By: Marley Malenfant
A phone call to a newspaper editor is all it took for a young Detroit native to work with some of boxing’s most brilliant minds and notorious businessmen.
John Lepak, 16 at the time, called Detroit Free Press editor George Puscus, boldly asking for an introduction to the industry.
Puscus granted Lepak three phone numbers—Kronk Gym trainer Emanuel Steward, promoters Don King and Bill Kozerski.
Puscus warned him that contacting Steward wouldn’t be easy.
Undiscouraged, Lepak made his calls but was ignored by Steward and King.
He made one last call to the name he was unfamiliar with, Kozerski. Lepak was then able to charm the veteran promoter.
He apprenticed under Kozerski. One of his earliest gigs was to walk the B-side fighters under Kozerski’s Fight Night promotions during less viewed fight programs like USA Tuesday Night Fights and ESPN Friday Night Fights.
This led Lepak to become a trainee in the original Kronk Gym. While fighting pro wasn’t his forte, Lepak’s Kronk Gym experiences ushered him to becoming a director of operations for the gym, assisting the promotions team, running Steward’s personal affairs and a lifetime of stories in the business. He said he is no longer a fan of the sport but spends time chronicling stories about the years he’s spent in Kronk Gym and the relationships he’s made in the business.
MM: What was growing up in Detroit during that time?
JL: Growing up in Detroit back then was… night and day to what it was today. Back then, Detroit was always in contention for being the murder capital of the world. [These were] different times. You had some very notorious street legends if you will, back then. You had this myth that the media created like this “White Boy Rick” story. You had guys like “Maserati Rick.” They reported that he was a bodyguard for Tommy Hearns and that’s not true. He was a member of the entourage at times but you know uhh… Rick was that guy wearing $2,000 suits back in the ‘80s. It was crazy, it was just different times and I was a kid. I wasn’t really around all of this then. A lot of these stories were passed on to me by a lot of those directly involved. For example, and not to say Rick by name, but he was very close to one of my mentors [Kozerski]. When Bill got involved with Kronk, he was a business manager. He was originally a photographer. He took the first press photo of Thomas Hearns. When it was presented to Bill for the opportunity to become the promoter for the Kronk team and also all the financial liabilities and risk that came with that, Bill took that on. When the late Mike Ilitch helped finance the fights and get things moving—on Monday when they’d calculate the losses for building up all of the young guys at the Little Caesars fight series, Bill would have to go out and cover these losses and we’ll just say it was brown paper bag money from the underground economy that would keep things floating.
MM: When did you know you wanted to get involved with boxing?
JL: I wanted to box. I was intrigued by the sport and the business. Let me back it up, I was in seventh grade, and I actually told—and this is how I got my first interaction with some of Tyson’s people—I told my mom I was staying with my dad, I told my dad I was staying with my mom this weekend. I caught a Greyhound bus. Went to Atlantic City. [I] went to the Tyson-Biggs fight, got a poster, [and] found out who won hanging out on the boardwalk. I’m too young to get a ticket. I didn’t have any money like that or nothing. And I fucking came back to Detroit. Made it back in time. Nobody even knew I was gone. That was my first little adventure into boxing. That’s how I got cool with Mario Costa who owns the Ringside Lounge in Jersey City. Fast forward to… about the ninth grade, I decided I’m getting into this fight game. Some way, shape or form, I’m getting in. I was bit by the fucking bug. And so I called George Puscus, he was the Detroit News writer at the time and this was far pre-internet. He was the big boxing writer. I said, “I want to be in the boxing business.” And he says, “OK, Kid. What’s your story?” So I told him and he’s like, “Well, getting through Emanuel is difficult.”
