Boxing mecca needs $1M annually to survive
By Wayne Drehs
DETROIT -- Plastered to the red steel door, the blue and gold letters aren't all there. But the message is still perfectly clear.
The famed door to the hothouse, where the thermostat is almost always set to at least 90 degrees.
This door is the entrance to the world famous Kronk Gym, a bruised, battered and beaten-down rec room that has produced 50 amateur boxing champions, 30 world champions and three Olympic gold medalists.
Tommy Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, Oscar De La Hoya, Prince Naseem Hamed .? they've all trained here. They've all read those last words, entered the room with the cracked walls, the peeling paint and the missing floor tiles and allowed legendary trainer Emanuel Steward to push them to places they never imagined possible.
"This is the Mecca," said Andy Lee, a 21-year-old Irish middleweight whose dreams of being next are sustained right now by the sweat pouring down his yellow Kronk tank. "I've trained all over the world -- Cuba, Italy, Russia, Finland -- but nothing compares to this. There's an attitude, a confidence. Walk through that door and it just hits you."
On the inside, nothing awaits Lee and the others but pain. Fight through it, though, and there's opportunity. A shot at fame. And a way out.
On the outside, the no-good streets of a rotting inner-city neighborhood. Drive-bys. Drug dealers. Prison.
Steward started the boxing club in 1970; and over the past 36 years, thousands -- black and white, young and old, male and female -- have come through that door hoping to escape the outside for a shot at the inside.
It's a refuge, though, that might not be around much longer. Facing a deepening budget crisis and a decreasing population base, the city of Detroit last month closed nine of its recreation centers. One of them was the Kronk Recreation Center, which housed a basketball gym, a pool, programs for teenagers and arts and crafts for seniors, as well as the boxing gym.
"It's just the worst thing you could imagine," said 91-year-old Walter Smith, a trainer who has traveled the world on the sweat Kronk boxers have donated to the gym's canvas. "It's just awful. I can't understand it."
For now, Steward and the city have agreed to keep the boxing gym open for the next five to six months. But beyond that, Kronk's future is unknown. Steward has scheduled a black tie Fight Night benefit for Thursday, hoping to capitalize on the glitz and glamour of Super Bowl week. George Clooney, Eminem and 50-Cent have pledged their support. Lewis, Mike Tyson and Dionne Warwick have offered assistance, too. But the fund-raising task is daunting. The city estimates that the price of keeping the crumbling facility open is close to $1 million.
"People underestimate the cost something like this takes," said Charles Beckham, director of the Detroit Recreation Department. "That's why the city is trying to get out of it. We don't have the money anymore. So what's going to happen depends a lot on how much money we can raise."
The Wall of Heat
To those entrenched in the boxing world, permanently locking Kronk's doors would be like closing Wrigley Field or tearing down the Apollo Theatre. It's an institution. Perhaps no single room in America -- with its two heavy bags, two speed bags and one lonesome ring -- has produced more boxing champions than this one.
On this day, cruiserweight Jonathan Banks, a three-time national amateur champion, is criss-crossing the ring, preparing for his benefit night fight by pummeling his sparring partner until his foe's nose bleeds like a faucet. Four feet away, shadowboxing in a full-length mirror, is Lee, the Irish national who is living with Steward in preparation for his professional debut in March. And a few feet away from Lee, five-time amateur champion LaTonya King, all of 16 years old, the youngest black woman to ever win the women's Golden Gloves, leapfrogs over a jump rope.
It all takes place in a room barely big enough to hold the one ring, as Hearns, Holyfield, Lewis, Steward and other boxing greats watch. Their pictures are plastered across Kronk's walls next to faded, peach-tinted newspaper clippings of their various achievements.
Ross Dettman/for ESPN.com
Boxers of all types and ability levels from around the world come to the Kronk.
The smell is a twisted blend of sweat and sports cream. The sound is the rhythmic pounding of a speed bag, the endless slapping of a jump rope. Walk across the sweat-covered tile floor -- or what's left of it -- and, for a brief second, the piercing squeal of gym shoes drowns the bag and rope.
