Friday, October 26, 2012

Emanuel Steward -- Pride and Joy

Sitting in the stands of Boardwalk Hall in 2007 prior to the first fight between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik, I started to leaf through the official program for the event. I stopped on a full-page ad that featured what must have been two-dozen championship boxers; all of them had been trained by Emanuel Steward. Steward's name and likeness graced the ad and a few things struck me. First, the sheer heft and stature of the champions he trained were astounding: legends like Hearns, De la Hoya, Chavez, Lewis and Klitschko. These fighters had contributed so much to my collective boxing consciousness. Second, Steward, who by this point had already been regarded as one of the best trainers on the planet, had paid for this ad or had insisted that it be included in the program. Here was a man who had already reached the mountaintop of the sport and yet that was not enough; he needed to remind boxing fans of his accomplishments.  

This ad might have smacked of pride and ego, and these characteristics were a part of Steward, but he was never regarded as smug or insufferable. His confidence, self-assuredness and ring knowledge helped dozens of fighters put belts around their waists and his observations and commentary added to millions of boxing fans' appreciation of the sport.  Steward, who left us on Thursday at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer, loved boxing dearly and felt honored by his role within it. He was a successful, self-made man in boxing and he became one of the sport's great ambassadors. He was aware of his influence and success in boxing; it meant a lot to him, but he never lost touch with his journey to the top. 

Growing up in West Virginia and moving to Detroit, Steward turned to boxing. He was a bantamweight Golden Gloves champion as an amateur (his amateur record of 94-3 was incredible). Because of family and economic conditions, he needed to work and he became an electrician instead of pursuing a professional boxing career. But he found his way to the Kronk Gym in Detroit to train fighters. He made a name for himself there and eventually amassed a huge stable of champions. By the late '80s, he had become one of the most in-demand trainers in the world, a position within boxing that he maintained until his passing. 

He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame 1996. He also segued into television, eventually becoming the lead commentator on HBO's flagship World Championship Boxing telecasts and its pay per view cards.

Steward would come to be synonymous with Detroit boxing.  In the heyday of the Kronk, in the 80s, when boxing captured more of the hearts and minds of the American sporting public, he became a celebrity. Fighters from across the country and around the world would come to the sweaty basement gym in Detroit for its legendary sparring.  Eventually, Steward would become the owner and caretaker of the Kronk. 

Steward's pride in his accomplishments could be evident whenever he would talk about Tommy Hearns or Lennox Lewis. His face would light up and in a brief instant you could sense how it felt to be a trainer on top of the world.  And he liked his celebrity and place in front of the camera. It was common for him to leave a fighter's training camp and jet in for a weekend to call HBO Boxing and head right back to training. He earned his place in the sport and he wasn't about to relinquish it.  

As a commentator, he called it straight. He loved fighters. It didn't matter if they were black or white, from the U.S., Mexico or the Ukraine. He enjoyed talking about strategy and always emphasized the importance of conditioning and a good training camp.  Immediately in fights, he would zero in on the fighters' legs.  Within the first round, he would almost always correctly determine if a fighter "had it" that night. He respected fighters of all ilks, both past greats and modern boxers on their way up. He never pined about how great the old days were. He was always present with his analysis.  

He also managed a number of the fighters whom he trained. Many of his boxers, like Hearns, Lewis, Klitschko and Andy Lee – were like sons to him. He wanted to do right by his fighters, both in and out of the ring. For a man as accomplished as he was, he never believed in shortcuts, even later in life.  He had no reservations about upending his life to have a training camp in Austria or the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.  In fact, he relished these moments to be one-on-one with his fighters.  In addition to boxing, he talked with his fighters about life lessons, financial issues and the importance of good decision making. He reveled in his fighters' victories and their losses were his losses. Years later, you could still see some some of his most painful defeats in the wrinkles on his brow. 

In addition, he would have fighters live with him in Detroit, where he became not just the boxing ambassador for the city, but also one of its cultural attaches. He would take fighters and journalists around the city, pointing out its rich boxing and industrial heritage. Even with its harsh climate, he remained in the Detroit area. It was his adopted hometown; the love between the city and the man was mutual.  

But as a trainer, he wasn't a perfect fit for all. Often as a gun-for-hire, he was brought in to work with champs like De la Hoya, Chavez, Chad Dawson and Jermain Taylor. Not all of these matches jelled. He didn't work well with fighters who cut corners in training and he had firm ideas on what led to elite boxers. He believed in intense sparring for his fighters and preferred isolation, when possible, for his training camps. In addition, he also hated interference from hangers-on, promoters and managers. He didn't want his methods questioned. He had a lot to teach but only to those fighters whom he felt were receptive. 

Steward's long-lasting and best pupils bought into his boxing philosophies. He believed in the power of the jab and never wanted boxers to give up their height or reach advantages. Steward loved knockouts, but he didn't want his fighters deviating from the game plan to get them. He stressed aspects of footwork and glove positioning that are often overlooked in boxing today. He hated fighters who reached with their shots or weren't in proper position to throw a punch. He taught his boxers how to properly tie-up on the inside when they were hurt.  

Working the corners, Steward had almost a preternatural ability to anticipate when an opponent was weakening or when it was the proper time to go for the knockout. Like the best trainers, he was brutally honest in the corner. When his fighters were behind, he let them know it. When they weren't doing something right in the ring, he tried to correct it. He was calm under pressure and never tried to complicate things too much between rounds.  

He was an avid student of the sport. He was probably one of the best at picking up an obscure weakness of an opponent and setting forth a plan to exploit it. His fight collection was legendary and he often would host fighters and fight scribes for film sessions.

Those who knew Steward often talked about his irrepressible love of the sport. He could talk about fights and fighters for hours on end, and he would talk to whomever – famous writers, celebrities or Joe Schmoe from the public. He loved being a part of boxing and boxing loved him back.  

I encountered Steward only once, at the weigh-in earlier this year prior to Hopkins-Dawson II in Atlantic City. After the weigh-in, Steward wandered to the back of the roped-in media section and started chatting with boxing fans and a few bloggers. He gave a writer from his opinion on the upcoming fight and quickly a crowd started forming around him. Once he was finished with the reporter, everyone started asking him about his thoughts on future fights. Who was going to win Mayweather-Cotto? Would Tim Bradley be a difficult opponent for Pacquiao? Steward had to run to an HBO meeting, but he took time to answer everyone's questions and pose for pictures. This was right where he wanted to be. His joy couldn't be denied.

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