While there is some debate
over what really felled Emanuel Steward and exactly what time he passed away on
the fateful day of October 25th, 2012, there is no argument over
this: boxing lost more than just a Hall of Fame trainer, manager and a noted
broadcaster; it lost a piece of its history and tradition. Yes, it's true;
unfortunately, we have lost one of the good ones. Gone at the still-too-young
age of 68 but he'll never be forgotten.
From his humble beginnings
in West Virginia as young lad to his National Golden Gloves winning days in
1963, the legend of Steward really began in Detroit where he climbed telephone
poles for Detroit Edison. It was then - in all his spare time - he began his
training career in earnest, driving young amateurs all around the region to
various tournaments. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he had turned the Kronk
Gym -an old recreation center in the heart of Motown - into an assembly line of
champions rivaling anything churned out by the likes of Ford and General
Motors. One by one they came, young, hungry boys (mostly African-American) who
were nurtured into fighting men.
No, Steward wasn't Kronk’s only
trainer; colleagues like Bill Miller, Luther Burgess and Walter Smith should
not be forgotten. But Manny was their unquestioned leader. If this was a
football staff, he was Kronk's Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson. And soon, they
were not only winning fights on a regular basis and winning world titles but
creating stars who shined on a national stage. It began with Hilmer Kenty and
didn't stop for a good decade. Back in those days, Kronk meant just as much to
Detroit as the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons. Before this city became a
punchline (and much worse, a flashpoint to today's economic struggles), Kronk
gave this city a sense of pride and honor.
Emanuel Steward (Collage)
They would regularly sell out
the Joe Louis and Cobo Arenas for fight cards in this era. These were fighters
who didn't need checks from a television network to make a living; these guys
had a legitimate fan-base in this city from which to draw upon. They weren't
just fighters from Detroit - they seemingly fought for it.
And it's why Steward is
every bit as monumental to this city's sports history as Gordie Howe, Isiah
Thomas, Al Kaline and Barry Sanders.
Before Steward became
boxing's most coveted troubleshooter, he was one of its last real do-it-all
cornermen, who not only trained and managed most his boxers but, in many
instances, he cooked and lived with them. There was no need for any
nutritionists or strength-and-conditioning coaches. Here, that was all covered
by one man under one roof. In the second half of his career (which saw him work
with over 40 world champions), he was best known for resurrecting the likes of
Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko to heavyweight glory. But it says here that
his signature fighter will always be one Thomas Hearns. Quick, ask any fan to
name a fighter trained by Steward; I’ll bet the majority will say “The Hitman”
without hesitation. Steward would line 'em up and Hearns would knock 'em out.
He wasn't just the guy who worked his corner; Steward was also a paternal
figure in Hearns' life and he'd tell you that he looked at Tommy as more than
just a fighter.
They were both cinches for
the Hall of Fame.
Back in this era, when you
saw a fighter with the trademark gold Kronk trunks (with the red and blue
trim), you knew you were going to see a well-conditioned, hardnosed, skilled
fighter. For any young boxing fan growing up in the ‘80s (which this reporter
certainly was), the Kronk garb was every bit as iconic as Notre Dame's gold
helmets or Yankee pinstripes. You had to meet a certain standard in those eras
to have that gear on you. Boxing by nature isn't a team sport. But this gym -
which famously traveled in bunches with the coolest looking warm-ups and gym bags
you had ever seen - was one unit, bound together like a fist.
Above - Kronk Classic
Below - New Kronk
When you took on a Kronk
fighter, you weren't just facing a boxer but a brand, a reputation, the city of
Detroit and someone given the seal of approval by Steward himself.
Steward, as Bum Phillips
once famously said about Don Shula, could take his and beat yours and take
yours and beat his. That was never more evident than in the rivalry between
Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis, who split a pair of star-crossed fights back in
1994 and 1997. But Steward was in the winning corners both times, having
trained the mercurial “Atomic Bull” to his knockout victory over Lewis in their
first match-up and in the opposite corner as Lewis gained revenge a few years
later. He was brought in by Evander Holyfield - thought to have no chance
at winning the rematch with Riddick Bowe in 1993 - and helped “The Real Deal”
recapture the heavyweight crown (I can still see Steward blindside tackling
Holyfield after the bell had sounded for the end of the 12th round).
There was Steward’s reunion with Hearns (who had just struggled mightily with
James Kinchen) for the long-awaited bout with Ray Leonard. By 1989, Hearns was
thought to be a faded fighter and given little chance of even being competitive
with Leonard. Going back to their Kronk roots and training exclusively in
Detroit, they did enough in most eyes to win that fight (which was scored as a
Lewis was always a bit
frustrating to him; Steward always felt Lewis should be more of a checkers
player in the ring instead of the chess aficionado he was outside of it. But
without Steward, Lewis doesn't have a place in Canastota. Who can forget his
loud and forceful cajoling of Lewis during the middle rounds of the Mike Tyson
fight, understanding that the only way Tyson could win that fight was if Lewis
fought passively. Like a great jockey, Steward understood when to go to the
whip. Klitschko was thought to be shattered into a thousand pieces back in 2004
(in fact, their first fight together, he was stopped by Lamon Brewster) but he
eventually reinvented and rehabilitated the hulking Ukrainian to a point where
he is still in the midst of a dominant heavyweight run.
Cotto was Steward’s latest reclamation job. He took a shaky, broken fighter and
gave him back a sense of confidence and, just as importantly, his balance.