Well naturally, I called Don King first. I talked to his wife. She was a very kind woman but I never heard back from Don. Not till years later. Years later, I did a lot of back-and-forth with Don. I worked with his right-hand man Sterling McPherson. Emanuel knew who I was but I wasn’t really on his radar yet. He noticed me but back then it was still…you’re talking Hearns-Leonard 2 time frame. So, there’s still some money rolling in, there’s still some action and nobody is fucking letting anyone through that door because god forbid you come in and take a couple of crumbs off of someone else’s table. A lot of people were hating and blocking you back in those days. So the last guy I call is Bill Kozerski and I didn’t know who he was. Still to this day a lot of people don’t know who is but he’s one of the best damn promoters in the history of this sport.
MM: What was the culture in Kronk Gym during your time there?
JL: I was in this unique position where Bill knew I was cool and I’m still a fan of Emanuel. [I was] still in awe of Emanuel, he could do no wrong. And, not to get into a lot of things, but they fell out financially. As did a lot of people in that business. And Bill kind of hip me to some things years later. But that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to have my Kronk jacket. I believed in the Kronk comeback. But I was still able to go and work for Bill. And by this time I started to take on a little more tasks here and there. I’m talking go-for shit. I’m going to the airport to go pickup John Davimos, Michael Moore’s manager. I’m coordinating the weigh-in. But I’m learning more about the business and because I’m still training in the gym, the fighters know me. So now I’m in this unique position. I’m the middle man for the fighters and the promoters and the managers. Since the fighters like me, I’m one of them but at the same time, I got my suit on and I’m going in the back office in the account room and I can get business done. I can convey or relay certain messages or things that are going on that these guys may have trouble doing.
MM: I saw your [boxing] record (1-0). Did you never want to have a career as a pro fighter?
JL: No. [laughs] My glory stories were in the gym. Like, sparring Mark Breland, or Marlon Thomas, you know guys like that. It was great. It was priceless. But my calling was the business. I stayed working with Emanuel. He convinced me to have one pro fight, which I’m glad he did. He’s like, “You gotta go get it out your system.” ‘Cause I already quit. He was like, “Go back. Get in shape. Just go knock some motherfucker out so you can go put a picture on your wall and nobody can ever take that from you.”
But my calling was the business. I already knew. Emanuel said, “I’m a teach you how to train and I’m a teach you this business.”
And I had Bill teaching me on the other side, the promotional business. Now Walter Smith would, we would always joke about this, he’d say, “Baby, if we could ever just get some money, people come down here and watch you shadow box, we’d all get a million dollars.”
I could move. They nicknamed me “smooth.” I could fucking move. I could move like $2,000,000 in that ring. But to put it all together, that just wasn’t my thing. I don’t bullshit. I tell people ‘I was one percent of the fucking talent of the guys I trained with.’ So I would have only went so far.
MM: How did you earn Emanuel Steward’s trust?
JL: When I was there, there was no one there. No one. Everyone had left. Emanuel was on the early stages of a very difficult financial time for him. And I had a business background. I had been working for my dad since I was a kid. So I knew how to run an office. I knew how to manage an office. And you know trust… growing up around the men I was raised under, if you weren’t to be trusted, you’d be in a ditch somewhere. And Lahney Perry, Mrs. Lahney, she brought me in the office one day at Emanuel’s house [He had disclosed some things]. Mrs. Lhaney was like, “Look, I can’t do this anymore. It’s too stressful. I can’t deal with it. I understand you’re excited. You think this is great. But this isn’t all that you think it is. And you’re gonna have to be willing to go sometimes weeks without money. It’s tough right now.” And I didn’t care. I was in. And she taught me the system that Emanuel used in his office. I became his, I guess you could say office manager so to speak. Because I was handling [everything]. It wasn’t a 9-5. It was a 24/7, 365. I ended up basically moving in with Emanuel. And it first Emanuel may have been testing me. He knew I was still cool with Bill. I’m not saying he was jealous of Bill but Bill was successful. Bill was promoting Michael Moore who was now the undisputed belt holder in the heavyweight division. Well, that was Emanuel’s fighter. But Emanuel didn’t have him anymore. We’re at this point we’re at the Laquinta Suites in Las Vegas training Jeff Fenech and ain’t nobody there.
