Red and Gold: The Apprenticeship of John Lepak

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 17: A boy in the hallway of the basement of the Kronk boxing gym inside the recreation center building on January 17, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

“THIS DOOR HAS LED MANY TO PAIN AND FAME” stenciled in yellow and blue block letters on a red door. A greeting, a warning, a bit of promotion. If you wanted pain, wanted the fame it wrought, you opened the door. But were you welcome? The people inside would let you know.

***

John Lepak grew up “only a short bike ride” from the Junction-McGraw intersection where Detroit’s Kronk Recreation Center stood. A short bike ride. That’s how young Lepak was when his curiosity about what happened behind that red door was piqued. The Kronk was already an established gym in the early 1980s when Lepak frequented the rec center, but for years he “never did any boxing, never ventured inside.”

That changed in 1987, as Lepak was entering high school. Was it pain and fame Lepak wanted? Perhaps. What kid walks into a boxing gym without some curiosity about how he takes a punch? Without imagining whether he has what it takes to be a champion? But Lepak had other goals in mind.

“When I was a freshman in high school the ‘Fight Night at the Palace’ program was just taking off. Bill Kozerski was the promoter.” Kozerski had worked as a voluntary photographer for the Kronk team. And, despite graduating from the University of Michigan’s Dental Program, wanted to become a promoter. The Kronk patriarch, Emanuel Steward, “gave Kozerski the opportunity very early on to be the house promoter” and Kozerski opened the Palace of Auburn Hills on September 10, 1988, with a card headlined by George Foreman’s TKO of Bobby Hitz.

Enamored with the 1998 Kronk Team (which was in the midst of “the last big run they had”), Lepak reached out to George Puscas, a sportswriter at the Detroit Free Press. “I wanna get into the boxing business,” Lepak told him. In a move that seems impossible even in the age of social media and unlimited access, Puscas gave Lepak three numbers: Emmanuel Steward’s, Don King’s, and Bill Kozerski’s. “Of course, I call Don King,” chuckles Lepak, “I mean, why not? And of course, I never hear back from Don … Getting through to Emanuel is next to impossible, so I call Kozerski” who invited Lepak to a weigh-in to meet him and his matchmaker, Tom Vacca.

There are no barriers to entry in boxing—a volunteer photographer studying to become a dentist can end up a promoter. Perhaps that unorthodox journey left Kozerski receptive to Lepak. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the kid who tracked him down for the chance—any chance—to be involved. “Okay, kid, you wanna learn the game?” Kozerski asked Lepak, “C’mon in, start walking the B-side fighters to the ring.”

On February 22, 1989, at the Palace at Auburn Hills, WBO light-heavyweight champion Michael Moorer knocked out Mike Sedillo in six rounds, a promising welterweight from Detroit named Oba Carr turned pro, and John Lepak started his life in boxing.

***

When he graduated high school, Lepak was “cool enough where Emanuel started to welcome me around more. I got close to him, became cool with the fighters because I started training at the gym full-time.” Lepak was also doing “grunt work” for Kozerski (who had bitterly split from Steward): organizing weigh-ins, organizing locker room set-up. Steward and Kozerski “couldn’t stand each other” and yet Lepak was able to manage his loyalties and preserve the trust of his mentors.

Emanuel Steward overseeing sparring in the Kronk Gym (Lepak waits his turn in the background).

But his beloved Kronk was crumbling. By the early ’90s, the team had disbanded: Kozerski was gone, so were publicist, Jackie Kallen, and trainer Bill Miller, who would soon strike gold with James Toney. Steward’s signature fighters had left as well, leaving the gym in a period of transition and financial peril. Lepak saw this as an opportunity to take on more responsibility. “The cool thing about this period is that there was no one around—there was no money! Now, I had my own money, had my own business, I was buying and selling cars and I was making decent money with Bill.” Lepak didn’t need boxing, at least not financially, and so he happily accepted more experiential compensation. “I could go on these trips with Emanuel and I was the only person there like nine out of ten times. So I got to spend all this intimate time with him.” Lepak was essentially Steward’s “right-hand man” at a time when he was still too young to run to the store and buy a six-pack when they would barbecue.

