The alpine air sweeps through the gym, circulating a crispness
and freshness that is not ordinarily associated with boxing and
not previously associated with boxing Emanuel Steward-style. The
Kronk Gym in Detroit, where the venerable trainer turned out
Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, Milt McCrory and Michael Moorer,
among others, was stifling and oppressive, the thermostat set
for three figures and the testosterone level dialed up just as
Well, things do change. Steward, 53, boxing's Motown Mogul, is
now operating out of Big Bear, Calif., a resort getaway, about
two hours east of Los Angeles and 6,500 feet above it. He rents
a house on the lake, where he resides most of the year, and his
gym is about two miles away. He frequently allows the big
overhead garage door of his gym to be opened to provide his
boxers a chance to spar alfresco, the townspeople setting up
lawn chairs in the parking lot to watch. You can actually smell
pine needles. The thin mountain air does not seem to offend his
urban sensibilities, nor does being on a mountaintop seem to
disturb his equilibrium, as he is planning to devote most of his
time and effort to training boxers in this new high-altitude
boxing mecca. The fighters that flock to him grow in number each
It is not surprising that boxers scale mountains to receive his
advice because Steward, the most omnipresent trainer of the late
'70s and the '80s, has come to be seen as a guru, a man of rare
wisdom. He has been behind some of the heavyweight upsets of the
'90s--Oliver McCall's defeat of Lennox Lewis in '94 for the WBC
title and Evander Holyfield's improbable victory over Riddick
Bowe in their '93 rematch for the WBA and WBF crowns--and is in
demand by promoters and managers in need of quick fixes or
career boosts for their boxers.
In fact that is the difference between the Detroit Steward and
the Big Bear Steward. He has become more of a contractor--a
hired gun--than a factory owner. The days when he rolled out
fleets of welterweights from his Detroit plant are gone; now he
moves from corner to corner, taking on impossible missions from
dueling promoters, fixing this boxer or that one, then moving
on. The man who crafted the Hitman has become one himself.
September 14, 1997
The transformation is odd for somebody who had turned boxing
into a team sport, his Kronk fighters, who wore matching colors
as if they were in a Golden Gloves tournament, traveling from
one million-dollar fight to another. Those were the days he'd
bring a kid up from the peewees, nurse him through an Olympics,
then be trainer-father figure to him in the pros. It was not
particularly unusual for a boxer to live in Steward's house as
family and call him Pops, as Moorer did from '88 to '92.
Now Steward carries as many as three shirts (one of them still
says KRONK) in his gym bag as he moves through his day. This is
not to say he's disloyal; if you've fought for Steward, you have
a friend for life. But it's no longer unusual for him to train a
boxer for a title fight and then work the other guy's corner in
the rematch, as he did with McCall and Lewis. The fact that he
backed the winner each time (McCall in the upset over Lewis,
Lewis in the rematch two and a half years later) does not make
him a front-runner, just a very good boxing trainer who goes
where he's needed.
At the moment he's in the process of turning WBC welterweight
champion Oscar De La Hoya, 24, back into a flashy knockout
artist, a boxer who produces as much excitement in the ring as
he does in GQ fashion spreads. De La Hoya, who faces Hector
Camacho at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, is probably
the most important product in the fight game right now, a rare
talent of undeniable charisma who has a chance to make everybody
forget the recent debacles in the heavyweight division. He could
become the glamour boxer of the '90s, the Sugar Ray Leonard of
the MTV bunch.
But first Steward must restore De La Hoya's punch, refashion him
as the kind of welterweight walloper Hearns was more than a
decade ago. The stakes are high--they always are by the time
Steward is called in. De La Hoya, despite a tremendous buildup
that began at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only U.S.
boxer to win a gold medal, has been incurring more doubt than
glory in recent fights.
Since pureeing Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez in their 1996
fight, De La Hoya has failed to take the next step into stardom,
unable to display his advantages in strength and resolve in two
bouts that followed. Most notably, he allowed Pernell Whitaker
to nearly dipsy-doodle him to death in April, and De La Hoya's
decision in that fight was so controversial that his
marketability was seriously damaged. Camacho, whose high profile
in boxing is due as much to his ring dress as his skills, is
just one more cutie pie capable of frustrating De La Hoya. The
Golden Boy not only must win this fight but also must destroy
So the call went out to Steward: Fix this kid, fix him fast. And
if you don't mind, please come to Big Bear, where Oscar likes to
Steward had worked with Lewis at Big Bear in '95 and was eager
to return. Plus, he is so happy to be around fighters,
especially talented ones, that he could hardly say no. He knew
there were problems, a result of some strange guidance by De La
Hoya's previous trainer, but he also knew he was one guy
equipped to solve them.
"Don't play his game," Steward reminds De La Hoya as he watches
the boxer dance around the ring (in the fighter's own backyard
gym, about a mile from Steward's headquarters). "Just overwhelm
him. That's the word--overwhelm." De La Hoya nods gratefully,
always a good student but suddenly an anxious one.
As anyone who saw him fight Whitaker knows, De La Hoya had been
plunged into a tactical nether land by a mysterious trainer from
Mexico named Jesus Rivero. Rivero had been brought aboard in '95
by promoter Bob Arum to take De La Hoya to the next level.
Instead the Professor, as he called himself, had the fighter
performing in the ring as if the sport were flag football. The
idea of defense has always appealed to De La Hoya, who grew up
revering Willie Pep more than Sonny Liston, so he and Rivero
made a comfortable pair in the seven fights that they worked
But after the Whitaker bout, during which both fighters
pretended to be Pep, producing a no-hitter, there was panic in
De La Hoya's camp. Out went Rivero, sent packing by De La Hoya's
handlers, and in came Steward, a man who believes in the
knockout above all else in boxing. "I hate decisions," Steward
says. "Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em." He's got De La Hoya waving
a big right hand, moving forward, the only Pep now in his step.
