December 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm

John Niyo

Boxer Johnathon Banks vows to carry on Kronk torch

Detroit’s Johnathon Banks is third in line for a shot at the heavyweight title, but he has bigger dreams. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

Detroit -- They talked and talked, for hours on end.

Manny would talk, and JB would listen. Then JB would talk, and Manny would listen. But here's the crazy thing about life after death: Now when Johnathon Banks talks, he hears Emanuel Steward in his own voice. And he knows somewhere, the old man is listening — and smiling.

"Oh, definitely," laughs Banks, the 30-year-old Detroit native who is both a top contender in boxing's heavyweight division and Steward's successor — in an odd twist — as the trainer for world heavyweight champ Vladimir Klitschko.

"And when I hear it, when I stop and think about, I'll just be like, ' Thanks, Emanuel,'" Banks said. "Because I'm happy I listened to him all that time, man. … There are a lot of people that were around him longer than I was. And you can't tell. You can't tell that they learned from Emanuel."

But with Banks, well, there are times you can't tell he's really gone. Especially now, as he and his trainer, Steward's nephew, Javan "Sugar" Hill, try to carry on the Kronk Gym icon's legacy, a few months after Steward's death at the age of 68 following a battle with cancer.

Hill, a former Detroit police officer who helped revive Kronk's amateur program nearly 15 years ago, knew as well as anyone — "He was my uncle, but he was like my father," the 41-year-old explained — just how serious a fight Steward faced when he fell ill.

Yet few outside Steward's immediate family were affected by his passing in quite the same way as Banks, who first met the legendary trainer as a promising 15-year-old talent but over the last decade became more of a protégé than a prodigy.

And few, if any, fighters can say they've done what Banks did back in mid-November, working the corner for Klitschko's most recent title defense against Mariusz Wach in Hamburg, Germany, just seven days before winning his own heavyweight bout with a second-round knockout of another top prospect, Seth "Mayhem" Mitchell, in Atlantic City, N.J.

Sandwiched between those triumphs was a somber trip home to Detroit for Steward's funeral, completing a bizarre week that still makes Banks flinch, shaking his head, "Emotional roller-coaster, man, I'm telling you."

They'll both tell you that, as Hill admits now, "It was a lot more emotional for me than people will ever know or understand."

And with Steward fighting a losing battle in a Chicago hospital this past fall, his final words over the phone to his nephew still resonate: "Make sure everybody keeps winning."

For Banks and Hill, that meant keeping each other focused on the tasks at hand at Klitschko's training camp in Austria, including a few nights where Hill bunked in Banks' room rather than sitting alone with his thoughts in a rented apartment.

But for Banks, specifically, it also meant doubling his training workload, as Klitschko, 36, who boasts the fifth-longest reign as heavyweight champ in boxing history, chose him over more experienced corner men to replace Steward. He'd met Banks when he first started working with Steward in 2004, and Klitschko often refers to him as his "brother from another mother." (Ironically, Banks is third in line to fight Klitschko's actual brother, Vitali, the WBC heavyweight champ.)

"When Vladimir called me, he said, 'JB, I need you to be my coach,'" Banks said. "And he asked me, "Do you think you can do it?' But I told him it's not a matter of 'Do I think I can do it?' It's 'Do you believe I can do it? Because I know I can do it. … This is boxing. This is my life. This is what I do.'"

And left unsaid was what both men knew: This is what Steward taught him to do.

Introduction to Kronk

Raised in Detroit in a three-bedroom house with six sisters and three brothers — he laughs about "getting up at 5 a.m. just to stand in line for the bathroom" — Banks started boxing at 14 at the old Brewster Recreation Center, the same gym where Joe Louis used to work out and Steward used to train as a younger man between shifts on the assembly line.

Banks made his first trip to the Kronk Gym a year later and really never left until the doors finally closed in 2006, captivated by the spirit and the history and the energy of the place where Steward, the gym's owner, forged so many past boxing champs — names like Hilmer Kenty and Tommy Hearns and Milt McCrory.

"I walked in that first day and the heat just hits you like a punch," said Banks, who eventually turned pro in 2004 after missing out on a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. "But there was so much going on down there. It was like an amusement park. It was a new world."

It was Steward's world, he discovered, and Banks, a three-time national amateur champion, was soon swept up in it.

He remembers his first trip on Steward's private jet, sure. But even before that, he remembers a commercial flight to New Orleans "when it felt like a private jet, because Emanuel brought the whole team" — row after row of kids in their red-and-gold Kronk colors. He remembers the wide-eyed wonder of being a 16-year-old in Lennox Lewis' training camp and flying out to California with Steward to work with Oscar De La Hoya.

"Emanuel was the kind of guy," said Banks, "who always wanted his fighters with him."

And so they were. Banks is just one of many boxers who actually called Steward's two-story home in Rosedale Park his own for a time, moving in when he was 18 or 19 and staying until he was ready for a place of his own.

And it was during that time that Banks began to view Steward as the kind of father figure Hill knew.

"I learned so much from that man," Banks said. "Me and Emanuel always had long conversations. He'd come knock on my room door and he'd come in and we'd talk for hours."

They'd talk about boxing and about business. They'd talk about family and Steward's undying faith in the human spirit. ("He always tried to see himself in other people," Banks said. "Even if it wasn't there, he'd see it.")

And, in the end, they talked about his fate, too, with Steward confiding in Banks about his hopes and fears as if he truly was his son.

"Everybody always sees the strong lion, but nobody bothers to ask the lion, 'Hey, how are you feeling?'" Banks said. "Because he seems so strong and popular, nobody thinks to ask, nobody worries about him. It's not that they don't care; they just don't think to ask."

Moving forward

Everybody's asking what's next now, as you can imagine. Steward's death left an enormous void.

For Hill, the fight to save the Kronk continues as he searches for a new home for the gym — and for the funding to buy it — even as he trains Banks and some of his other boxers, including IBF champs Adonis Stevenson and Cornelius "K9" Bundrage.

For Banks (29-1-1, 19 KOs), there's a rematch with Mitchell (25-1-1, 19 KOs), the former Michigan State football player, tentatively scheduled for HBO on Feb. 16.

After that, he's eyeing a title fight of his own in 2013.

He currently ranks as the No. 3 contender for the WBC heavyweight title, a belt owned by Vitali Klitschko, who at 41 — and recently elected to the Ukranian parliament — is expected to retire soon. That leaves Banks sitting behind the top two contenders, Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne, who have an "eliminator" bout scheduled in late February or early March. Meantime, Banks will continue to train Vladimir Klitschko, whose next title defense could come this spring against Alexander Povetkin, the Russian heavyweight who has ducked him for years.

Beyond those more immediate plans, though, there are bigger dreams. Reviving the Kronk and putting Detroit back on the map as a boxing hotbed. Banks even talks about someday presenting a World Cup-style boxing tournament that would honor Steward's legacy as an ambassador for the sport.

"That's the one thing that might cut my boxing career short," said Banks, "is the stuff that I want to do in Emanuel's name. …

"Listen, if I broke my phone, I'd have to go get a replacement. If I crashed my car, I'd have to go get a replacement. There's certain things you can replace, and certain things you can't. Emanuel can't be replaced."

Maybe not, but he can be remembered.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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After the passing of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, world heavyweight ... (Gero Breloer/Associated Press)
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