THE KRONK GYM : Even Tougher on the Inside Than Outside

Times Staff Writer

You don't expect to find fight gyms on the boutique boulevards, boxing being as blue-collar a sport as was ever devised. All the same, you don't expect to find the Kronk Gym in quite so hopeless a neighborhood as this.

Coming upon the recreation center, which squats alone amid some first-class urban blight, you are very quickly reminded of scenes from "Fort Apache, The Bronx." Some men will be by to put boards on the windows tomorrow.

This, in fact, looks to be dangerous country, a country under siege. A walk up the steps could be risky, no? The fields nearby are littered with broken bottles. The streets have an impoverished dinginess to them. The scene is overwhelmingly of neglect, to lives and property, and the resulting desperation crowds right up to the sidewalk.

As substantial a building as the Kronk Recreation Center appears to be, is it really an insurmountable fortress? Is it safe even inside?

Inside, in a refuge of suffocating warmth, amid a baffling range of activity, it seems safe. Old men and women play cards in one room. Men play basketball in a stuffy gym. There is purposeful play here, a comforting pandemonium of activity. Here, away from the mean streets, apparently and at last is sanctuary.

But wait. A man comes out of the gymnasium and says to one of the aged caretakers guarding the door: "Kid says he's got a gun." He shrugs.

The caretaker takes a peek inside gym, sees no actual gunplay and, satisfied, comes back out. He shrugs, too. Sometimes the desperation makes it past the sidewalks, and no building is made for this.

It's a tough neighborhood, all right, inside as well as out. Perhaps, in fact, there is no tougher place in the world than the sweltering inferno downstairs, where the millionaires box, incited to a necessary fury by poor kids on the make, kids just like they were, once.

But theirs is productive toughness, for this is perhaps the most famous and successful gym in all of boxing. There is a toughness nurtured here that makes it possible to survive the streets, to achieve unimagined greatness.

There is Tommy Hearns, sparring. He'll make as much as $10 million in April. There are the McCrory brothers, Milton, the welterweight champion, and Steve, the Olympic gold medalist. Hilmer Kenty once boxed here. This is where real toughness is, where men can go and train to beat the odds, to make anything possible.

Perhaps it is the incredible heat of the gym--it is kept in the 90s, making even the doorknob hot to the touch--that makes this such a hothouse of hope. There is fevered ambition in this gym, home to several boxing champions and many more contenders. And lots more dreamers.

The youngsters watch on saucer-eyed, their big pillowed fists hanging at their sides. This, they say, is where Tommy started, and they hit the bag as hard as they can.

Hearns, who will be fighting Marvelous Marvin Hagler for as much as $10 million on April 15, did indeed start here. He came into this gym to learn boxing from Emanuel Steward. He was so skinny his trunks had nothing to hang on. He was once saucer-eyed, too, a dreamer. But like the other fighters, he was made to work, to make his dreams real.

Although fame is always at hand in this gym, it is Steward who really is at the center of this gym. A former electrician at Detroit Edison, Steward began some part-time coaching here in the '70s.

For his $30 a week, he began turning out highly disciplined and uniformly skinny boxers. The Kronk Gym amateurs began winning all these Golden Gloves tournaments. As a team, they won the Detroit tournament seven years running.

Eventually these amateurs, such as Hearns, graduated to the pros. Steward and the gym were there for that, too. Steward became not just coach but inspiration for all of this. He'd suggest to a fighter between rounds that maybe he didn't really want that car after all. Another time he told his fighter between rounds that he was losing his lease on his apartment. Of course this was when his fighters were entering the market to buy cars and rent apartments, a long time after Steward had had to split an Egg McMuffin seven ways to feed his team on the road.

Steward, and some of his fighters are millionaires now. Yet, he still trains his pros here, although they could certainly afford to move uptown. "Tommy won't train any place but here," said one of the five amateur trainers. "He likes it here."

It is difficult to say whether it is the presence of fighters such as Hearns who keep the gym fired up, or whether it is the presence of these hungry fighters who keep Hearns in a constant state of drive. It is, in any event, difficult to lose ambition in this gym, where rivalries are heated to temperatures beyond what the lack of ventilation can account for.

When fighters spar here, usually with someone of a different weight, the other members stop and hang on the ropes, shouting instructions and encouragement. Nobody gets off easy here. Leon Spinks, the former heavyweight champion, recently began a comeback here and was treated by sparring partners with a violent lack of respect.

It is said that Kronk fighters are so good on fight night because they are exhilarated at being out of the gym. The fights are easy; it's the gym that's so tough.

Ricky Womack, a top amateur who is just starting his pro career, has been coming here eight years, since he was 13. "This is the best, toughest gym in the world," he said. But it is more than that to him. "This is like family. I grew up in this neighborhood, but I fell in love with this place."

It would seem a tough place to love, but then this is more than a building. To see these kids, these men, scurrying in and out, each proudly carrying that red-and-yellow Kronk bag and wearing that red-and-yellow Kronk jacket, is to see a pride that is not much apparent outside, where the economy of the real world is a grinding presence.

In the Kronk Gym, at least, you can fight back.

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