It is here where a sopping wet T-shirt becomes one with the boxer wearing it. In the old days, they say Steward kept the gym's temperature close to 120 degrees. On this day, it's hovering at only around 90. Budget issues.
"This is nothing," says former Hearns sparring partner Willie "Dynamite" Smith. "This is like an air-conditioned vacation."
Still, a wall of heat greets any visitor.
"If you can handle training in here," Steward said, "the match becomes the easy part."
For a $35 yearly fee, the gym is open to anyone 8 years or older. Every weekday afternoon, it serves two purposes: For the larger bodies, it builds champions; for the smaller ones, it builds confidence. There are boys, girls, men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Arabs. Everyone from an Atlanta Braves minor leaguer trying to stay in shape during the offseason to super-smiling 8-year-olds who hop around like wind-up toys.
"I love seeing all the little kids," Lee said. "They just bring so much energy and enthusiasm. And they're so eager to learn."
Staying off the streets
Should Kronk's doors close, it's the next direction for that energy and enthusiasm that concerns Steward the most. That, and the teenage nose for trouble. Once upon a time, Steward, too, was a trouble-making teenager headed in the wrong direction until boxing gave him one last chance.
Steward says he was 13 and facing jail time after he gravely injured a man in a street fight. But as an honor student who was rarely in trouble when he was a member of a local boxing gym, Steward was given an option by Detroit's youth correctional department. Get back into boxing, they said. One more slipup, though, and you're off to jail.
"Next thing I know, I was a champion at 14, a champion at 15, and then a national champion," Steward said. "And I never had the chance to get in trouble again."
So it's no surprise that Steward feels for mischievous 12-year-old Romanian twins Joseph and Jacob Bonas, whose father, Costica, issued a similar edict: Stay out of trouble and you can box. Keep getting in trouble and you can't.
And it's no wonder Steward relates to the story of 21-year-old Octavio Lara, a Kronk denizen who was the passenger in a drive-by shooting in November 2003. Lara took a 17-month layoff before returning to the ring last spring. Like Banks, he is on the card for the Fight Night benefit.
"If not for this place, I probably would have been a gangster," said Lara, who began boxing at the Kronk when he was 7.
"When I first came here, you had to be 8 years old to box. So I lied. I told them was 8 for two years. That's how much I wanted it. Without this place, I'm sure life would have been much, much different. Probably worse."
The same goes for so many others in the Kronk family, and not only because of boxing. While the agreement between the city and Steward has kept the boxing gym open temporarily, the rest of the full-scale rec center is closed. Steward has assigned Kronk's first-ever world champion, Hilmer Kenty, to head the Emanuel Steward Foundation, with a goal of raising enough money both to keep the boxing gym open and restore the center's other facilities.
Ross Dettman/for ESPN.com
For a $35 yearly fee, the gym is open to anyone 8 years or older.
"This building has given so much to the sport of boxing over the years," Kenty said. "Maybe it's time that boxing gave something back to the building."
But the structure might be beyond repair. Kronk, named after longtime Detroit city councilman John Kronk, is the oldest of the city's 29 recreation centers; and, according to Beckham, it's in the worst shape. The boiler is breaking down, the pool has problems, the roof leaks, there are security issues .? the list goes on and on.
"It's simply inefficient," Beckham said. "And in a city with less and less resources, in a department where I have to lay off over 100 people, you have to ask: Do we keep putting money in a place like that? Everybody has had to reevaluate the way they do business. And the city is no different."
That's why Beckham, Steward, Kenty and others are conducting a feasibility study to determine what makes more sense: Refurbishing the 85-year-old structure or building a new one.
"A smart investor probably says, 'Listen, let's go down the street, tear the building down and build something different for less money,'" Beckham said. "That's probably what's going to happen."
Such a move would allow Steward to upgrade the boxing facilities, adding much-needed speed bags, heavy bags and additional rings. It would create more room -- and more opportunities. But there are those who say none of that matters, that the only true Kronk is the original Kronk, flaws and all.
"You've got two broken-down bikes, there's no floor space, there's barely enough room to move," Lee said. "But look at those walls. That's all you need to see.
"You make it in this room, you're halfway to becoming the next champion."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Learn more about the Kronk at www.kronkgym.com