Klitschko, Steward continue to be boxing's winningest odd couple
DUSSELDORF, Germany -- They sat on dark cushioned chairs in the ring, trainer and fighter, mentor and protégé. They come from two different worlds, two cultures, Emanuel Steward and Wladimir Klitschko. One was raised in the darkest corners of Detroit, churning out great welterweights from the legendary Kronk gym before becoming boxing's most sought after hired gun. The other, a Kazakh-born, Soviet raised heavyweight who oozed potential as a youth and was taught that everything American was evil. Yet here they were, in another city, making another title defense, Hall of Fame trainer and future Hall of Fame fighter, perhaps the most unstoppable tandem of this generation.
Steward and Klitschko first crossed paths in 1996, at a reception in Hamburg, Germany. Steward remembers that Klitschko, the bright eyed Olympic gold medalist with the shaved head and the black leather jacket, was so tall "it looked like he was in the damn ceiling." Steward kept an eye on Klitschko from then on, becoming more impressed with every fight he saw. During training camps with Lennox Lewis, Lewis would often ask Steward who was the best prospect in the division. Every time, Steward told him, "Wladimir Klitschko."
Klitschko knew of Steward, too; in the 1990's, who didn't? He had followed Lewis's career, watched as Steward molded the 6-foot-5 Lewis into a virtually unstoppable force. But it was chance that brought them together. In 2003, Klitschko was shuffling through trainers, having rotated Freddie Roach, Don Turner and Fritz Sdunek (among others) through his corner. Steward was with Lewis, but a few months after Lewis beat Wladimir's brother, Vitali, he elected to retire. Around that time Klitschko's manager, Bernd Boente, suggested Klitschko give Steward a call.
"'Bernd said, listen with your style, someone like Manny could be helpful,'" Klitschko said. "I never would have gotten to this idea. But it was a logical thing."
Steward flew to Los Angeles, where in a quiet gym in Marina Del Rey, trainer and fighter worked the mitts.
"I liked our rhythm," Steward said. "My style, it seemed to work with him."
At first, it didn't. In their debut together, Klitschko was knocked out in the fifth round by Lamon Brewster, a loss Steward blames on an alarmingly high insulin level in Klitschko's system. Steward could have walked away then, but he didn't; he spent the night with Klitschko at the hospital and roamed the streets of Las Vegas with him for two days afterward. Through defeat, a bond was forged.
"We failed, and I was questioning myself," Klitschko said. "I was a broken man. When you start to work with your coach and you end up on the floor, you have questions. But all respect to Emanuel, he stuck to me. He believed in me. He saw something in me. I believe any other coach would have dumped me. But Emanuel, he has this wisdom in him. He sees those things in me that he saw in Lennox."
"Lennox and Wlad are so similar," Steward said. "I still call Wlad 'Lennox' sometimes. I teach them the same stuff. If an opponent gets inside, shut it down by clinching. Control the guy. Stay tall. Never go to the ropes. You never saw Lennox's back on the ropes. You won't see Wlad, either. Wlad has best footwork and balance of any fighter I ever worked with."
As the relationship grew, success followed. Steward discovered the foundation of what he wanted from Klitschko was there, it just needed to be pulled out. A year after the loss to Brewster, Klitschko, with Steward's blessing, stepped into the ring with Sam Peter, the biggest, baddest heavyweight on the block. Klitschko went down three times against Peter; before the start of the 12th round, Vitali asked Steward if he thought his brother could finish the fight. Instead, Klitschko landed his best punch of the night that round, a perfectly placed left hook -- a punch Steward had been working on with him -- that sealed an improbable unanimous decision win.
"Everyone in that camp was paranoid and didn't have much faith," Steward said. "Vitali told him he should quit. But we needed to take the risk. Never once did we panic. He showed a lot in that fight."
From there, it's history. Since knocking off Peter, Klitschko has been a juggernaut, winning 11 fights in a row (14 overall) without being seriously threatened in any. He has perfected Lewis's style, working behind his jab, firing off that piston-rod right hand, showcasing one-punch knockout power that Steward says is unlike any fighter before him.
"He's the most accurate, single-punch knockout guy I have ever seen," Steward said. "A guy can be completely fine, not hurt, and Wladimir can put his lights out with one shot."
Each year, each fight, the bond between Steward and Klitschko continues to grow. Early on, communication was a problem -- "He was talking Detroit," Klitschko said. "I didn't understand any of it." Now, they understand each other better than many married couples. They discuss every detail of a fight, from the types of hand wraps to the strings they will use to tie Klitschko's shoes. Steward knows not to be late for training, that if the military-raised Klitschko wants to run at 6 a.m., well, expect him to be gone at 6:02. Klitschko knows Steward likes to feel comfortable working thousands of miles from home, so he is sure to outfit his room with extra clocks, a microwave and other creature comforts he knows Steward enjoys.
"We spiritually clicked," Klitschko said. "He needs what I have and he has something that I don't have. It's not a typical relationship between a coach and a boxer. Coaches usually say 'this is the plan, we're going to do so many workouts and this is how we are going to do it. I train myself. Emanuel is giving me a tremendous amount of information about the sport, about former champions and what they have done, about consistency. We break down and analyze the opponents. If you know who is across from you, you know how to beat him. The more time we spend with each other, the more we click and understand."
Indeed, a passion for boxing brought these two together, created a force. On Saturday, Klitschko will put his titles on the line against Jean-Marc Mormeck (4:30 ET, Epix/EpixHD.com). The man who guided the careers of Tommy Hearns, Mike McCallum and Milton McCrory will be there, dispensing strategy in his corner.
"And if you had told me that 25 years ago that I'd be known for training someone like Wladimir, I'd have told you that you were crazy," Steward said. "I'd have told you there were no good white heavyweights and if there was I wouldn't be working with one on the other side of the world. Now I spend probably 30 percent of my year in Europe. I get recognized going through customs. It's funny how life works."