Theft of copper water pipes latest setback for Kronk

9/22/2006 - Boxing

DETROIT -- Emanuel Steward sat down on the couch, hunched over and covered his face with his hands -- the same hands that made him an amateur champion as a young man and later helped him tutor some of the greatest fighters who ever stepped in the ring.

"I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet," he said softly. "I don't know."

The Kronk -- the dingy, overheated basement gym that has produced world champions including Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis -- is nearly down for the count, and Steward isn't sure whether he should throw in the towel.

The 62-year-old Hall of Fame trainer has been reaching into his own pocket to keep the Kronk running in the eight months since Detroit shut down the recreation center that houses it because of a major budget shortfall. The city is permitting the gym to stay open, provided Steward continues to run it and submits a monthly fee to cover utilities.

But the potential knockout blow came last weekend, when police say thieves entered the building through a window and made off with copper pipes from the basement boiler room, cutting off the gym's water supply. Copper, which has skyrocketed in value on the New York Mercantile Exchange, is a popular target for criminals across the country.

Steward has been told that it will cost anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000 to fix the damage to the gym he has led for more than three decades.

"I don't have that kind of money," he said.

So, he's down to two options: Figure out a way to get the money to keep the gym up and running again or open a new Kronk elsewhere.

Ideally, Steward would like to repair the damage at the Kronk, but he worries about not only the cost, but also the likelihood of another robbery.

"What's going to stop them from breaking in again? That's my biggest concern," he said.

So, Steward is considering moving the Kronk to another location in Detroit, possibly to the site of a former Fitness USA location that closed five or six years ago. He has approached the building's owner about a possible deal.

In the meantime, Steward is renting space at a gym in suburban Dearborn so his young fighters -- many of whom he says are confused about the Kronk's predicament -- can train for upcoming matches.

The best of the Kronk's amateurs are scheduled to compete in two weeks in the National PAL Championships in Oxnard, Calif., and in October, several Kronk professionals are to appear on a card at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

But the uncertainty about the Kronk's future and the prospect of scraping together enough money to send his young fighters across the country is wearing on Steward.

"This man is a legend. He doesn't deserve to have all this going down," said Bobby Bostick, a Florida fight promoter who is helping to put on the Joe Louis event.

Bostick also is trying to line up corporate sponsorship for the Kronk to help ease the financial burden on Steward, who says it costs him about $2,000 a week to run the gym.

In addition to his mounting expenses, Steward is dealing with the fallout from a botched fundraiser held in the days before Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in early February.

Word spread at the event about a $1 million-plus donation from an Internet businessman. Believing Kronk had all the money necessary to operate in the short term based on the new infusion of cash, many potential donors backed off.

But the Internet businessman's money never materialized, nor did much from anybody else, and to this day Steward said he still is trying to pay off all the expenses from the fundraiser.

"That's the worst thing that could have ever, ever happened," said Steward, who wants to put together another fundraiser but hasn't had the time to organize it.

For the time being, though, Steward is doing his best to concentrate on the sport he loves.

During a gathering at his home in Detroit this week, Steward and some friends watched a DVD of a recent fight featuring up-and-coming Irish middleweight Andy Lee.

"He got two punches in before the other guy even tried one," Steward said excitedly after Lee's second blow connected squarely with the face of his opponent, who went sprawling to the canvas.

If Lee someday wins a championship belt as Steward predicts, he will be just the latest in a long line of Kronk fighters to win a professional title.

The Kronk's first professional champion was Hilmer Kenty, a lightweight from Columbus, Ohio, who started training there in 1978 and won the WBA title two years later.

Kenty, now a local businessman, is doing what he can to help his former trainer save the gym that launched his career more than a quarter-century ago.

"I want to do everything possible to not only keep the boxing gym open, but also keep the recreation center open," he said. "I just think it's a shame to see it have to close down."

Kenty and Steward both say the gym and the rec center are a benefit to the depressed southwestern Detroit neighborhood as well as the city.

For one, it keeps at-risk kids out of trouble, Steward says, citing a recent attempted car theft in front of the building that was thwarted by Kronk fighter Johnathon Banks.

"A lot of these kids would be in the streets" were it not for the Kronk, Steward said. "They live for this."

These days, visitors to the Kronk are met by a paper sign taped to the front door that reads, "BUILDING CLOSED." The parking lot is strewn with broken glass and overgrown grass, and weeds cover sidewalks and an adjacent basketball court.

Just beyond the locked front door, a telephone could be heard ringing one afternoon this week, but nobody was around to answer it.