It’s me and Emanuel Steward. This is a true story. But Emanuel is like, “Come on, let’s go make some money.”
We walk over to this little bullshit-ass casino. Play blackjack and win a few hands. Walk over to Ruth Chris Steak House across from the old Top Rank offices and have us a nice steak dinner, a couple glasses of wine.
I listen to Emanuel hold court telling stories. He’s telling me all these legendary tales. He was telling me about strategies and things that went into certain fights.
So, I was nothing more than a tiny spoke in a wheel. In the big fucking wheel of the Kronk organization with Emanuel for that matter. But I was there when no one else was. So I’m a young, excited, ambitious kid. And I’m the only one there? I was a sponge! I soaked it all up.
MM: How did you transition in the promotional side of the business?
JL: Emanuel wanted to get back to promoting some shows because there was no Kronk team left. [He] never got back to having the big Kronk team again because he lacked the promotional power. And that is a credit to Bill Kozerski because without a good promoter, you ain’t building no product. There was several fights you would see “The return of Kronk! The return of Kronk!”
It’s one fight. You don’t hear shit for another year. Bill kept rolling. Bill was building Bronco McKart, Derrick Jefferson, Chris Byrd who eventually became Heavyweight champion after Michael Moore became Heavyweight Champion. Bill’s program kept rolling. Kronk… let’s be honest, after that breakup of what they call the class of ‘88, whatever came out of that gym again? It was a real Detroit born-and-bred product. So we’re getting ready to start what Emanuel called “Kronk 2.” And times were lean. We had Dannell Nicholson, who was probably the biggest name we had, who was being banked rolled by some real heavy hitters down in Chicago. And then we had Michael Clark who was a very talented lightweight at the time. And just a couple of other young guys. That was it. The gym was empty. We did a couple of small shows that were financial disasters. It was frustrating, I remember seeing Emanuel. Because at the time he didn’t like that title “Hired gun.”
I’m just speaking from my own viewpoint on this. But you go from being the man—Thomas Hearns’ trainer to all these big-time fights to Kronk dynasty—and then they’re branding you as the hired gun. I don’t care if you are working for [Oscar] De La Hoya or this guy and Chavez and Lennox [Lewis], [Evander] Holyfield. His love and his passion [are] what he built with Kronk Gym. So that’s where he was always happiest. At least from what I saw. If there was a title to this, I’d tell you to name it this. There is no barrier of entry to the boxing business. And that’s what makes it the greatest fucking thing in the world… but also the worst thing in the world. ‘Cause look, here I am, a fucking 16-year-old kid. I call a newspaper writer, and the next thing you know I’m working for Bill Kozerski and Emanuel Steward. What sets of qualifications did I have to do the shit that I did? But then at the same time, that also allows some moron to go watch some Youtube videos, buy him a pair of pads and some pool noodles and go to the gym and train some kid. Because that kid’s life is in his hands!
MM: I did a story a while back on Antonio Gates [entering the promotional business]. He played football for the Chargers and he’s from Detroit. What do you think of these guys trying to get into the game now that want to build gyms or may want to promote?
JL: [Laughs] I’m going to start with the best advice anyone ever given me in my life. Tom Vacca, the great matchmaker said, “You’d be better off, kid, buying a ringside ticket and a flight and a hotel room to every fight you ever dreamed of going to in your life, and you’ll come out ahead financially.”
So, Antonio Gates, I know for a fact, it wasn’t like he came up with this idea he was talked into this idea. Just like him and a series of people before and even after him, as this investor that buys into the idea. He’s going to be the next big thing. See, nobody ever holds these interviews accountable. And that’s the thing that frustrates me. After the collapse, let’s go back and talk to them. What happened? Why didn’t you stay in the business? How was your experience in the fight business, you want to share that? So why don’t they talk about the people you worked with that got you into this deal to begin with? Let’s see what type of things you have to say about those people now.
