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Up off the Canvas
L. JON WERTHEIM
December 07, 2009
A classic Detroit gym could be a model of reinvention for the city
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December 07, 2009

Up Off The Canvas

A classic Detroit gym could be a model of reinvention for the city

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We often hear of the "throwback boxing gym," but really, is there another kind? If you're learning to fight at a gym that offers smoothies or wireless access or iPod jacks on the elliptical machines, odds are good you'll be getting your ass kicked in the ring. By definition boxing gyms should be dingy sweatboxes with an atmosphere thickened by leather, liniment, body odor and time. The sound track should consist of thwacks, grunts and the whistle of jump ropes slicing up air molecules.

This spartan chic was typified by the Kronk Gym in Detroit. Tucked into the basement of a rec center in a sketchy neighborhood, Kronk took minimalism to a new extreme. "Go down them steps," says Thomas Hearns, the most accomplished Kronk fighter, "and it was like you were entering a whole nother world." The cracks in the ceiling were rivaled by the cracks in the walls. An "amenity" meant the toilet was working. Emanuel Steward, the gym's steward since 1971, believed that turning the heat to full blast would improve fighters' stamina. In that hot basement Kronk incubated a string of champions—Milton McCrory, James Toney and Michael Moorer—who followed Hearns.

Until, suddenly, it didn't. Three years ago, with membership in decline, Kronk fell into a state of even further disrepair. Kronk closed in 2006, and the odds of restoration dropped every time thieves stole copper pipes or heating fixtures. The building remained standing for one simple reason: The city, chronically strapped for cash, couldn't find the funds for the demolition job.

The metaphors come easy. With its boarded windows and padlocked doors Kronk was a distressed gym for a distressed sport in a distressed city. Just as the cars stopped rolling out of the nearby auto plants, Kronk stopped manufacturing fighters. Just as globalization has rocked Detroit, Steward, when not commentating for HBO, works the corner of Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukranian heavyweight champ.

But here's where the story bobs and weaves and unexpectedly survives the round. Unable to abide the death of his gym, Steward opened a new Kronk in a storefront space he rents on Warren Avenue, a few miles from the old joint. Kronk 2.0 makes the original look like the Palace of Versailles. It is hemmed in by a barber shop and a convenience store. A handwritten sign outside makes a modest request: PLEASE DO NOT PISS IN FRONT OF THIS DOOR. Fighters bring their own bottled drinks because there's no water fountain.

Yet the place functions. The fighters have come, more than 100 in all. And if this gym lacks the history of its predecessor, it has re-created the vibe. A half-dozen former Kronk fighters volunteer as trainers and mentors, such as William (Caveman) Lee, a middleweight from the '80s who was recently released from a prison sentence for armed robbery. A raft of promising fighters has emerged, including 21-year-old J'Leon Love, a strapping middleweight, and Erick DeLeon, a blindingly quick 17-year-old national champion featherweight. Born in Mexico before moving to Detroit in the late '90s, DeLeon is hyped, predictably, as "the next Oscar De La Hoya."

That's another difference. The old Kronk fighters were almost exclusively African-American. Mirroring Detroit's changing demographics, the fighters in Steward's current stable represent a stew of cultures. In October, Kronk sent six amateurs to compete against the Puerto Rican national team. The delegation included DeLeon, a pair of Romanian twins and a Dominican. Kronk won the trophy. "It's like the old times, when this one gym could beat entire nations," says Steward. "But it's also new times." Maybe here's your urban metaphor: You either quit and rue what once was or you adjust and innovate.

Steward projects less exuberance when he discusses financing. Unwilling to charge dead-broke fighters membership dues, Steward claims that he's personally spending as much as $6,000 each month to operate the gym. A Kronk Gym Foundation was established to raise funds, but—invoking a word that gets kicked around plenty in Detroit—the current situation is unsustainable. Something has to give.

In October city officials discussed an ambitious project to transform the old Kronk into a "Kronk Village," a complex that would include a rec center and housing for former fighters. One proposal calls for the city to turn the Kronk basement into a historic site and create a new gym on the ground floor that the city would lease to Steward for $1. The price tag for the undertaking: $50 million. Burned by decades of political pandering, Steward and his minions are understandably guarded. "Fifty million in stimulus money? For Kronk? When the schools are falling apart?" whistles one trainer. "Be nice, but I'll believe it when I see it."

Still, the proposed plan held enough intrigue that a delegation from the gym recently visited the old Kronk. After city officials pried open the lock, they descended the famous staircase and were surprised to find that the conditions weren't all that bad. The ground was dry, a legacy perhaps of Steward's preference for jacking up the heat. The ring was still intact. And a pair of fully laced white boxing gloves lay in the middle. "It was a symbol," says Lee. "But did it mean there's hope? Or did it mean the old Kronk Gym should rest in peace and now it's time to move on?"

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