Redemption Alley In The D: The Boxer, The Fall & The Frame-Up At The Historic Kronk Gym

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April 1, 2022 — The first time former pro fighter Darrell Chambers walked back into a boxing gym after nearly three decades away behind bars serving federal prison time for drug trafficking was an emotional moment.

“I saw hope for the first time in 25 years, I saw every one of those faces with so much joy, so much passion, so much fierce determination, it gave me goose bumps” he recalled. “I broke down in tears. Those emotions were foreign to me and had been since the day I was locked up in the 1990s. The place I had come from was where hope went to die. Where pain and hate and disappointment thrived. This was the total opposite. It brought me back to when I was one of those young fighters I saw training that day. I forgot that hope existed. That day, I re-found it and I haven’t let it go since.”

Chambers did 26 years of a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. He finally got out of prison and returned to Detroit last year on a sentence reduction stemming from the First-Step Act, federal legislation passed into law in 2018 giving breaks and early out-dates to inmates doing long sentences for non-violent crimes.

The 61-year old Chambers was convicted in 1995 for dealing cocaine. His bust was as controversial as it was headline-friendly, with its’ direct connection to the iconic Kronk Gym on the Westside of Detroit, home to more than 40 world boxing champions and the breeding ground for Detroit’s most-recent favorite son in the pugilist trade, Tommy (The Hitman) Hearns. Chambers and Hearns grew up together on the city’s Eastside and were both part of the Kronk Gym’s original roster of fighters in the 1970s under the tutelage of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward.

“People love a good redemption story,” said former Kronk boxer and Kronk’s current business manager John Lepak of Chambers’s journey back home. “I believe in Darrell and the message he has for our youth to avoid the pitfalls he experienced. Seeing him again. Seeing that smile. I know he has so much to give back, so much to contribute that goes well beyond Kronk or sports.”

The 1994 federal indictment that ensnared Chambers and two other well-known professional boxers, was dubbed the “Kronk Gym Drug Case.” Indicted alongside Chambers was Donald (The Lonestar Cobra) Curry and William (Stanley the Steamer) Longstreet. According to sources in law enforcement and the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, Hearns and Steward were targeted by the federal government in the investigation for the belief that they were helping Chambers and other big-name Detroit drug lords launder their dirty money, however, they were never charged in the case, nor ever named publicly in the probe.

Curry was a two-time world champion in the welterweight and light middleweight divisions. He beat the case. Longstreet cut a deal for himself and became a government witness. Chambers was left to take the fall.

Many supporters of Chambers think he was scapegoated by the feds over the fact that they couldn’t get to Hearns or Steward and he wouldn’t aid them in that endeavor. Notorious Detroit drug lords Richard (Maserati Rick) Carter and Demetrius Holloway were frequent visitors to Kronk Gym and part of Tommy Hearns’ pre-fight entourage at almost all of Hearns biggest fights before they were both slain gangland style in 1988 and 1990, respectively. Carter would sometimes work Chambers’ corner.

The arrest of the Kronk fighters, especially now in hindsight, looks suspicious.

“The government had an agenda from Day 1, they didn’t want to play it clean,” said Chambers’ defense attorney James Howarth of the case. “We were fighting an uphill battle. The deck was stacked against us. The government wanted things from Darrell he just didn’t have to give or wasn’t willing to give them and they really jammed him for it.”

To build its’ case, the DEA sent a professional informant named Andrew Chambers (no relation) at the Kronk boxers with offers of illegal-business opportunities that appear, at least to the naked eye, border on entrapment — especially considering what came to be known about Chambers and his veracity as a witness in the coming years. Andrew Chambers, who lived in St. Louis and was brought to Detroit by the DEA so he could engage with the Kronk Gym figures the feds thought were dabbling in the dope game, would go on to be caught perjuring himself in 16 different federal drug prosecutions spanning eight separate states. He was paid more than $4,000,000 in his 15 years of work for the DEA and FBI.

Per court records, Longstreet introduced Andrew Chambers to Darrell Chambers. A pair of DEA agents testified to following both Chambers, Longstreet and Curry to the Bahamas in 1992 and watching them negotiate a $500,000 cocaine purchase on a patio at an oceanside resort.

Darrell Chambers scoffed at federal agents when they presented him the chance to wear a wire on Hearns and Steward and get most of his case dropped.

“They offered me 60 months, 36 months in a camp, witness protection, the whole deal, they were barking up the wrong tree though, they wanted to get me to say things I just didn’t know to be true,” he said. “The plan was to climb the ladder through me and Longstreet. I was never going to play ball. The government was making a ton of assumptions, none of it was based in fact They didn’t get the help they wanted from me, so I knew I was going to get slammed hard.”

Chambers was a rising star in the world of Midwest boxing as just a teenager. At 15 years old, he joined Kronk Gym’s inaugural roster, made up entirely of future pros and staples of the Kronk brand. Before he turned 18, Chambers traveled the country with the Kronk boxing team, winning 5 Golden Gloves titles and 5 AAU crowns.

“We all knew something special was brewing with the fighters we had in the mix at Kronk back then,” Chambers recalled. “Every single year, 10, 11, 12 Kronk guys are qualifying to go to nationals. Most gyms might get a handful. We brought our whole stable and made the Kronk name a brand before it was ever thought of as a brand. Those original Kronk kids, and we were all just kids mind you……this was way before all the money, and the fame, the national television exposure and the championship belts, that’s whose blood, sweat and tears planted the seeds for Manny to cultivate this thing into what became one of the greatest sports kingdoms of them all. That’s pretty cool to know you were a part of. I don’t care how it ended for me. I was there from the start and I saw it first-hand grow into wha

t it was. That was a magical time.”