No, trainers can’t necessarily
win or lose a fight; really, it's about the guys they have on their stool. But
the elite can make a small difference that can be the margin in winning or
losing. Steward was certainly one of them.
No, he didn't win all the
time (I mean, who does?). You get into enough big fights, you're bound to lose
more than just a few. It happens sometimes when you have the likes of Marvin
Hagler and Leonard in the opposite corner. His worst month ever was probably
April of 2001 when in a span of weeks, “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Lewis were
dramatically and shockingly knocked off their perches. Perhaps Steward, by then
a victim of his own success and being in such demand, had stretched himself too
thin to a point where in trying to train two boxers in two locations, he really
The last time I saw Steward
was on the night of June 30th when he had flown 15 hours from
Austria (from the training camp of Klitschko, who was just a week away from his
bout with Tony Thompson) to work the corner of Cornelius Bundrage, who was
defending his IBF junior middleweight crown against Cory Spinks. He would fly
back the very next morning. So why in the hell would he make this trek to Indio
for this fight? “I just had to be here, Steve; this fight was too important to ‘K9.’
I was worried about him struggling and I just had to be there for him,” said Steward,
explaining his insane itinerary. He understood that a victory in this situation
for Bundrage could lead to bigger and better things.
After the fight - which Bundrage
won by knockout - what really stood out was that Steward could not get off the
ring apron for a good half-hour because he was mobbed by the masses for
autographs and pictures (of which I have never, ever seen him turn down one
request). It struck me, on this card, it wasn't the fighters who were the main
attraction - it was him. And it proved once again that he was perhaps boxing's
best ambassador. At times, he would carry a stack of Kronk postcards to sign.
Not because of his ego but because it would be convenient for anyone who asked
him for his John Hancock. There are countless stories of boxing fans across the
world who have stories of their interactions with Steward. Not only did he love
boxing but he enjoyed the fans and spreading the gospel.
Finally, a group of us (including
my friends, Ernie and Noe - and a few of his acquaintances) had a few drinks at
the Fantasy Springs Casino bowling alley. And for the next hour or two, the
Goose and soda flowed and Emanuel, like nobody else could, gave us a tutorial
on the “Sweet Science” and regaled us with tales of his past. Seriously, his
stories are like episodes of “The White Shadow” for me and many others; even if
you've heard them before, they're like great reruns you watch over and over
again. It's the most educational and entertaining session a boxing fan could
ask for. He explained how he came up with the strategy to beat Bowe with
Holyfield, “We were at a club and I see [Holyfield] dancing and this boy's got
some moves and rhythm I didn't think he had. I said, ‘Right there, that's our
game plan.’”(So yeah, was he clubbin' with one of his fighters? Hey, that's how
Emanuel rolled). I reminded him of his karate gi outfit he wore in the corner
back in the day; he laughed loudly and promised that if he ever fished it out
his closet, it was all mine.
What I did notice that
evening was how frail Steward looked. I figured it was just the travel and him
getting a bit up there in age. But it turns out he had admitted to a few close
associates that he had not been feeling well lately. Whispers grew as he missed
assignments on HBO and there was the Kronk-promoted card in Detroit in the
summer that was hastily and mysteriously canceled the night before it was
scheduled. Soon, the word was out that Steward was ill, to what degree was not
Boxing didn't just lose a
great trainer; it also lost one of its most beloved members of its community.
Steward was a reporter’s dream; not only would he give you great stuff but he
taught you something about this sport - both in and out of the ring. It didn't
matter if you worked for the New York
Times or an internet site; he would give you time and knowledge. And
regardless of where he was (even in some far-flung locale in Europe with
Wladimir), Steward would attempt to call you back.
Detroit lost one of its
pillars. Ask those around this community and those who knew Manny; they would
tell you of the charitable acts he did for a multitude of people for years without
a hint of fanfare. Yeah, he made a lot of money but he also gave plenty of it
away. Patrick Ewing would approve. He's gone but his legacy will never be
forgotten. Boxing wasn't just a better game because he was in it; Detroit was a
better place for having him too. The doors of the original Kronk closed up a few
years ago but its spirit and contribution will never fade in this city and in
boxing fans across the world.
R.I.P. Emanuel Steward.
Emanuel Steward with Milton McCrory at the Bradley-Alexander weigh-in
One of my favorite stories I
have ever penned was about the day I spent in Detroit with Steward the day before
the bout between Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander at the Silverdome. He was
gracious enough to show me around his town (and even then, it was his town in many ways). While the fight
was a huge letdown, this time with Emanuel made the trip worthwhile. It's
something I will never forget.
A running joke to many fans
was how Steward would state how he knew that this fight would go exactly as it was going during the middle
of it (yeah, OK, he did do that on occasion). But overall, he could always be
counted on to bring great insight and commentary to a big fight. And you could
hear the excitement and enthusiasm in his voice during a slugfest (hey, the guy
was a fan just like us) and it was especially evident during fights like Micky Ward
vs. Arturo Gatti I and James Toney vs. Vassiliy Jirov.
But my fondest HBO memory of
Steward was after Marco Antonio Barrera took apart Jesus Salud and was in line
to face Hamed next. There was a lot of talk back then of Hamed facing either
Barrera or Erik Morales. After this “Boxing After Dark” broadcast, Jim Lampley
asked Steward what he thought of Barrera and his performance. A chagrined
Steward said bluntly, “I think we picked the wrong Mexican.”
As usual, Emanuel, you were