It would be a mistake, however, to suggest Lepak earned this opportunity because he worked for cheap. The precocious kid was perfectly suited to his role within the Kronk: he had a business education instilled by his father, he was familiar with the fighters from his time in the gym, and he earned Steward’s trust thereby. “You get a lot of shysters in the fight game, as I learned time and again. But I was young, lived by my word, I was honest, worked hard, and I wasn’t there looking for a handout or money or anything.” He wanted into boxing, wanted to learn the business, and maybe because that’s all he wanted he proved himself worthy of the education.

***

But why? Why embark on this apprenticeship at all? “I think initially,” says Lepak, “because I was a fan.” Lepak remembers the first time he ever went to a fight—not attended, went to. “I was a huge Mike [Tyson] fan. It was when Mike fought Tyrell Biggs. I told my mom I was staying with my dad, told my dad I was staying with my mom that weekend. I took a bus, got off at the Trop [the Tropicana Atlantic City], and stood out on the boardwalk. You know I couldn’t get a ticket or anything, but I got a poster that I might still have, found out who won [Tyson stopped Biggs in seven], jumped on a bus, made it back, and no one even knew I was gone.”

Lepak loved boxing and the Kronk in particular. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” he says fondly, proudly, “and I’ve never seen anything like it since.”

He speaks with reverence about the Kronk, knows how privileged he was to participate in its fabled history; knows too, that it was more than circumstance that allowed him to wear the red and gold. Boxing may not have had barriers to entry, but the Kronk did. Those iconic Kronk jackets? “You couldn’t just buy one of those. Emanuel gave a few out as gifts, but you weren’t going online and buying one—you had to earn that shit,” says Lepak. “You know, I guess I earned mine … I carved my niche out on the business side of things but I know what it’s like—I got in that ring, I sparred more than my share of rounds.”

“The first time I walked in the door—I’ll never forget it. Again, I’m an early teen, I’m just going in to join and I remember I walked in and for whatever reason, it was basically empty that day. There was one guy on the heavy bag that Mr. [Floyd] Logan was workin’ with, somebody was jumpin’ rope. Michael Moorer was hittin’ the speed bag, and it sounded like a .50-caliber machine gun, he’s just banging away. Well, the heat, the energy, the electricity, the intimidation, you know, you’re just overcome by all the fuckin’ emotion and feelings.” Lepak expects you to intuit the deeper meaning in his description. Most people wouldn’t. For many, walking into a boxing gym is a mostly olfactory experience made familiar by the activities and apparati from this or that boxing movie. But a gym is redolent of something greater, and, even if he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Lepak knew it.

Maybe what he felt was the culture, the transformative rituals, the pathos of distance separating the men who endured them from the world outside. Whatever it was, Lepak began to embody it, live it, protect it. “Years later, when I’d be in there training—now, I wasn’t anything compared to the guys I boxed with but I could hold my own against those guys—and that new face would come walking in, you know, now I was on the inside, I was gonna be the one to give that kinda look of intimidation or menace. You know. It was just part of the brotherhood to do that.” Understanding why this brotherhood was wary of outsiders requires some understanding of what set it apart.

***

What made the Kronk special wasn’t just the fighters but the trainers; the two created a “synergy in the gym that will never be duplicated.”

“Emanuel always had this amazing support system of senior trainers,” says Lepak. “If you see any Tommy Hearns fight, who was always there? Walter Smith. Who was there working with the heavyweights? Luther Burgess. Sammy Poe. It was Mr. Logan who ran the amateur program, Bill Miller . . .”

