August 20, 2012 at 1:00 am

Detroit's Kronk boxing gym eyes move to suburbs

Detroit — In boxing circles around the world, the legendary Kronk Gym — producer of more than 30 world champions — is synonymous with Detroit.

But after more than 90 years, the gym could be moving outside the city limits.

Hall of Fame boxing trainer Emanuel Steward, owner of the current gym at 19239 W. Warren Ave., said he wants to move to Southfield, where he will have a bigger space that's more accessible to an increasing number of suburban youth fighters.

The city closed the original Kronk Recreation Center — a hot, sweaty basement gym — on the west side after vandals stole its copper piping in 2006. Although Kronk has been a haven for Detroit's youths for decades, Steward said it's time to move.

"If we get that, we'll be able to get out of here because it's more conducive to the people that are into boxing now," Steward said, naming Dearborn and Sterling Heights as common homes of fighters. "It's not an inner-city crowd anymore. It's a lot of suburban kids."

Steward, 68, said a lot of black youths in Detroit have become more interested in basketball and football because of the prominence of those sports.

His desired new location is an abandoned business on Telegraph just north of Nine Mile, and the Kronk Gym Foundation is raising funds to buy and renovate it. Steward said he's working with Huntington Bank to possibly finance the move, estimating the 9,000-square-foot building will cost about $500,000.

The new facility could hold 400 people for amateur nights, said Steward, who also wants to add three rings, new exercise equipment and banners outside the building displaying past Kronk champions, including Hilmer Kenty, Lennox Lewis and Tommy "Hitman" Hearns.

The current gym in a west side storefront has only one ring held together with duct tape, three heavy bags and one speed bag.

There are no showers or locker rooms, and the exercise equipment — free weights, a treadmill and two stationary bicycles — is all old.

"This gym is plain, stinky, funky; it's old school as we call it," Steward said.

And the surrounding area is just as rundown as the gym — its latest home after a temporary stay in a former Gold's Gym recreational center in Dearborn. The original Kronk basement kept temperatures high and was known as the "House of Pain."

"There's still love here," said Kronk trainer Ali Haakim, adding the vibe at the current gym is just different. "In the old gym, you walked through the doors and it was the 'House of Pain.' Here …you've got a whole new different generation."

Diversity in the ring

Only about 30 percent of the current amateurs are black, as the gym welcomes more non-black fighters with Eastern European, Mexican and Middle Eastern origins, some of whom Steward said come from wealthy families who relate to current professional fighters. Many of the Detroit youths come to the gym to use it as a recreation center because the city has closed several in recent years, Steward said.

Shortly after the original gym closed, Steward pitched a $50 million Kronk Village plan to Detroit, under then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, that would renovate the building and add residential facilities to the surrounding abandoned blocks.

City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta supported the plan, but said he knew the initial lease proposals from the city were too big of a financial burden for Kronk. Kenyatta tried to rekindle the idea in the spring, but Mayor Dave Bing's office never embraced it. Bing's office declined comment.

"I think it would be unfortunate. … It's a loss that did not have to happen," Kenyatta said of the gym's move.

TV boxing commentator Jim Lampley said the move marks a sad loss for Detroit because the gym represented the blue-collar backbone of the city.

"To have that kind of place from a city like yours leave is unfortunately another dramatic loss for Detroit," Lampley said.

Southfield ready, waiting

Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence said she can't wait for the new Kronk to open.

"We just need places for young people to go and engage in a sport and have that guidance in a safe environment," Lawrence said.

The Kronk foundation is hosting at least two more fundraisers this year — a softball tournament in September and a dinner in November. Steward also wants to begin holding amateur fight nights at Metro Detroit convention centers that he thinks could raise funds and awareness for the gym.

Last month, the Vladimir Banquet Hall and Catering Facility in Farmington Hills hosted a 12-fight tournament pitting Kronk fighters against opponents from Toronto, Toledo and gyms in Michigan.

Welterweight Ronnie Maurel Austion, 18, of Brownstown Township, said he owes a lot to Kronk.

"Every day it's boxing. Every day it's bloodshed," said Austion, who plans to go to Eastern Michigan University in the fall. "Every day, it's like war."

And that war has helped his son, said Ronnie Austion. "In boxing, he found his identity, so to speak."

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Kronk Gym owner Emanuel Steward wants to move his famous training center to a site in Southfield that will be bigger and more accessible for a new generation of boxing youths in the suburbs, where interest in boxing runs high. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
The original Kronk Recreation Center in Detroit. (David Coates / The Detroit News)