Superbad: The Lost King of The Kronk
'If I wasn't down here fighting, I'd probably be down in Juvenile somewhere. This place has changed my life around.'
- Bernard Mays, the 'toughest 15 year-old in town' 1976
The history of prize fighting is peppered with tragedy. Boxing is where unabated glory and calamitous downfall meet to dance up close.
The Atkinson Community House, a stout courthouse-style building, stood at 5555 McGraw Avenue, on Detroit's South West Side. It opened in May 1922 to serve the recreational needs of the predominantly Polish community. The centre housed a swimming pool, an auditorium with a stage, a gymnasium and adjoining fields for athletics. 'This building, the first of its kind, should do much for the benefit of the growing generation,' said Mayor John C Lodge at the opening ceremony. Four years later it was renamed The Kronk Community Building after the man who raised the money for its construction, Councillor John F Kronk. Detroit was in its ascendancy - the fourth largest city in America.
Twenty years later, an estimated 400,000 people uprooted from America's rural deep south and trekked across multiple states for a piece of Detroit's boomtown action. The Great Northward Migration saw 350,000 wishful souls of varied European descent and 50,000 African Americans converge on Detroit, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. In 1943 a race war erupted, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed over two long nights of dark savagery. The fallen died on a quest for better lives.
Over the following two decades Detroit's middle classes emigrated en masse. High unemployment, poverty and hair-trigger racial tension remained firmly in place. During the long summer of 1967 cumulative frustration detonated again. The Twelfth Street Riot ranks alongside the worst cases of civil unrest in American history. Detroit disappeared under a week-long blanket of flames and billowing smoke. Swathes of the city were razed to the ground. The estimated cost of rebuilding ran into several hundred million dollars. Detroit never recovered.
In 1970 large areas of Detroit lay in abandoned ruin. Fifteen year-old James Steward asked his older brother Emanuel for boxing lessons. Emanuel, a distinguished amateur boxer, took James along to their local recreation centre, The Kronk Community Building. Downstairs in the basement boxing gym, Emanuel coached James three days a week. Just five months later, James won the Detroit Golden Gloves Novice Championship. His extraordinary win delighted Kronk Centre management and lifted spirits in the deprived Atkinson Park neighbourhood. James Steward further confirmed his class with a succession of stellar performances on the amateur club scene. His deft, stylish footwork and crisp punching captured the imagination of Detroit boxing fans - they christened him Baby Ali.
With the city in economic free-fall, there was no shortage of youngsters at The Kronk Recreation Centre. Most turned up in search of distraction from scandalous housing conditions and nagging hunger. The swimming pool proved consistently popular, while James Steward's Golden Gloves success boosted numbers downstairs in the basement. Emanuel entered a squad of seven boxers, including James, into the 1971 Golden Gloves tournament. The Kronk squad romped to 21 consecutive wins on their way to claiming the team title, an unprecedented feat that attracted national media attention. Sports writers dubbed Emanuel Steward 'the Detroit coach who only trains champions'.
War halted momentum. The core of Emanuel Steward's Golden Gloves team was drafted into the US Army and shipped off to Vietnam. The remaining boxers drifted away when Emanuel's private business ventures took priority over coaching.
When he eventually returned, he stepped into an empty gym with the intention of training himself. He'd been a highly touted amateur in the early 1960's. Known as Sonny 'Boy' Steward, he began collecting trophies and titles at 8 years old. Street fights didn't faze him either, Emanuel Steward knew how to hit without getting hit - and how to look good doing it. After winning the Detroit Golden Gloves in 1961, and the national Golden Gloves Championship in 1963, he'd been a hot tip to turn professional.
Emanuel continued to train down in the Kronk gym as often as his busy life would allow. On his way through the centre one afternoon, he stopped to talk to a boy he recognised as a friend of a former Kronk boxer. Ten-year-old Bernard Mays had been sitting by the entrance to the swimming pool. Emanuel asked him if he fancied learning to box. Little Bernard quickly forgot about swimming and tagged along down to the basement gym. That spontaneous act of kindness and enthusiasm typified Emanuel Steward - it is also the moment Kronk's golden era began.