Is there nostalgia at work here? Possibly. But Lepak raises an interesting point: Steward’s training lineage went back to the black-and-white era. How many gyms can say that now? Miller fought in the 1940s and learned his craft from Whitey Bimstein, who trained Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, and myriad other champions. Luther Burgess was trained by Eddie Futch, who guided Don Jordan to the welterweight title in 1958, coached Joe Frazier to victory over Muhammed Ali in 1971, and was in Riddick Bowe’s corner in 1992 when he took Evander Holyfield’s titles. That’s decades of success. Sammy Poe was a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali. Speaking of Smith, Steward told Ron Borges “I got famous because of Walt’s dedication and focus,” and called the quiet trainer, a former stablemate of Joe Louis, the backbone of the Kronk. “These guys,” remembers Lepak, “served amazing apprenticeships, they were mentored—and they spent every fucking day down in that gym in the 100-degree heat.”

Lepak flanked by trainers Walter Smith (L) and Sammy Poe (R). Credit: John Lepak

The fighters were exceptional too, products of the urban decay that came to symbolize Detroit in the dying years of the automobile industry. Lepak remembers them as hypercompetitive, the kind of teammates who demanded the best of each other, who read dishonor in half-stepping in a blood sport. “Those rivalries in the gym, man, let me tell you something—them guys, they were trying to kill each other every day down there . . . there were sparring matches that were better than half the shit you’ll see on TV today. My god, I mean, imagine: at one time you had Tommy Hearns, Michael Moorer, Leeonzer Barber, Dennis Andries, Rick Jester, Gerald McClellan, Frankie Liles.”

Their support for each other was unwavering. However many pounds and pints they stripped and poured from each other in sparring, “when one went to fight the whole team was there to support him. “You know, you’d put on the jackets or the T-shirt—it was like a fucking gang.”

That gang’s leader was a former electrician for Detroit Edison, who in 1971 agreed to coach the Kronk Recreation Center’s boxing team for thirty-five dollars a week.

***

Lepak is a talker, as you’d imagine someone who made it in the boxing, automobile, and real estate businesses needs to be. His conversation style is all Detroit; tangential, anecdotal, Lepak weaves his stories, the needle of thought loops out, returns to the fabric, loops out again, returns to complete the pattern. This style is never more apparent than in his discussion of Emanuel Steward, the trainer with the Dickensian surname who masterminded the pain and fame promised by the Kronk door.

“The thing about Emanuel,” says Lepak, “he knew how to identify with each personality.” Evander Holyfield hated to run, for example, so Steward found ways to condition him that didn’t require running. “I believe Evander ran one time up to the rematch with Riddick Bowe,” where Holyfield reclaimed the heavyweight championship, “and that was because Emanuel ran with him.”

The tortured but talented Oliver McCall was another beneficiary of Steward’s shrewd psychology. “McCall, it was no secret, he loved the nightlife,” and Steward used this to their advantage as McCall prepared for Lennox Lewis. “Emanuel had his restaurant/nightclub at the time, and he’d get McCall in a tux every night, and they’d get in Emanuel’s Rolls, and go down to the restaurant, and he’d let Oliver sing, and hold court. And that scratched Olver’s itch, letting him be out in the nightlife. He didn’t drink, he quit doing drugs.” Steward knew how to take what would’ve been a problem for so many trainers and use it as a strength, the concessions he made (and controlled) kept McCall focused on the fight, had him invested fully in his training. The “Atomic Bull” went on to win the WBC heavyweight title, stopping the undefeated Lewis in the second round.

Steward once told Lepak, “Look, if eating a Big Mac makes you feel strong and healthy, then sometimes, you need that Big Mac.” He meant it, as evidenced by how Steward handled Graciano Rocchigiani. “I never saw a guy let a fighter drink beer every night in training camp. But Emanuel let Rocchigiani drink his warm beer like they do in Germany. He’d sit down and eat his bratwurst of whatever and Emanuel would say, ‘Hey, he’s never gonna adapt to American food. So long as he makes weight, I don’t give a shit.’”

