Sense of family central to legacy of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward
In the last half of his career, Emanuel Steward was a kind of day-trainer, a Mr. Fix-It brought in to restore flagging careers or just jump start young ones. The recent generation of boxing fans know him -- aside from his stint as ringside analyst for HBO -- as the guy in the corner with Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis or current heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. All these fighters, and lots more he stepped in to mentor, got just a little bit better with Steward at their side. Not for nothing he was in the boxing Hall of Fame. Not incidentally 41 of these fighters won world championships.
But Steward, who died Thursday at the age of 68, should be better remembered as the full-service trainer who took a bunch of Detroit kids off the streets back in the 1970s and, incubating their half-formed desires in the hot-house humidity of the Kronk Gym, turned out one superstar after another. With little background besides some Golden Gloves experience of his own -- he was the national champ at bantamweight in 1963 -- Steward produced a surprising string of champions, highlighted by Tommy Hearns, but including the McCrory brothers, Hilmer Kenty, almost too many to mention.
If he became more of a contractor, his specialized services in demand right up to the end, he was once actually more of a factory owner, turning out fleets of concussive welterweights from the Kronk assembly line. The Kronk Recreation Center, where Steward took up residence as a $30-a-week coach (he was a lineman for Detroit Edison by day), quickly became a mecca for Detroit boxing. Working with a gangly bunch of youngsters (Hearns was so skinny his trunks wouldn't stay up), Steward produced bumper crops of amateur champions; his Kronk Gym team won the Detroit Golden Gloves seven years running.
As the kids filled out and grew up, it was Steward who ushered them into the pros, all of them still training in the Kronk, where the thermostat was kept in the 90s (the door knobs were hot to the touch) and the adrenaline just as high. First, and most famously, there was Hearns, Steward's first star and, even after all this time, perhaps his biggest. Hearns had the luck to enter a division with such legends as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, and their roundelays created some of the greatest fights of the 1980s (Hearns-Hagler remains code for the most exciting round of boxing, ever) and tens of millions of dollars. Once they were sharing burgers in Steward's station wagon, on the way to some tournament, but now they were occupying vast suites in Las Vegas, and getting there in private jets.
Hearns was an exciting talent and might have made it somewhere else, with somebody else. But he made it in Detroit, and he made it with Steward. In any case, Hearns, even if he was the one who set Steward on a path to boxing celebrity, was no fluke. Steward guided a string of lesser lights to titles, at times as a motivational guru (he'd tell fighters between rounds they were losing the lease to their apartment), at times as babysitter. He was the kind of trainer who met whatever needs were required, going well beyond the specifics of boxing. Whatever his knowledge of boxing, his insights into the human condition were certainly equal and possibly more valuable.
One story he liked to tell involved an up-and-comer of his who got overmatched at the last minute. Rather than bow out of the fight and rather than submit the kid to a career-crippling loss, Steward arranged for two young ladies to knock on the opponent's door the night before the fight and to ask if he had the correct time. "And people wonder, why do they need a manager," Steward would say, laughing.
Because he came into the game as a kind of father figure, driving his ragtag bunch of kids around from smoker to smoker, his greatest talents remained as mentor, more even than trainer. In 1994, promoter Don King handed him the keys to Oliver McCall, a pretty good athlete who liked to disappear during critical times of training. King famously said of McCall, "He's made some missteps in the alcohol division." Steward understood if he could just keep him in camp for the Lennox Lewis fight he might have a chance, a slim one but still. So Steward, upon discovering McCall liked to sing and in fact had a decent voice, bought him a tuxedo and sent him over to his restaurant in Detroit to sing every night. McCall was so enthralled by the spotlight that he neglected his usual haunts. Anyway, McCall clocked Lewis in one of boxing's bigger upsets.
Steward did whatever it took, no task too menial or unimportant, no tactic too silly to dismiss. After he became more of a trainer for hire, he stepped in to help Evander Holyfield for his Mike Tyson fights. It occurred to Steward that Holyfield needed to move more, but he simply couldn't coax the fighter to loosen up. So he took Holyfield dancing (he fancies himself a Fred Astaire, but so did Steward) and whether that had anything to do with his upset of Tyson, well, it was probably fun anyway.
Steward cooked their meals (in an odd bit of karma, Steward was hired to train Lewis, and learned his mother's recipes for the Jamaican-born fighter; Steward traveled with his own pots and pans), pulled up their socks and just generally looked out for them. He never again found the long-time relationship he enjoyed with Hearns or some of the other Kronk fighters (almost all his training tenures, except the recent one with Klitschko, have been short and largely mercenary). But he remained loyal and vital to boxing, a reminder that the best part of it was often, if only at the beginning, that sense of family.