'I taught him every little trick I knew - I developed a tremendous fighting machine.'
- Emanuel Steward
The two embarked on a daily routine, travelling to the Kronk together and training downstairs for hours. Bernard flourished under Emanuel's brilliant tutelage. He was a quiet child, blessed with lightning hand-speed and thunderous power. A year later, his amateur debut drew gasps of amazement and sent a shockwave rippling through the local amateur club circuit. His second bout confirmed the rumours.
By the age of 12, Bernard Mays was headlining shows and tournaments nationwide. Lithe and naturally athletic, he routinely overwhelmed opponents with a thrilling blend of poise, guile, speed and effortless power. His name on a poster guaranteed a capacity crowd, anywhere. Everybody wanted to see the young sensation - they called him 'Superbad'. Hardened fight connoisseurs compared him to a young Joe Louis.
'Wherever he fought, the first 3 or 4 rows would be packed with managers and trainers from all over America. Some would bring their boxers to watch Superbad perform.'
- Emanuel Steward
At age 14, Bernard won the National Junior Olympic Championship at flyweight, and was named best boxer of the tournament. Two years later, he did it again at light-welterweight. Although too young for the upcoming Montreal '76 Olympic trials, he was already being mooted as a dead cert for the 1980 Moscow games.
'Superbad Mays was the awesomest fighter I ever saw. He could devour you. Speed is power, it's the punch you can't see that knocks you out. Bernard had a wicked left hook; it would take the breath from your body.'
- Kronk Teammate and Amateur National Champion, John Jonson.
'He was a combination of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson; he could box and punch and he didn't waste motion. He could slip a punch by half an inch on either side, and then nail you.'
- Emmanuel Steward.
At age 15, Bernard's record stood at 73 wins, 2 losses. His exciting reputation triggered an influx of young hopefuls at the Kronk gym, they came in droves from far and wide. Among the new wave were future all-time great Thomas Hearns and 1984 Olympic Gold Medallist Steve McCrory. Andre Wynn, Ricky Jester, Leslie 'Sweet Lemonade' Gardner, Mickey Goodwin, and Darrell Chambers would also progress to commendable careers, amateur and pro.
'Mays crushed Hearns' nose. Some young men would have quit the ring, Hearns reacted with disgust and determination. He returned to the gym a different fighter and the change was evident to everyone present. From that day on, the effects of that punch showed like a badge on Hearns' face.'
- Fred Girard, Detroit News.
In 1976, sports writer Joel Greer visited the packed Kronk gym on a typical night. The radiators were turned up full blast and the sparring was not for the faint-hearted, Greer stepped downstairs into a steaming furnace. He watched heavy-handed duo Mickey Goodwin and Ricky Jester teeing off on each other before Superbad ducked through the ropes with Tommy Hearns. In an article entitled 'Off the Streets and Olympic Bound' he wrote: 'Next into the ring were Bernard Mays and Thomas Hearns, two speedsters who fight at 139 and 132 respectively. "Keep those gloves up!" shouted Steward as Hearns exploded a right lead off Mays cheekbone. Hearns appeared to have Mays in trouble, but the combination of pride and Steward's encouragement bought enough life back into Bernard so he could get some licks in of his own.'
Greer interviewed Bernard after the spar. 'I wish I was older,' he said, trying to sponge the hurt out of the bruise under his left eye, 'It's a long time until the next Olympics, so I might just turn pro first. Before I came down here, the temptation was always to either steal or get into street fights. If I wasn't down here fighting, I'd probably be down in juvenile somewhere. This place has changed my whole life around.'
Unknown to most, Bernard had been smoking weed and drinking heavily since he was 14. Joel Greer was interviewing an alcoholic.