Lepak describes Steward as a teacher in the ring more than a trainer. You can train a fighter to do anything: a thirty-punch combination for an Instagram video, a shoulder-roll he’ll never be able to employ in a fight, a style incongruent with his temperament, one he abandons when the violence reverts him to instinct. You can train bad habits, commit them to muscle memory by repetition. Steward was a teacher, he started, and in many cases returned to, the basics. “Now these guys today,” says Lepak, “I don’t know if they know what the fuck fundamentals are, but Emanuel, I don’t care if it was Lennox, [Jeff] Fenech, [Julio Cesar] Chavez, he worked with you on your balance, on your positioning, where you positioned your hands, how you threw and telegraphed a punch. He took them back to the basics. He didn’t jump on the mitts with them right away and do all that fancy pitty-pat bullshit. He put on the mitts and made you throw specific punches. Then he corrected you, corrected your form, your balance. And those are the things I saw him do over and over again with every fighter, from the beginner to the legendary world champions.”

Many of those champions came in the “hired gun” period of Steward’s career (after the Kronk had disbanded and he needed to make a living). However apposite, it’s a term Steward bristled at. Why? Steward told Dave Anderson for In the Corner, “For a fighter, putting his career back together is harder than dealing with his first career.” If it was a challenge Steward wanted, working with established fighters already set in their ways provided one. And Lepak said Steward was overjoyed by the success he had helping fighters like Holyfield recover from losses. “But where did he come after every one of those big victories?” Lepak asks. “He came back to that basement. That’s where he loved to be.” Steward loved building fighters from scratch, forging them in the heat of the Kronk, and sending them out to defend the glory of the red and gold.

Beyond the corner, Steward was no less unforgettable. Lepak remembers him as “an amazing person,” especially in the face of adversity. And not just after devastating losses, like when Hearns lost the first fight to Ray Leonard. “I’m talking about when the IRS was at the door and he had no money, trying to keep the lights on when there was a shut-off notice, when he didn’t have the money to go out and entertain and have his lobster and steak dinners.”

Steward sharing stories on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. (L-R) Antwon Leach, Danell Nicholson, and Frank Williams. Credit: John Lepak.

During the leaner days, the Kronk team stayed at the La Quinta Suites in Las Vegas for one of Fenech’s fights. “Every night—again, Emmanuel had no fuckin’ money—he would take a couple hundred dollars and go over to this casino.” It was a small, nondescript establishment, Steward recognized it as one of “the places you can win at.” And that’s what he did. Steward “would play a few rounds of Blackjack, double that money up, we’d go over to Ruth’s Chris, have a couple of drinks, Emanuel would hold court, people would be coming over, we’d have a nice steak dinner.” Steward was a survivor, and you can hear the veneration in Lepak’s voice when he recalls his mentor triumphing in those tough times.

***

Lepak’s Twitter bio reads: “I was honored to carry spit buckets & the weight of multimillion-dollar promotions on my shoulders alike,” and he means it. At one point while Steward worked with Chavez, one of Lepak’s jobs was to get the trainer his newspaper. “And I’m not ashamed to admit it,” he says. “I didn’t give a fuck—I’d do anything to be around Emanuel in a camp with one of my boxing idols.” Aficionados are better for his commitment. Now, with the old school trainers, and even Steward himself gone, with the fighters menaced by the dark skies forecasted by a life of head trauma, Lepak represents one of the rare links to a remarkable part of boxing history.

He cherishes those years with Steward: “It was pretty cool to learn about him as a person as opposed to what you saw on TV.” Pretty cool. Lepak called his time watching Steward train the great fighters of his hired gun period “neat.” The terms reflect the lexicon of the young man he was when he began his relationship with boxing, with the Kronk, with the man who taught him how to face adversity, how to box, even how to shave, the man he credits with teaching him how to be a better father. Pretty cool? Neat? Absolutely.

 

About Jimmy Tobin 62 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil?: The Mysterious Death of Arturo Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.