See, no one ever does the follow up. The story goes away and then it’s the next new thing to come along. Antonio gates—I know this for a fact—those fights lost a substantial amount of money. And I know that from the inside. My friend was a two-term commissioner. I still talk to Bronco who’s a commissioner now. I’ll tell you what Bronco said to me, and I don’t think Bronco will mind me repeating it and I won’t use the name of who he said it to, but he said this to one of the local players in the fight business. He said, “I won’t get off my fucking couch to come downtown on a Friday night to see your fights.”
Why? Why, when the A-side blows out the B-side? The A-side is basically forced to sell tickets to be on the show. The majority are mismatch blowouts. Again, in the last 15 years, name me a fighter who’s come out of a program here that’s done shit? You can’t say Tony Harrison because he went with PBC. He went with Al Haymon. K9 [Cornelius Brundage]? No. K9 because of “The Contender” and he left Detroit, he did his thing. Who else? Vernon Paris? Vernon Paris is a prime example of a young fighter or a young prospect who had some talent and, who was built upon these shows fighting a very weak, B-side opposition. He fought Zab Judah and instead of beating Zab, he gave Zab his seventh birth or eighth life in the fight game. And Zab is my man. Zab is one of the few guys I talk to on the daily. I talk to Zab at least once a week. But it’s a fucking joke. I don’t follow boxing in Detroit like I used to. No knock against these young guys. I just don’t see where this is going when you got a guy who’s 39-0 in Detroit but he’s 0-9 on the road. And maybe that’s an extreme but there’s some reality to what I just said.
MM: I saw you said the other day, guys in Hip-Hop, besides J. Prince, who else has done anything with this?
JL: Oh man, they all wanted to be players. And J. is my man. Like J. and I always got along great. Antonio Lenoard was a good, good guy to me. You know J., and again this is just talking about certain circles that you walk in, a lot of people get into this petty gossip bullshit I’ve experienced a lot in boxing, especially in Detroit… I’ve had people say things about me and I never met the person. But I remember when Winky [Wright] beat Sugar Shane [Mosley]. But it was just J.’s booth and Winky’s booth in the back corner of this club and J. welcomed me in this circle. And back then, if you knew J., like… you weren’t getting close to them. J. always showed me so much respect. J. was a gentleman amongst gentlemen. Another man of high integrity. And him and Antonio were two special people to me as far as who I’ve met in my travels in boxing.
MM: You write a blog documenting your time in the Kronk gym called the “Kronk Chronicles.” I read the story about your time working the Tyson-Lewis promo in Memphis and how hard that was. Do you plan on writing a book?
JL: Umm… it is kind of in the works. Here’s the thing. Humbly speaking, who the fuck am I to write a book? Like what kind of stories do I got? In the business, I was a tiny spoke in a mighty wheel. I just played my part. As far as my experiences, I’m just a gatekeeper to some great tales. Nothing more. My best friend Darryl and I, we tinkered on the idea for a long time. I’ve had a couple of documentary deals presented to me based on the Kronk Chronicles. But to go into the Kronk story, I mean please who am I? I was there for a couple of years out of the entire time frame of that great dynasty. But you gotta be willing to go to the dark places and not a lot of people are willing to go there because they want to protect the shiny gold. But I’m sorry, you gotta be able to go to those dark places and that’s why a lot of my writing hardcore places. I had talked about that but I backed out. I had two deals. One was an ESPN 30 For 30 and another was a company overseas. Darryl and I are creating a concept. We’re not trying to air out anyone’s personal business. There [are] just certain things you keep close and you take them to the grave. It is what it is. But we’re trying to find a platform to talk life and boxing, and how it interacts. Right now we’re kicking around the notes and then the concept of maybe putting a podcast together. Bringing on people like Shannon Briggs and other interesting people we’ve met in our travels. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a lot of interest in the new school of boxing that’s happening that’s being covered enough. I mean my god, there’s a 1,001 Twitter reporters right now. That ain’t me. But we’re trying to piece it together. I got to find that place where I’m comfortable to go there.