Bernard continued to dominate and dismantle opponents with ease. In 1976, a thousand people crammed into Detroit's Northwest Activities Centre to watch him bomb his way through another tournament. Former IBF World Lightweight Champion Jimmy Paul, one of 30 world champions that Emanuel Steward would eventually produce, said of the 1977 Ohio State Fair National Tournament: 'I'd be in bed sound asleep the night before every fight, and Bernard would be out drinking beer with the ladies all night, then come in and absolutely destroy everybody else in the tournament.' No prize for guessing who won the best boxer of the tournament award. Aged 16, Superbad Mays stood within sight of worldwide superstardom.
'It gives me chills just to talk about him. Superbad Mays was like Sugar Ray Robinson - he had it all.'
- Robert Tyus, Amateur National Champion and Kronk team mate.
Detroit, dilapidated and increasingly dangerous, offered plenty in the way of distraction. Bernard had developed a particular liking for malt liquor around the time his parents separated. The lure of booze, late nights and a never-ending stream of female admirers eventually lead to him missing training sessions. And whenever he did turn up, his mood was sullen. Emanuel's repeated advice and lectures about the perils of alcohol only served to drive a wedge between them. In 1978 Superbad, aged 19, abandoned his Olympic dream and turned professional - without Emanuel Steward.
His amateur record: 198 wins, 2 losses.
Managed by Chuck Davis, Superbad began his pro career, as expected, with an impressive knockout win. But behind the gum-shield smiles, alcoholism had tightened its grip. Davis constantly badgered him about his destructive lifestyle - so Bernard broke contract and hired Oakland County attorney Elbert Hatchett, an ex-boxer, to negotiate the legalities. He then continued his career with Hatchett as a manager. Hatchett said: 'We lost a ton of money. Bernard fought like Joe Louis. He was a middleweight, a classic boxer, just classic. He was the first guy I ever saw knock somebody out by hitting them in the side - but he would drink beer all the time.'
By 1985 Bernard's former sparring partner Thomas Hearns had already etched his name into boxing history. In 1980 he spectacularly demolished Mexican knockout artist Pipino Cuevas to claim the WBA welterweight championship. The following year he featured in an all-time classic unification barnburner with WBC champion Sugar Ray Leonard. And then came 'The War', on April 15 1985. In a globally televised event, Hearns engaged undisputed middleweight champion 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler in a ferocious three round firefight. The War, especially the breath-taking opening round, will be reviewed and discussed for centuries to come.
Six months later, on November 21st 1985, Bernard Mays squared off against relative novice Matthew Lewis at the Inglewood Forum in California. In the second round, Matthews caught Bernard flush with a head shot and wobbled him alarmingly. The referee quickly waved the contest over.
Bernard attended hospital the next day and learned that his pancreas was dangerously inflamed. Doctors advised him that fighting on would probably cost him his life. Bernard retired on the spot. His record stands at: 26 wins, 1draw, 1 loss, with 15 KO's. No belts, no titles - and hardly any money. He moved into his mother Victoria's home, and continued to drink heavily. After his mother died, Bernard, completely destitute, walked into Detroit's New Light Nursing Home and asked for help. The manager of the nursing home said, 'He walked in here under his own power, and stayed for nearly a year. In the final weeks his condition deteriorated rapidly.'
'When I saw him there at the end, his stomach was so swollen it looked like he was pregnant. That beer just tore him up. He would get absolutely smashed.'
- Roland Scott, Mays' last trainer.
On March 1st 1994 Bernard Mays, aged 33, died of chronic pancreatitis and diabetes. His sister, Esther Farley, signed the death certificate. 'It was a painful thing to visit Bernard', she said. 'He was always a real charmer, a sweetheart - who knows where his life might have led? But alcoholism is a terrible disease.'
He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. Section 4, Row 18, grave number 36, in Mount Hazel Cemetery, West Detroit, which closed many years ago.
'He was the most talented Kronk boxer of all - he was like a legend, really.'
- The late, great Emanuel Steward.