Emanuel Steward: “We're just going day by day”
Interview by Gabriel Montoya (Oct 3, 2006)
If you visit the Official Website of the City of Detroit, you'll probably find links to many historical and entertaining areas of the city. You might see a brief history of Motown Records; a tour of various arenas with background information on the Red Wings, Pistons, Tigers and Lions; and words of economic encouragement and hope for a better tomorrow from the mayor. But what you won't see is one word about one of the city's greatest and most storied treasures. To any boxing fan, it is a word virtually synonymous with Detroit; it is a word that conjures up any number of triumphant or tragic moments in sweet science history, from Hagler/Hearns to the reign of our last great heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis. Kronk the little boxing gym with a world-renowned reputation located in the basement of The Kronk Recreational Center on Detroit's southwest side.
What was once the social center of a poor but strong community now stands alone. The recreation center that houses the boxing gym has been closed by the city's lack of funding. And most of the residents of the once heavily-populated neighborhood have long since gone. "The community is almost an abandoned field," Emanuel Steward says from his home in Detroit. “Everything surrounding has been sold or whatever. Torn down. It's not a ghetto; it's just an abandoned neighborhood. You got a block [until you get] to the Thyssen Steel Factory. So it's not in the middle of a community with people running in and out and kids are playing.“
Emanuel Steward's career as a trainer began in 1969 when his brother James asked him to show him a few moves. They headed down to the nearby Kronk Recreational Center, and the rest is history. James would go on to win the 1970 Golden Gloves Championship, and Emanuel would find himself a part time job as head coach of the Kronk's boxing team. He has been grooming champions through the amateur ranks all the way to the upper echelons of the pro ranks ever since.
In many ways, Steward is a father figure as well as a teacher to his charges. They not only learn the sweet science in the ring from him, but also the ins and outs of life on the road, how to conduct themselves under the bright lights of fame, and what pitfalls to avoid in the dangerous world of professional boxing.
“Most of the amateur kids I take with me," Steward says. "When [middleweight prospect] Andy Lee or [cruiserweight contender] Jonathon Banks is fighting, eight or nine of them amateur kids will be with us. They're being groomed. They watch how we do TV interviews and all of that. It cost a lot of money. Cost a lot of money. But you know, I don't waste [money in Vegas] gambling. I don't have boats or a bunch of hobbies. I put my money back into my kids. [After an HBO broadcast], I am usually heading back for Sunday. A lot of times they're fighting on Sunday at state tournaments. I get back so I can see the fights and work the corners.”
It is an education you cannot buy, but one that costs Steward nearly all of his salaries from his training assignments and job as an HBO commentator. In addition to running the amateur program, Steward funds it out of his own pocket.
“I go back [after a big fight or an HBO gig] and I take [my salary] back down there and buy them new shoes, everybody new gloves. Mouthpieces. Support the tournaments and whatever fees that go with it. The hotels, the travels, different outfits and whatever. We don't have any sponsor. You don't see us wearing nothing on our shoulders.” He continues, “We just came back from the Blue and Gold tournament, which [cost] over $13,000 for that trip alone. All the money I make goes to my amateur program.“
With a staff of roughly eight salaried employees, an amateur team that consists of “twenty-two top notch fighters”, equipment costs, tournament fees, housing and travel, not to mention the roughly 50-60 fighters going through the Kronk in a month, the cost of the enterprise falls heavily on Steward.
“I don't have millions of dollars. I'm footing the bill a lot. The gym has been in dire straits. Who do think has been keeping the place up? Supporting the place every month? Paying the staff, the people, everything every month? I've been doing that. I have a big amateur team I have to support and take care of. All the kids that come over here [cost thousands to support]; I don't have the money.”
The dire straits Steward speaks of consist of the fact that in January of this year, the city of Detroit cut the funding to the Kronk Recreational Center; effectively shutting it's doors. All that is left now is the gym. Last week, thieves broke in and stole the copper piping in the gym, shutting off the water and heat. The next day, they broke in again, this time robbing the soda vending machines. These are blows that may signal the end of the Kronk as we know it. With the team now training at a Dearborn gym, the future of this historical site is in jeopardy. The cost to replace the stolen plumbing as well as add a new security system alone could be upwards $50,000. With Steward's budget already going to the boxing program itself, the financial burden is now proving to be too much to handle. In addition, a fundraiser last year during Super Bowl week was a financial disaster. When word leaked that a sponsor would be donating $1 million to the gym, many other potential sponsors fell out. As it turned out, the money from the rumored sponsor was not there, and the failed fundraiser left the
gym even deeper in debt. The possibility of securing corporate sponsorship as an historical landmark is being explored, but for now the focus is on getting the team and the gym financially stable.
“[Another] fundraiser will [happen] sometime next year. I'm just trying to get somebody out here that will [help share the burden financially] with me for the next month or so. [Then] we can get stabilized and [figure out] whether to go back there to train. We keep hoping to, but if not we'll build a closer [facility].”
But can a new Kronk be as effective and environment for training fighters? Will a change to a new location dilute the aura of the gym and it's traditions? “It will be more effective,“ Steward insists. ”It's like anything else in life. With time, there's changes. We just may have to relocate, you know? Madison Square Garden isn't the same Madison Square Garden that it was back when Joe Louis was fighting. They made some changes, and had to move a few blocks. It's still Madison Square Garden.”
For now, the gym remains in limbo, its windows boarded up to prevent further robberies. The tiny overheated basement room once filled with the rat-a-tat-tat of speed bags and stocked wall-to-wall with fighters of every level is now empty. When and if its doors will open again remains uncertain. Steward says with a bit of sadness in his voice: “We're just going day by day.”
If you would like to make a donation, visit www.Kronkgym.com or send checks and money orders to 19244 Bretton Drive, Detroit, MI 48223. C/O Emanuel Steward. Donations of any amount are appreciated.