IT IS NATURAL and fitting to mourn the passing of a sporting landmark, to bow one's head in regret as yet another piece of a richer, more colorful past is lost to the wrecking ball. Yet I suspect that even as the news that Detroit's venerable Kronk Gym had closed its doors prompted nostalgic eulogies throughout the boxing world last week, it also raised in more than a few fighters a small sigh of relief.
For, as anyone who ever trained (or stood and watched someone train) in the sweltering, windowless confines of the little room in the basement of a city recreation center on Detroit's southwest side will tell you, the Kronk could be hell. Lord knows it was hot enough, the thermostat permanently cranked to 95°. (It's almost impossible not to use the word forged when talking about the fighters who came out of the Kronk.) And then there were the legendary "sparring" sessions, intensely competitive ring wars that were a daily test of fire—and firepower—as amateurs sought to make their mark and even world champions constantly had to prove themselves.
Under the guidance of Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward (above), who came to the Kronk in 1969 and has served as boxing director there ever since, the old building of red brick produced more than two dozen world champs (as well as scores of amateur titlists), including Mark Breland, Hilmer Kenty, Gerald McClellan, Milton McCrory, Frank Tate and, most renowned, Tommy Hearns, all of whom fought in the Kronk's signature red and gold. Though not full-fledged members, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Lennox Lewis also trained under Steward at the Kronk.
Alas, recent budget constraints forced the closing of a number of Detroit recreational facilities, including the Kronk, which was the city's oldest. Steward was spending $8,000 a month of his own money to keep the boxing room operating while he searched for outside funding. The crucial blow, though, came in September, when someone broke in and stripped all the copper piping from the crumbling 85-year-old building. Fittingly, with the heat cut off, the boxing finally stopped.
Steward intends to open a new Kronk in central Detroit. A benefit was held last Thursday night in Southfield, and Sylvester Stallone showed up to screen Rocky Balboa, the upcoming sixth installment in the Rocky saga. "The Kronk is not really closing, it's just moving to another building," Steward says. "We'll still be the Kronk gym." One question remains: Would Rocky have survived in the original?
Hit Man Hearns was one of the many champs to hone his skills at theKronk.