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Without Steward in corner, Klitschko readies for title defense

HAMBURG, Germany -- From his hospital bed in Chicago last month, Emanuel Steward connected with his prized pupil, Wladimir Klitschko, one final time.

Steward wanted so badly to be in Klitschko's camp, to work the corner of the man he morphed into the most dominant heavyweight of his era just once more. Klitschko wanted it too, which is why despite his mentor's deteriorating health, Klitschko worked for weeks without a trainer, hoping for a miracle. But with cancer ravaging his body, the 68-year-old Steward could only manage a phone call, and even then, a short one.

"The only line that I got to hear from him was, 'Hello, hello, how ya' doing?'" Klitschko said. "Unfortunately that was the last words that I heard from Emanuel."

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No words could convey the feelings, the bond between two men whose lives and careers will be forever intertwined. Steward took over Klitschko's corner in 2004, inheriting a skilled fighter, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and one-time heavyweight titleholder, who had lost his way. Under Steward, Klitschko polished a stinging jab that set up a concussive right hand. He rattled off a 16-1 record with Steward in his corner and collected three pieces of the heavyweight title along the way.

"He said, 'Wladimir, be yourself,'" Klitschko said. "The thing I learned in the amateurs is about technique and balance, strategy that he has been improving on that. We basically write a script in the preparation and the script was played out in the fight exactly the way we wrote it. We were analyzing everything, the way the opponent talks, the way the opponent walks, what he has done before, what was the most common thing he repeated on the strong side of the opponent and on the weak side of the opponent. And we used it."

The bond between Klitschko and Steward stretched well beyond fighter and trainer. They became family. Steward brought Motown music to Klitschko's training camps, and the Ukrainian fighter soon began adding Steward's songs to his playlist. They bonded over a shared love for dancing -- "Emanuel really thought he could move," Klitschko said -- and understood each other's idiosyncrasies. Klitschko knew Steward wanted his room in training camp to be stocked with certain foods; Steward knew Klitschko was a stickler for workouts starting on time.

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"We talked a lot," Klitschko said. "We talked about boxing and we talked about life because life is like boxing. There are certain things that are comparable and one of them is life and the sport of boxing."

Steward is gone, but as Klitschko prepares to defend his titles against Mariusz Wach on Saturday (4:30 ET, Epix/EpixHD.com), his presence is still palpable. Several members of Steward's team -- including James Ali Bashir and Johnathan Banks, who will share cornerman duties on Saturday -- remain, and throughout camp Klitschko says Steward's instructions echoed in his head.

"Emanuel Steward is a genius in the ring," Klitschko said. "It is something. It makes me feel privileged to have worked with him for many years and be a friend with such a legend and a genius that we have in boxing."

Throughout fight week Klitschko has refused to get emotional, often pivoting the conversation to his opponent, Wach, or Banks, who has been part of his training camps since 2004. But insiders say the loss of Steward eats at Klitschko, who sees training as a welcome distraction.

Klitschko will face the reality of Steward's death next week, when he travel's to the U.S. for Steward's memorial. Until then, he will focus on fighting, heeding the lessons from the man who changed his life.

"[Losing Steward] was very sad and it is still sad," Klitschko said. "I can tell you that the real spirit of Emanuel Steward is with us. I am very happy there is a fight so we can stay focused and continue to do what he was excited about. We are doing a job we love doing and we are very excited about it. I see excitement in everyone on my team."

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