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Undercard Spotlight: Johnathon Banks

Emanuel Steward probably owes Blue Lewis a thank you. So does Johnathon Banks for that matter because, truth be told, if it wasn't for Lewis' old-fashioned ways Steward might never have begun to train the fast-rising cruiserweight contender.

Banks, who fights former cruiserweight champion Imamu Mayfield on the undercard of Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov's heavyweight unification fight Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, first began boxing not at Steward's legendary Kronk Gym but at the Brewster Center, another well known Detroit boxing haunt where Lewis was a trainer. Banks' grandfather lived only six blocks from 5555 McCraw, where Kronk called home for more than three decades, but when Banks decided at 14 to try his hands at boxing he had no idea where Kronk was. All he knew was it was that famous place with a lot of fighters far more polished than he so he decided to see what Blue Lewis might have to offer him.

The former heavyweight contender who once fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in Dublin didn't open his gym on Saturdays however so the first day Banks showed up the door was locked. Back he trudged on Monday, intent on trying the sport he for some reason believed would be his calling.

"I went to Brewster for individual attention,'' Banks said on a recent afternoon, as he sat in Steward's living room, which happens to be his living room as well since he's lived with Steward the past few years. "I walked there. I had played basketball and football and ran track but I begged my mother to let me box every day. I couldn't wait.

"I couldn't believe all the guys who were in there. I said when I went in there that one day all those guys will respect me as a fighter. I said the same thing later, when I first went to Kronk.'' That changeover came about a year after first meeting Blue Lewis. Banks, then 15, had fought 10 times by then in small amateur events, urging his mother each time to come watch. She kept refusing but finally worked up the nerve only to be told Lewis didn't allow women in his gym.

"I ended up at Kronk because I got kicked out of the Brewster Center,'' Banks recalled, with a smile. "My mother had never seen me fight but one day she said she'd worked up enough nerve. When I told Blue he said women weren't allowed in the gym. I told my Mom and she said, 'I can't come see my own son fight? Then you ain't allowed to fight.'

"I'm 15. I told Blue if she can't come I can't fight. All Blue kept saying was, 'I can't believe this.' I was hurt by that. He was the only trainer I ever knew. That was in 1998 or '99. That's when I walked through The Door.''

"The Door'' was the battered old red one that opened into the steamy jungle basement at 5555 McGraw. On the door hung a sign that read: "This Door Has Led Many to PAIN and FAME.'' It was the door through which 50 amateur champions, 30 world champions, three Olympic gold medalists and one Hall of Fame trainer had walked through.

"I was nervous when I first went to Kronk,'' Banks admitted. "That door, man. My first day I saw all these guys there like Michael Moorer (the former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion). Good guys. Bad guys. You smelled pain in that basement. You smelled victory and defeat in there.

"Ten people would jump into the ring for a spot to spar. It was like living in a hick town and then moving to New York. Kronk was the big city.''

Kronk was also where Banks first met Steward, one of boxing's greatest trainers, and began a process that would lead him to a top 10 ranking and an 18-0 record with 13 knockouts less than a decade later. It was, frankly, where Johnathon Banks found himself.

"I didn't think I had no major talent,'' he said. "I just knew I wanted to do it and I figured I'd fight guys with more talent but if I wanted it more I'd win.

"Emanuel told me I had natural feel for knowing where the punches were coming from. That seemed like a good thing to have. I didn't know if it was true but I believed him. Emanuel had pictures of all his champions on the wall. I just wanted to be up on that wall.

"At first they weren't going to let me box because I wasn't from the East side. All the world champions from Detroit were from the East side. My first amateur loss had been to a Kronk fighter. I knew I beat the guy. Everyone knew I beat the guy but he was Kronk and he got the decision.

"The thing was I never had the Olympic dream until I was 19 and about to turn pro. Emanuel said he thought I was the best amateur light heavyweight in the country. I really didn't know nothing about the Olympics. I made it to the 2004 Trials but I had so much trouble making weight. I weighed 178 when I weighed in and the next day I was back to 195. My body was growing so I wasn't terribly disappointed when I didn't make the team. I knew with my style I was better suited for the pros.

"The amateurs have that pitty-pat style. I wanted to knock people out. I wanted to hurt people. At Kronk that was the thing. It's an instinct in you. Everybody has an instinct. Some is to run away. Some is to walk away. Some is to fight. Mine is to knock people out.''

