January 28, 2023

Pain, Fame, and the Better Life Index

Kronk Gym in Detroit- credit Ross Dettman for ESPN.com

Thirty world champions in the sport of boxing went down the blood stained steps and through the blood red door to train in Detroit’s Kronk gym. The message on the door is missing some letters, like missing teeth. There’s one boxing ring and two heavy bags inside. That’s it to the extravagance of the boxing club inside Kronk that was started by Emanuel Steward in 1970. It’s probably one reason why the Big Ten athletic directors decided boxing was too harsh for a college sport. The Kronk gym is a shocking contrast to the luxurious training centers and weight rooms on the college campuses.  The spooks at the CIA are also asking for more fancy exercise machines and better gym at Langley. A boxing ring and two old heavy bags are apparently the wrong kind of office furniture for acquiring insight on how the world really works.

The door to the Kronk gym is the anti-recruiting tool. At least the military wipes off the blood and puts on the dress whites to make the sales pitch to young recruits. This is the kind of place college admissions use as a motive for enrolling in college. Put a dead bolt on that door and get the hell out of there. The historic gym was closed a couple of years ago because of financial problems. Ross Dettman took the pictures of the 85 year old Kronk Recreation Center for ESPN before the door to pain and fame was shut for the final time.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made a follow up speech on Monday to his “Economics of Happiness” commencement address two years ago. Economists are enamored with the field of happiness and concept of well-being. Governments are creating National Happiness Indexes to replace the gross national product:

“This line of research has generated alternative measures of well-being that are frequently survey-based and incorporate elements such as psychological wellness, the level of education, physical health and safety, community vitality and the strength of family and social ties, and time spent in leisure activities.  These measures have begun to inform official statistics and have started to be discussed in policy debates.”

The Kronk gym ranks higher on the Ruin Porn Index than the Better Life Index. Tommy Hearns, the most famous fighter to come out of Kronk, was forced to file for bankruptcy a few years ago. Detroit’s a tough town, evoking much love and hate. You have to be able to take a punch. If the size of another adult’s soft drink is important to you, Detroit probably isn’t. If you think Twitter and beach volleyball at the Olympics are a sign of progess over Howard Cosell and brothers Leon and Michael Spinks, you’ll probably choose the Better Life Index over the Ruin Porn Index. A line from  Cosell’s bio which would be a gold medal Twitter profile:

“Cosell said of himself, ‘Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.'”

After winning the gold in 1976, Leon Spinks beat Ali to become heavyweight champ. As with Tommy Hearns and many other boxers, Spinks lost everything. The Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champ enrolled in bartender school and got a job pouring drinks at a place in metro Detroit. The fat guy playing the piano was former Detroit Tiger Denny McLain, a 30 game winner, World Series champion, and ex-con. McLain’s agent got him the piano gig in Detroit. I think I’ll create a category on the Ruin Porn Index for fallen athletes and their agents. It was 1989 when Spinks and McLain hooked up. The fall of the Berlin Wall added Eastern Europe to the Ruin Index. Newspapers were still taken seriously and sportswriters were up there with the foreign correspondents and Peter Jennings’ trench coat. A sportswriter from Pittsburgh caught the Spinks and McLain gig. Spinks mixed drinks with pretty colors, McLain worked the piano keys, and a woman was at the mic, singing “Don’t throw our love away… don’t throw our love away.” The Motown anthem for Ruin Porn.

Stories of pain and fame were delivered every week through the Sporting News where the writers treated their typewriters like jabs and left hooks, except for Dick Young the New Yorker who preferred using his typewriter like it was a jackhammer. Another gold medal Twitter profile, from the New York Times in 1989 when Young passed away: “With all the subtlety of a knee in the groin, Dick Young made people gasp… He could be vicious, ignorant, trivial and callous, but for many years he was the epitome of the brash, unyielding yet sentimental Damon Runyon sportswriter.”

If you want to attend Governor Cuomo’s Yogurt Summit in Albany, you probably like the idea of a Better Life Index. Another New York governor, Teddy Roosevelt, was also concerned about the health of America’s youth suffering from “sloping shoulders of a champagne bottle.” Roosevelt believed “without the help of the body the mind cannot go far as it should.” Through boxing, the sport of one, Roosevelt discovered “self-improvement was not only a possibility but an imperative.” Roosevelt, as with Hemingway, was a lover of the outdoors. He shot a 1,200 pound grizzly bear from “eight paces,” according to John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum. And some today tremble at the sight of a 16 oz soft drink an arm’s length from the champagne bottle shoulder.

Roosevelt believed the urban lifestyle weakened the body and the mind. Roosevelt’s criteria for a Better Life Index might be different than a contemporary Index. Boxing is the only sport that really hasn’t changed. A ring and a pair of gloves about the size of a medium Coca-Cola. Football is the game that Roosevelt is credited for saving but Roosevelt was a boxer at heart. The game of football is being attacked again. The pain of the game is outweighing the fame.

The Freeh Report is a harsh attack on the football luxury box culture at Penn State, which as with the other Big Ten schools, has banished boxing to a permanent place on the Ruin Porn Index. Louis Freeh created a timeline of the Sandusky scandal. The second week of February in 2001 is when Freeh delivers his first punch at Paterno and Penn State officials. That week was also noteworthy for an FBI Director named Louis Freeh. FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on February 18, 2001. He had been spying for the Russians for 15 years, one year longer than Sandusky’s unreported crimes. Critics accused Freeh of rushing to establish a friendly blue ribbon panel to avoid a “nasty probe.”

Robert Hanssen wrote to his Russian handlers: “Eventually I would appreciate an escape plan. (Nothing lasts forever.)”

But nothing lasts forever is a good line to write on the Kronk door beneath pain and fame.


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