand opening, there are about five fighters working in the ring, including Lanardo Tyner, one of Floyd Mayweather’s top sparring partners. I ask Tyner if I can snap a photo of him at work for my blog.
“Yeah,” he says. “You come all that way you gotta get that shot.”
Lanardo “Pain Server” Tyner works the bag in the new Kronk gym.
Also in the gym are a pair of brothers, Brandon Cayce and Tobias Wiggins, both of them fighters since they were kids. Cayce gets in the ring against Lanardo Tyner, and holds his own against the pro until he takes a big shot that puts him to one knee. He comes out of it fine, with a little blood on his nose, and a desire, like a lot of great fighters, to get back in the ring. He’s an amateur fighter, but here at the Kronk he gets to step in the ring with an established, title-winning professional who has sparred regularly with Mayweather, which puts him just one degree away from the man many consider the best fighter of his generation.
His brother, Tobias, is in the gym for the first time. He tells me he’s been fighting a long time, but never took it seriously. Today, he feels, is the beginning of a change in that mentality.
“My brother said he was coming out today,” he says. “Well, I wasn’t doing anything. So I came out.”
Tobias Wiggins on his first day at the Kronk.
Sometimes it starts like that. Then the first day turns into the fifth day, which turns into the fifth week, and pretty soon you’ve built up a habit. Every one of the greatest fighters to ever put on the gloves had their first day in the gym, and something about that day made them keep coming back. They get beaten up and beaten down, and they walk right back in.
It’s impossible to separate the story of Detroit from that of the Kronk, but that story has taken on a familiar tone among the tellers. People like to espouse the popular narrative of the city that surrounds this gym: that it’s the tragic center of a tragic story, a once great city that will never be great again. But great cities like Detroit have much in common with the fighters they produce. They take their shots. They get off the mat. They straighten out their nose and they come back swinging.
This city, and this gym, have greatness in their bones. Only a fool would count them out.