That he has done but Saturday night his apprenticeship will continue against Mayfield, who is little more than a trial horse these days but was once the IBF cruiserweight champion for a year in the late 1990s and later was stopped by Juan Carlos Gomez, one of the best cruiserweights in history, eight years ago in a fight for the WBC title Banks is now chasing.

Mayfield is no longer that fighter but he is still a test for someone with only 18 professional bouts because he has forgotten more about boxing than young Banks could yet know. These are the kind of fights someone like Banks needs to progress, literally pop quizzes as he found out a year and a half ago when he squared off with Eliseo Castillo (20-1-1 at the time) in New York. Banks' entire family was on hand to watch his first big professional fight outside of Michigan and it had barely begun when they looked up and saw him go down.

"I was shocked,'' admitted Banks of the first knockdown of his career. "Mentally I gave him his props but I felt, 'Now it's my turn to see if you can take my thing.' I was more shocked after the fact. I was blown out of my mind. This dude knocked me down in front of my Mom? My family had driven from Detroit to New York and I'm on the canvas?

"My sister was crying but I didn't panic. I just knew I had to get the guy. In that situation whatever your true instinct is will show. If you're a coward it will show. If you're a fighter, you get up.''

Banks had to do that twice in that grim opening round and he did. Then he went back out and did what his instincts have always told him to do in a boxing ring. He knocked Castillo out in the fourth round.

"That fight increased my confidence,'' Banks said. "I judge myself by the things I go through. You can't say you got heart until you're tested.

"After that fight Tommy (Hearns, Kronk's greatest fistic product) hugged me. He said, 'You did something I could never do. I couldn't get up and then knock the other guy out.' That meant a lot to me, Tommy saying that.''

Boxing is as much about surviving pain as it is about inflicting it. If one can do the latter but not the former his career will be short and his successes minimal regardless of his physical talent because boxing is a mental war as well as a physical one. Can you shake off the fear and doubt that creeps into your head after another man has hurt and embarrassed you by sending you spinning to the floor against your will or peeled your skin back and made you bleed? One never knows until you're there.

"I knew Johnathon had a lot of talent but that night he showed the kind of fighter he is,'' Steward recalled. "You don't want to see your guy hurt or on the floor but you know it's going to happen. It's what happens next that decides who he is. We saw who Johnathon was.''

He was, in Steward's opinion and the opinion of many others, a future champion. That is something he has yet to have the opportunity to prove but as his name climbs up the rankings he gets ever closer to a showdown with some other young gun like undefeated Matt Godfrey, who will fight a title eliminator for the WBO's No. 1 ranking next month in Germany.

The two have known each other since their amateur days and understand that very likely they will meet one day soon to decide who the best cruiserweight in the United States is. The winner will soon after get to make his case on a larger international stage, where at the moment England's David Haye and Wales' Enzo Maccarinelli hold three of the four major world titles while Philadelphia's Steve Cunningham has claims on the other (the IBF championship he won by defeating Poland's Krzysztof Wlodarczyk). Lurking not far behind them is former two-time champion Jean-Marc Mormeck of France and the U.S.'s O'Neill Bell.

All are far more formidable than Mayfield but he is the kind of veteran who schools a young contender like Banks in the dark art of hand-to-hand combat. It is in fights like Saturday night's that Johnathon Banks will learn if he is the future champion he hoped to become the first day he walked through the door to PAIN and FAME at 5555 McGraw Avenue.

"There's a responsibility to being a Kronk fighter,'' Banks said. "When we show up it means trouble. Somebody is going to get hurt. Somebody is going to get knocked out. That's how that label rolls. There ain't no walkovers against a Kronk fighter. "Emanuel has had so many world champions and I want to be one of them. I think about it all the time. I'd fight one of the champions tomorrow but I understand how this works.

"I want to be the best at my craft. When they talk about the best cruiserweights I want my name to be mentioned. That takes some time. (Evander) Holyfield is considered the best cruiserweight there ever was. If my name is mentioned one day in that category then I did a good job.''

If Johnathon Banks lives out that long held dream he might just want to go seek out a familiar face from back home, a guy with old-fashioned ways, and thank him. Maybe he'll even take his Mom with him. It seems a safe bet that next time Blue Lewis will open his door to both of them.

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