Every time a boxing icon passes away, the unseen fabric that binds everyone who loves the sport ripples with sorrow. When that icon is one that possessed irreplaceable knowledge, the sense of loss is magnified. But when that person is as beloved as Emanuel Steward, the intensity of that loss grows exponentially.
At approximately 2:46 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, October 25, 2012, the Hall of Fame trainer, manager and TV commentator died at age 68 following complications from recent surgery. Steward had been hospitalized in Chicago since September and according to his family he had undergone a procedure to combat the effects of diverticulitis. Reports said Steward was surrounded by loved ones and suffered no pain at the time of his passing, and for that thanks are given. For the rest of us, the pain has only begun.
Steward was born July 4, 1944, in Bottom Creek, W. Va., and at age 8 he was given boxing gloves as a Christmas present, a gesture that set in motion the events that shaped the rest of his life.
He moved with his mother, a seamstress, to Detroit at age 12. Shortly after the relocation he began visiting the Brewster Recreational Center, whose most famous alumni included Joe Louis and Eddie Futch. He joined the gym’s amateur team and achieved extraordinary success by amassing a 94-3 record as well as winning the 1963 National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in the bantamweight division.
“That was the greatest (moment),” Steward said in an interview with BoxingInsider.com. “(I beat) a guy named Frank Glover, who was a big favorite to knock me out. He was like Mike Tyson – knocking everyone out. I lost the first round then won the last two real big in order to pull it out. That was the biggest win of my life, probably.”
Although he was interested in becoming a professional boxer, rough financial straits forced him to take a full-time position as an electrician with Detroit Edison.
One day Steward took his half-brother James to the Kronk Recreation Center. The sights and smells of the gym further stirred his already entrenched love of boxing, which, in turn, led to his accepting a $35-per-week position as a part-time trainer. As was the case in his amateur career, Steward excelled in relatively short order. He guided his squad to the 1971 Detroit Golden Gloves team championship, the first of what would be many achievements on the safer side of the ropes.
In March 1972, Steward left Detroit Edison to become a full-time trainer and eight years later had his first professional world champion. On March 2, 1980, at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Hilmer Kenty, a heavy underdog, knocked out Ernesto Espana in nine rounds to win the Venezuelan’s WBA lightweight title. Kenty, normally a long-range boxer, shocked everyone by taking the fight to Espana and battering him until he finally succumbed. It wouldn’t be the last time Steward’s strategic acumen would directly affect the course of a contest.
Following Kenty’s surprising triumph, Steward’s successes at the highest levels accumulated with dizzying speed. In August 1980, Thomas Hearns pulverized Pipino Cuevas in two rounds to capture the WBA welterweight title. He eventually was joined by Jimmy Paul (IBF lightweight), Milton McCrory (WBC welterweight) and brother Steve McCrory, who won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with Steward’s help. Even more amazing was that this quartet grew up within blocks of one another.
One of the last men to cultivate world champions from the ground up became one of the first prominent successes in what some now call the “hired gun” era. In all, Steward managed 31 world champions and worked with 40 fighters who had won major titles at some point in their careers. In that regard Steward is the most decorated trainer in history; Freddie Roach has guided 25 titlists while Futch and Ray Arcel seconded 22 and 19, respectively, during their much more restrictive eras.
The depth and breadth of Steward’s charges is astonishing in terms of styles and resumes. Besides the champions previously mentioned, the roster of notable fighters he’s worked with include the following: Henry Akinwande, Dennis Andries, Leeonzer Barber, Wilfred Benitez, David Braxton, Cornelius Bundrage, Mark Breland, Gaby Canizales, Julio Cesar Chavez, Kermit Cintron, Miguel Cotto, Chad Dawson, Oscar De La Hoya, Jeff Fenech, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Naseem Hamed, Vivian Harris, Lindell Holmes, Evander Holyfield, John David Jackson, Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, Oliver McCall, Mike McCallum, Gerald McClellan, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Welcome Ncita, Aaron Pryor, Jimmy Paul, Lucia Rijker, Graciano Rocchigiani, Leon Spinks, Jermain Taylor, Duane Thomas, James Toney and Tony Tucker.
In recent years Steward has been most closely associated with middleweight Andy Lee, who he signed to a contract following the 2004 Athens Olympics, and Wladimir Klitschko, who may have been his last great reconstruction project. Steward transformed Klitschko from a high-octane but high-risk fighter into a superbly balanced jab-oriented boxer-puncher that maximized his physical gifts. While many criticized Klitschko’s new approach, they couldn’t argue with the bottom line – three of the four major belts (including championship recognition by THE RING), a 16-fight winning streak and an IBF title reign that just passed the six-and-a-half year mark.
Klitschko wasn’t the only fighter to undergo such a dramatic change in fistic identity.
As an amateur Hearns was a jab-and-dance master who scored, at most, 12 stoppages in his 155-8 record. By the time Hearns turned pro in 1977, Steward had taught him the benefits of leverage.