Should Steward help De La Hoya toward a concussive conclusion,
it will not go down as a miracle. De La Hoya (25-0, 21 KOs) was
knocking people out before and was a vicious finisher of
opponents until he got entranced by the Professor. But if De La
Hoya wins as impressively as he did in his second-round KO of
David Kamau in June (his first under Steward), the guru will
have earned his fee.
De La Hoya is ecstatic about the relationship. "I'm back to my
old style," he says, with the same eagerness to go for the kill
that he once had. Interestingly, since Steward's arrival, De La
Hoya has stopped talking about retiring early to take up golf
Steward makes boxers feel good about themselves. Any
conversation with him is bound to cover a lot of fighters, all
of them people he has improved, either in the ring or out. He
takes pride in his teaching abilities but likes to point out
that he provides a total package, cooking for his guys, pulling
up their socks, whatever. "The thing is," he says, when asked
how he got along with the hard cases who were under his wing, "I
liked them all."
One guy he liked was McCall, a boxer whom promoter Don King
likes to call "my junkie." King hired Steward to help the
oft-troubled McCall in 1994, when King was throwing contenders
in every available ring, hoping to produce a champion in his
camp for Mike Tyson, who he knew would contend for the title
when he got out of prison. McCall was one of King's longest
shots. But Steward found, first of all, that McCall was not a
bad guy. Second, the fighter known as the Atomic Bull for his
straight-ahead style could box a little.
"During training," Steward says, remembering when he was working
McCall in Detroit in the original Kronk, "I was careful to keep
him from his old haunts. I bought him a tuxedo and sent him over
to my restaurant to sing. And you know, Oliver has a good voice.
Not a good voice for a boxer, like Larry Holmes, but a good
Steward spent hours talking with McCall--talking is one of
Steward's gifts--and making him feel worthwhile. He also
developed McCall into more of a stick-and-move boxer for the
Lewis fight, which would award the winner the WBC title. To
everyone's surprise it worked, McCall scoring an electrifying
second-round knockout in front of a rowdy pro-Lewis crowd in
London, a huge upset that not so incidentally put King back in
the middle of the heavyweight picture.
King has always taken a lot of credit for that victory, noting
that he had "de-chemicalized" McCall and roused him with
spirited renditions of Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the real work
had been done in Detroit and in Mexico, where Steward had
trained Chavez and McCall at the same time.
"I took Oliver with me," Steward says, recalling the highly
complicated dual training regime. "I'd work with Julio, about a
two-hour drive up a mountain road, come back down, train Oliver,
then cook dinner for him--he didn't like the Mexican food. I had
my own pots and pans at the time. Cook him his roast beef and
mashed potatoes, and by the time I was done washing dishes it
was 9:30. But the commitment paid off."
Chavez tore Meldrick Taylor apart (Chavez and Steward later
split), and McCall upended Lewis. (King's men stepped in
immediately after that. "Jealousy," says Steward. "They ruined
everything.") Neither fighter has been much good since, with
McCall getting arrested for possession of drugs, going in and
out of rehab, and breaking down in the ring in the Lewis rematch
(with Steward helpless in Lewis's corner). "What was going on in
McCall's life was beyond what was going on in the ring," says
Steward. "All he needs is some love."
Still, Steward doesn't think McCall was his greatest achievement
as a gun for hire. That would have been Holyfield's 12-round
decision over Bowe in their second fight, an impossible scenario
for Holyfield. "Bowe, who'd beaten him already," says Steward,
"was bigger, stronger and a better boxer. I didn't think there
was much Evander could do. Nobody did, really. In fact, one of
the things Evander's mother said before we left for training was
not to let him get hurt."
But Steward always thinks he can find a way. Having been around
Holyfield since his amateur days, he remembered that Holyfield
liked to dance and was pretty good at it too. "That's what we'll
do," he told the fighter, "we'll dance." They worked on rhythm
and balance. "We beat Bowe on rhythm," he says.
That was the fight to which Steward first brought his cookware
because one other thing he noticed about Holyfield was that he
loses weight the week before a bout. Turned out that Holyfield
hates the hotel food. So Steward, who fancies himself a cook
(his American-fare restaurant in Detroit features a lot of his
recipes), prepared a lot of Southern-style meals for Holyfield.
It was kind of a joke at Caesars Palace. The casino honchos
would find a reason to visit the Holyfield suite, same time
every afternoon, to check on the smells from Steward's hot plates.
Helping somebody win a fight seems to be small work for Steward.
Sticking around for the rematch is the hard part. But being a
contract man, he tends to get aced out after he performs his
work and his property is suddenly enhanced in value. In
Holyfield's case, the fighter split with him over money. Steward
says he made just $170,000 for Bowe-Holyfield II. ("The money
wasn't important," he says. "We just wanted to get the
championship back because nobody thought it could be done.") For
Holyfield's next fight Steward wanted $300,000--not anywhere
close to the normal 10% fee. He says he was offered $200,000,
declined and left, although he and Holyfield remained friends.
Steward has no illusions about the sport and understands that
the days when he could travel with his boys like a coach with an
AAU team, laughing and joking and cooking, are over. Still, over
the summer, he brought two 13-year-old Detroit kids to Big Bear
for a kind of junior Olympic camp, sneaking them onto De La
Hoya's canvas while the boxer got his hands wrapped or working
them with pads before Lewis got to the gym. His contract
fighters, wealthy celebrities of uncertain purposes, tend to
come and go these days. He loves them, but he has learned that
he'll just get disappointed in the end.
"But these kids," he says, thinking of all the things he might
teach them, "they could go all the way." He seems pleased by the
idea. Or maybe that mountain air is getting to him.