Kronk Khronicles - The men, the myths, the legends - looking back at 1984
By John Lepak
It was a time before smart phones, but in Detroit high rollers carried Motorola beepers and portable phones in shoulder bags. Long before Twitter could send a message viral in seconds, the word on the street in the D could arguably reach from the East Side to the West Side and north of 8 Mile just as fast.
It was a young Eddie Murphy who played the role of a street-smart detective named Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop that brought Detroit to the big screen. It was the nightly news that brought Detroit into the living rooms of mainstream America as Detroit finished a close second to Miami for the crown of Murder Capitol of the US, with 514 murders on record, averaging 47.1 for every 100,000 residents.
On October 13, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series defeating the San Diego Padres wrapping up the regular season with a record of 104-58. As "Senior Smoke" Aurellio Lopez and the rest of the Tigers celebrated their victory, the smell of a far more dangerous smoke hovered in the air for weeks after Halloween in Detroit resulting from over 800 fires that were reported in 72 hours. People from all over the United States tuned in to the nightly news and saw images of a city on fire all surrounding something that we knew as Devil's Night.
In November, Prince kicked off his Purple Rain tour with a seven-night stand at Joe Louis Arena, the same arena that saw Kronk crown its first World Champion Hilmer Kenty. And just two month prior to Prince launching the tour that propelled him to super stardom, Kenty wound down his career closing out 1984 hanging em' up for good on August 16th versus Dave Odem in what the late Sammy Poe told me was his all time favorite performance from Kenty because just how deep the former lightweight champion had to dig down in that reservoir of energy, will and determination, leaving it all in the ring that night to earn the final victory of his career.
As a result of the negative publicity Detroit was getting for its murder rate, Thomas Hearns was caught in the middle of a "makeover" of sorts as the Palm Beach Post reported. As the "Motor City Cobra" bought a new Rolls Royce Silver Shadow II, it was the Hit Man that won his second world title in the form of the WBC super welterweight crown. The Motor City Cobra put on what I feel was his most complete display of boxing ever winning a 12 round decision over Luigi Minchili, but it was the Hit Man who delivered arguably the most devastating knocking of his highlight reel career with a 2nd round KO over Roberto Duran (being the only man in over 100 fights to ever KO Duran!) as well as a 3rd win over Fred Hutchings. The Hit Man was back, and with the Hutching's victory, it set up his big showdown versus Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1985. Hearns came up short versus Hagler in 85', but Detroit finished #1 and earned the title for murder capital with 636 murders, nearly 2x that of Chicago.
Admittedly, Hearns loss to Sugar Ray Leonard years before still bothered the Kronk Goldfather Emanuel Steward, but Steward had discovered that success was the greatest form of revenge. No longer did the media want to turn every interview into a discussion about Hearns vs. Leonard I, because under the guidance of Steward, Prentiss Byrd, Walter Smith, Luther Burgess, Bill Miller, young promoter Bill Kozerksi, and the entire KRONK – powerhouse business team Steward had assembled; Detroit was producing more hot fighters than the once mighty assembly lines turned out quality American made automobiles. The pro stable, along with Hearns, consisted of; Detroit’s first born & raised hometown world champion, Milton McCrory who fought 3 times in 84', twice defending his WBC welterweight crown. McCrory's Marx Street neighbors Jimmy "Ring Master" Paul won the USBA lightweight title (and would go on to win the IBF world title in 1985) and Duane Thomas won the USBA super welterweight (eventually going on to win the WBC super welterweight title in a couple years time).
In a place just as hot as the Detroit auto plants, the basement inferno of the Kronk Gym kept on producing. Darnell Knox and Mickey Goodwin both captured the Michigan State Titles. With a series of quality wins and top notch sparring, Hurley Snead put himself in position to win the USBA title in January of 85. Kronk had two NABF champions as Jackie Beard had captured the featherweight title and David "Machine Gun" Braxton now held the super welterweight title. Heavyweight prospect Tony Tucker moved to 25-0 that year (eventually winning the IBF title and get a unification fight with Iron Mike Tyson). By the time that fight took place, Steward still held a piece of Tucker's contract despite him leaving Kronk. It was under the direction of Tony's father Bob who sold so many pieces of his contract, HBO actually dedicated an entire pre-fight segment to the Bernie Madoff-like investment plan!
Future IBF featherweight champion Jesse Benevidez was now 2-0 and Tyrone Trice, a then undefeated prospect - made it no secret he wanted to get some fights under his belt and follow Tucker's departure so he could get the one-on-one attention he felt he deserved.
Trice was not the only one feeling neglected. Mike "The Body snatcher" McCallum grew tired of waiting behind Hearns and after some very questionable happenings surrounding a proposed and promised fight versus Roberto Duran that fell through to see Hearns fight Duran, he jumped ship to sign with the rival team at Main Events under the charge of the Duva family. McCallum would go on to capture several world titles, including the WBA junior middleweight title Duran vacated to face Hearns soon thereafter and eventually go undefeated vs. Kronk fighters beating both David Braxton and Milton McCrory.
But if it was any consolation, as "The Body snatcher" flew the coop, "Neon Leon" Spinks was all too happy to find a place he could start over again, for what seemed like the 10th time in the last couple of years. A couple of close friends of Steward's and financial supporters signed Leon to a management contract and well, even though he got a couple wins on the Cobo Hall Kronk fight cards, let's just say that did not turn out too well for Leon in Detroit. (see ucnlive story on Neon Leon and Kronk).