By locking his elbow and tightly clenching his fist as he punched, Hearns became one of history’s most devastating hitters. The right hand that knocked out Roberto Duran in 1984 was arguably the most impactful cross ever thrown if one takes into account the Panamanian’s previous imperviousness to his opponents’ power. To that point Duran had been down only twice in 82 fights, both to Esteban DeJesus left hooks. Against Hearns, Duran was decked twice in the first round alone and put away shortly thereafter.
But Steward never let Hearns forget the boxing skills he drilled into him as a youth. During his classic first fight against Sugar Ray Leonard Hearns suffered through hellish beatings in rounds six and seven. Between rounds seven and eight Steward urged him to practice what he called “leg boxing,” which allowed Hearns to build a decisive lead after 12 rounds. That Leonard came back to stop Hearns in the 14th – an event Steward called the most disappointing of his life – was a tribute to Leonard’s own greatness.
Not only was Steward adept at imparting sage technical advice in a calm, clinical manner, he could deliver an impassioned expletive-laden scolding that sparked his charges into action. The two most famous examples of this took place during Lewis’ eighth-round knockout over Mike Tyson and Klitschko’s last-round stoppage over Eddie Chambers.
While Steward excelled at the extremes, he also deftly mastered the middle ground. Entering the final round of a tightly contested bout with Bobby Czyz, Steward told Dennis Andries that he was making a live-action movie of his life for his son to view in future years and that he had – at that very moment – the power to write the ending. Andries went on to win the 10th round as well as the majority decision.
Steward couldn’t have conjured these results without forming extremely close bonds with his fighters. At various times Moorer and Lee moved into Steward’s home, where he cooked their meals and cared for them as a father would a beloved son.
Klitschko and Steward often had long conversations about life beyond the ropes. By forging these relationships, Steward collected information about what was most important to his fighters and he used those nuggets to get the most out of them during the most crucial moments of combat. For example, one fighter wanted to earn a piece of Kronk apparel that was given only to the gym’s champions, and before the last round of a close title fight Steward brought out that fact to fuel the final drive. Of course, the fighter prevailed.
No matter what course he chose, Steward often got the result he wanted. His record in heavyweight championship contests is one that may stand forever – in nearly 40 fights his fighters suffered only two losses and one draw.
The respect Steward engendered caused at least two fighters to adopt the “if I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em” route. After Oliver McCall scored a shocking second-round knockout over Lennox Lewis in September 1994, Lewis hired Steward, who had worked McCall’s corner.
Under Steward, Lewis avenged the McCall loss 29 months after the shattering defeat and went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Andries saw the benefits of Steward’s tutelage in a most up-close-and-personal manner during his 10th-round TKO loss to Hearns in March 1987, an event that persuaded Andries to seek out Steward and don the Kronk red-and-gold. That move sparked a six-fight win streak that eventually led him back to the WBC light heavyweight title he lost to the “Hit Man.”
Despite all of his professional successes Steward kept his hand in the amateur game. Besides Steve McCrory, Steward helped develop five more gold medal winners on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team – Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Tyrell Biggs, Jerry Page and Frank Tate — and over the years he continued to dispense advice to those running America’s amateur program.
As the accomplishments between the ropes continued to mount, so did the honors. The Boxing Writers Association of America selected him as Trainer of the Year in 1993 and 1997 as well as Manager of the Year in 1980 and 1989. He was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2000.
While still training fighters, Steward parlayed his verbal skills to a spot on HBO’s commentary team starting in 2001. His decades of experience fueled insights that enabled him to spot strategic trends early on that, more often than not, played themselves out in the ring.
Steward’s love of boxing took many forms and his regard for people in general was unmistakable. Those closest to him looked forward to his back-yard barbecues, and though this reporter had trouble pinning him down by phone from time to time, Steward’s expansive comments made the effort worth it. His candor during interviews and genuine caring in his one-on-one relationships created the wellspring of goodwill that is being expressed today.
One by one, the people who have served as the touchstones of boxing lore are leaving us. This past February 1 another giant of the sport, Angelo Dundee, departed this phase of existence and the ripples through the fabric were just as strong. Death, and whatever lies beyond it, is a journey we all must take someday but when someone like Emanuel Steward dies those he left behind suffer from his absence and the sport he represented is the lesser for it.
Steward’s extraordinary resume is only part of what made him who he was in boxing. The other part — one that only a deserving few possess in this unforgiving, dog-eat-dog sport — is even more precious: The universal ungrudging respect of his peers within the industry, the deep and abiding love of those that knew him best and the outpouring of sadness even from those who never had the chance to spend one-on-one time with him. His bright eyes, intelligence, eloquence, eagerness to please and unmistakable drive to succeed in every endeavor made up his identity. One will have to look long and hard to find another like him.
Boxing has lost another vessel of boundless knowledge as well as a man who was utterly devoted to the people he taught. For that, the people he knew as well as the people who knew of him gladly reciprocated his direct, and indirect, kindnesses.
The period of mourning will be relatively short and intense but the memories he left behind will last forever.
Photos / Alex Grimm-Bongarts, Mike Powell, Dick Halsted and Steve Grayson-Getty Images
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.