Remembering Emanuel Steward

By Steven Malik Shelton on November 30, 2014
Remembering Emanuel Steward
“I made the little room in the basement the most famous boxing gym in the world.” (AP)

“People come and visit Detroit from all over the world. And they almost always ask me about two places—Motown recording studio and Kronk Gym…”

Emanuel Steward’s name and legacy has become almost synonymous with Kronk Gym. It was Kronk where he made his debut as a boxing trainer in 1971. It was a job that put him on the road to a secure place in the annals of boxing immortality.

When people think of Kronk, it is natural to conjure images of blood, sweat, and championship glory. This is an immutable part of Kronk’s legacy.

“People come and visit Detroit from all over the world,” said Steward from his northwest Detroit home where I visited him several years ago. “And they almost always ask me about two places—Motown recording studio and Kronk Gym.”

In one way, Steward was a very easy man to talk to. He was friendly and engaging; ten minutes in his home and I felt like a member of his boxing family. Yet it was also difficult to maintain an uninterrupted conversation because he was constantly barraged with phone calls from lawyers, agents, businessmen, promoters and, of course, fighters.

The original Kronk Gym, located on Junction and McGraw in southwest Detroit, was a Mecca of boxing not only for champions and professionals but provided an oasis for thousands of Detroit youngsters searching for direction as well as recreation. Sadly with dwindling financial reserves and a fierce budget cut, the old building was closed in 2006 (it would have cost about a half-million dollars annually to operate). Yet Steward was on a mission to continue Kronk’s legacy of excellence and hosted several fundraisers to maintain the new Kronk Gym on Warren in Detroit and expand to a bigger, permanent edifice. 

“It was a big success,” Steward said at the time. “Not in terms of money. We only had it set up for 350 people, ex-fighters and so forth; and many of them were not in good shape so I just let them in free. It was not inexpensive to rent the place. It was $136 a head we had to pay. All the food and alcohol was free and we had about 280 people show up. So it was a great success in terms of getting us out there. But financially, we only broke even; but it got our name out there.”

Steward trained and molded dozens of world champion boxers, among them Thomas Hearns, Wilfredo Benitez, Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Michael Moorer, and James Toney. Yet his love of boxing goes deeper than the sport itself.

“Any sport is important” said Steward, “any activity that keeps kids off the street and keeps them preoccupied, particularly during the formative years which is those years from 12 to 20. And there are a lot of kids that fall into that class. Tommy Hearns was a kid that used to catch two or three busses to get to the gym, but he liked boxing. And Milton McCrory and Jimmy Paul and all these kids were good. Milton was a great baseball player as well. But the boxing was twelve months out of the year which was different from other sports. He got to go to Hawaii, Indonesia and all over the United States because of the chance to box. So the boxing appeals to some kids those other sports won’t appeal to. And as a result it keeps a lot of kids off the streets. I really think that if I was Mayor or President I would have recreation centers everywhere, and you would not have so many problems with the youth. I think sports are a great way of channeling the energy of young people.

“The new Kronk Gym is on Warren in a storefront we have rented,” Steward continued. “And it took about $35,000 for us to fix it up. And even if we move to another location, we plan to keep that gym because it’s more kids training there than was at the original Kronk. You walk in there and it’s just packed. And the reason for that is that there are far fewer recreation centers since the city closed them; and in some cases it looks like a nursery because you got all these four- or five-year-old kids all over the place. It just shows a big need for these recreation centers. And to see all these mega-millions the city has squandered in lawsuits and all kinds of other stuff. It makes me sick to see recreation centers closed down because of greed and mismanagement of funds.”

Steward was asked to pose for pictures. He demurred and asked me to wait while he went upstairs to dress up a bit. “I’m tired of taking pictures that make me look like I’m always in the gym,” he said. Moments later he appeared from his upstairs bedroom wearing a trademark Kronk sweatshirt. For Emanuel Steward, a man who can afford to wear anything he wants, there is still no more appropriate attire.

He gave no indication that he was retiring from boxing and spoke of his decades-long commitment to making a difference in the lives of Detroit youngsters as well as anyone that has the desire and the perseverance to succeed.

“Kronk Recreational Center was really a key spot for our community,” he said. “I made the little room in the basement the most famous boxing gym in the world, and I’m very happy that I was able to do that. And Kronk is still here. I have not packed up and gone off to L.A. or anywhere else.”

Steward hoped to acquire several buses to provide transportation for the gym kids that don’t have it. He also wanted to use buses to carry youngsters along with their parents to competitions held every other week in major cities. He wanted Kronk competitors to go as a team and not in separate cars. And he was as committed to continuing Kronk’s tradition of making positive difference in the lives of youngsters as ever. Of course, with the passing of Emanuel Steward, it will not be easy. But with the tradition of expertise, dedication and passion that he fused in the city and in the sport, there is an abundance of light to guide them.

Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and a student of boxing and the martial arts. He can be reached at: malikshelton19@aol.com

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  1. Tex Hassler 04:55am, 12/02/2014

    Emanuel Steward was one of boxing’s good men. Men like him are greatly needed in our sport. He knew boxing and was a gentleman also. I cannot think of Detroit without thinking about Emanuel and the Kronk Gym, plus the many boxers who trained there.

  2. Eric 07:54am, 12/01/2014

    Hilmer Kenty was Steward’s first world champ, won a title even before Hearns, but would be defeated by Bubblegum Sean O’Grady, after making a few successful title defenses. Don’t forget Duane Thomas either, Thomas didn’t hold the 154lb title long and won it on a controversial stoppage of John “The Beast” Mugabi, but nonetheless he captured a world title. Bittersweet night for Kronk Gym and Steward that night, seeing as Jimmy Paul would lose his title to a relatively unknown kid at the time, Greg Haugen. Still remember falling asleep during the Haugen-Paul fight, no biggie, it wasn’t PPV. I’ve heard that Detroit has some great architecture in that grand old city, and back in the day, I would have loved to visit Detroit Rock City for sure. But I hardly think it receives many visitors in 2014 other than people there on bidness. I can’t picture someone deciding to just simply visit Detroit for vacation or sight-seeing. Sorry, but midnight basketball, boxing gyms, or rec-centers aren’t going to solve problems with today’s “yufes.” The blame lays squarely on the shoulders of the “teens,” and not their parents or lack of boxing gyms.

  3. Joe Masterleo 06:58am, 12/01/2014

    Very informative piece, and timely for the season: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive a child, and they shall call his name Emanuel (which means, God with us).”  Anyone who has a heart for youngsters, and personally sacrifices for the advance of their cause, personifies the spirit of divinity.  To “sacrifice” means to ‘make sacred.’  Emanuel Steward as coach and person shall be sorely missed by many.  May we come to embody the best of what he was, and share it with others.

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