Unlike the Tigers that had a set schedule and home venue owned by Mike Illitch, that helped provide the structure for them to reach the crown, no such thing existed for the Kronk team. In stepped a young Bill Kozerski who became the official promoter for the Kronk Team where he created the Little Caesars fights (an Illitch owned company) and shouldered all the financial risk building and developing the talent with the right matches being made by his long time matchmaker Tom Vacca. There were aprx. 5 cards in the Illitch owned Cobo Arena, 3 cards in the Cobo Hall, 1 card at the Joe Louis Arena and a few more scattered around other Michigan at non-Illitch owned venues like the Saginaw Civic Center.
Kronk fighters found themselves the hottest ticket in boxing fighting in destinations like; the south of France, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, New York, Arizona, Florida to name a few.
1984 was also the year of the 84' Olympic Games, and it was looking like it was going to be one of the best Olympic - amateur programs the United States had ever had. The Kronk Gym was being represented by the little brother of Milton McCrory, Stevie McCrory as well as light heavyweight Rickey Womack (who battled Evander Holyfield in some of the most legendary fights in amateur boxing history) and 156 pound Detroiter Frank Tate. Also another fighter that was going to make the Olympic Team was close enough to drive to Detroit and train at Kronk was Columbus Ohio's Jerry Page who was Hilmer Kenty's cousin.
In fact the sparring was so good at Kronk, that arguably the greatest amateur in the history of USA boxing, Mark Breland came to Detroit to train with Steward and his team and accompanying Mark were Pernell Whitaker and Tyrell Biggs. Of the bunch, Womack was the only one who did not make the Olympic team. Womack lost a somewhat controversial fight to Holyfield in the last day of the trials and it was getting harder than ever to see through the now murky waters surrounding the 84 Olympic Village as lucrative professional contracts and television deals were being discussed.
Emanuel once told me it was Olympic Coach Pat Nappi, (that in Breland's case refused to even shake Nappi's hand), who was secretly on the pay roll of the new power-player on the block, promoter Josephine Abercrombie. The daughter of an oily tycoon, Abercrombie had recently spent a couple million dollars on building a living quarters, a state of the art training facility and signing the fighters she wanted and clearly money was not going to be an issue.
If that was not enough to worry about, aslo coming up hard and heavy was the Duva ran; Main Events Monitor (later known as Main Events) group with former rock-and-roll business legend Shelly Finkel handling all the primary managing of the fighters. Finkel went on to sign Breland, Whitaker, Biggs, Holyfield and Taylor. It was my understanding that some were being offered $1million dollar annuity funds as signing bonuses back in 1984!
So while Kronk had a very successful year over all in the pro game, Steward and Byrd missed out on signing the best group of young men in USA Olympic History outside the class of 76. Perhaps most disappointing was a young man who grew up in the Kronk Gym in Frank Tate, who accepted an offer from Abercrombie and decided to relocate to Texas (where eventually his younger brother Thomas would join him and Tony Tucker!) The word was that while Steward and Byrd had offered him a $90,000 home and new Pontiac, they were titled in the name of Kronk, not true bonuses to Tate personally.
Despite losing Tate to Abercrombie, Steward did not come out of the 1984 Olympics empty handed. Upon returning to Detroit, he signed Womack who refused to even go to LA as an alternate and Stevie McCrory, with his gold medal still draped around his neck, both posed for a photo in the back of Steward's limo where they signed their professional contracts.
*It should be noted that years later both Holyfield and Breland reached out to Steward and returned to Kronk to have him train them for important reasons.
So many tales have come from the Kronk gym in the year of 1984, but one that remains clouded in controversy was what happened when a young Hector Macho Camacho was training in Detroit and cleaning out every gym he walked into. From what I was told by those who were there, a young Camacho handled every fighter Emanuel Steward put in front of him including guys like JL "Poison" Ivey and Joe Manley.
So one day the sparring moved from the basement of the Kronk Gym over to the private office/gym on McNichols where Camacho came to spar Pernell Whitaker. Only a small handful of people were on hand to witness the sparring including Steward, a couple of Whitaker's 84' Olympic teammates and Camacho's manager Billy Giles along with his trainer Pops and a very close and trusted friend of mine.
According to Steward in an Atlantic City Daily Press article published in 1990, it was Whitaker who beat Camacho so bad that Macho became frustrated and tried to hit Pernell after the third round was over. In the article, Steward also denied ever going to his office and getting a gun and it was Camacho and Giles who immediately left the gym that day.
According to my VERY trusted source (who understands certain repercussions come with telling non-truths) told me that it was Camacho in fact who was the one that beat Whitaker so bad, that he cracked Pernell's molar tooth! He told me that Macho was so sharp in sparring, that no one could handle him throughout Kronk (and this I have heard from multiple sources in Detroit over the years) and Steward became so frustrated after some verbal exchanges that he made like he was going to his office to retrieve a gun (this is where the rumor started about Emanuel actually pulling a gun) as the two New Yorkers (Giles and Camacho) made it clear they were taking no shit, as Giles told Steward that if he ever pulled his gun he better use it. Giles went on to say that if it was not for him helping Emanuel, Tommy would not have gotten to 20-0. While Emanuel went on to boxing stardom, Giles settled for far less on the scales of achievement in boxing being dismissed by Camacho not long after. As the story ends, as it was told to me by multiple parties who were there, Steward and Giles left the office/gym that day with no shots fired and eventually put the issue behind them.
1984, what a year it was!