Chambers entered the pro ranks in 1980 at age 20 and burst out of the gate to a 12-0 start. His first major fight was on the undercard for the December 1981 Muhammad Ali-Trevor Berbick match held that year in the Bahamas in what would be the final bout of Ali’s storied career in the ring.

“Ali treated me like a prince, the man was as cool as a fan,” said Chambers of his memories of the champ. “We had a lot of fun together. He loved all the Kronk fighters. He treated us like family.”

It was on that trip to the Bahamas that Chambers also connected with his first wholesale drug supplier, an attractive female he met in the training complex and Ali flirted with unknowing of her profession. He would reconnect with her in Detroit years later.

While Chambers was getting red-hot in the ring, he began investing small portions of his purse winnings into the drug game around Detroit. The returns on his investment proved a nice boost and consistent augmentation to his legit income as a professional athlete. But, he knew it was risky. So, between 1985 and 1987, he quit cold turkey and focused on fighting and real estate.

Chambers finished his boxing career with a record of 22-2, never winning a belt, but leaving the ring with the reputation as one of the sports “good guys,” someone everybody liked and nobody had a bad word to say about. Several of his fights were carried on ESPN, HBO, Showtime and other nationally-televised broadcasts.

Then, as the Motor City dope scene descended into a brief drought late in the decade of excess, Chambers emerged out of retirement to fill the void left by the “Cocaine Cowboys” of the era, flamboyant, larger than life drug kingpins like “Meechie” Holloway and Maserati Rick Carter. These colorful personalities and volatile individuals dominated nightly television news coverage on local airwaves for a solid half-dozen years, until they all met dubious fates, unceremoniously derailed via gangland murder or incarceration. In contrast, Chambers was benign, a gentleman with no desire for violence, fanfare or attention from the media, as did his predecessors.

By the early 1990s, Chambers was quietly operating as one of the top cocaine dealers in Southeast Michigan.

“I was clocking some major weight, I’m not going to lie about that,” he said. “I joked with my friends that I was a ghost. All those other guys got the headlines and I liked it that way. That meant everybody was looking and talking about them, not me. I blended in, kept my head low, didn’t make any waves. I tried to always be a man of good faith in a bad-faith profession. I was moving fast, making a lot of money but not many people knew how. Everyone thought I was really good at my real estate investment business when it was just my front for the drugs I was slinging.”

The feds were watching though. They wanted Manny Steward or Tommy Hearns. They settled for Darrell Chambers.

Chambers’ life prison bid started at a federal facility in Tera Haute, Indiana. He got in trouble there for smuggling narcotics into the compound and was moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and then finally to a correctional institution in Colorado. Once he left Tera Haute, he decided to put the street life behind him and rediscovered his religious faith, which allowed him to never lose faith in the possibility that he might see freedom again. He also rediscovered his love of boxing and physical fitness.

“Do you know who the biggest boss of all is? God. He’s my boss man, now,” Chambers said. “I saw a lot of crazy things inside prison. I saw people get killed right in front me. I saw people of all ages lose their faith in humanity, lose their faith in life. I made a vow to myself though, I wouldn’t let it break me. I found my faith in God again and I unearthed a brand new perspective. I found that boxing, staying in shape physically and becoming disciplined in my religion was the key to staying in shape mentally. Keeping your emotions in check, making sure you do the time and you don’t let the time do you. I knew I wasn’t going to die inside there. I don’t care how much time I was looking at, it wasn’t going to stamp out my spirit. I made a commitment to overcome my circumstances.”

Chambers walked out of prison in 2021. He’s reconnected with all the old Kronk Gym vets, is working out regularly on the quick bag and often visits the new Kronk Gym in Westland, Michigan to shed wisdom for the gym’s current youth brigade. The original gym was demolished four years ago. “Manny” Steward died of colon cancer and diverticulitis in 2012 at age 68, having trained an astounding 41 world heavyweight boxing champions: most notably, Tommy Hearns, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez and heavyweight champs, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Oliver McCall, Vitali Klitzschko and Michael Moorer.

Chambers has stayed true to his religious faith since finding freedom. His four children and five grandchildren keep him grounded and humbled, as well.

“Man, times change, you either change with them or you get left behind,” he said. “I am no longer that fighter or that hustler from the Eastside. I’m a man in my 60s trying to write my second chapter and do it the right way. I am a regular at bible study and it fulfills me more than I can describe. I’ve begun studying religions and I’ve been reading a lot about the Book of Mormon lately. There’s so much knowledge to absorb in this world and you just have to be willing to go find it. I finally get to see all my grandkids and watch them grow and develop. I get to tell my children and my grandchildren I love them every day, not over a phone or in a visiting room but in person. That’s the greatest gift of all.”

Chambers’ fellow bible study participants come from all different age groups and backgrounds. Most of them, have never committed a crime in their lives.

“These are such wonderful people, such kind souls.” he said. “They are the kind of people I might have thought were marks or people to be taken advantage of in my past. Today, I just want to go up to every single one of them and give them a hug and kiss. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful and I want to tell the world.”

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