So, yeah, Andy Lee.
"It’s closer than any fighter I’ve been involved with," said Steward, matter-of-factly to Maxboxing late last week." The genesis of this bond began, ironically enough, as Lee beat some representatives of Kronk as an amateur in his homeland of Ireland. Steward recalls that Lee defeated Jesus Gonzalez years ago in Belfast and that Lee’s crew was celebrating in iconic Kronk gear.
"So later on, I find out that [Lee] fought against us in another tournament and beat another one of our top American kids and I could never tie in the relationship. Eventually, I went through my mail and saw that he was from the [Kronk] gym in Ireland. So naturally, we had some kind relationship from that time on," he explained. "And after the [2004 Athens] Olympics, he signed a contract with me, came to Detroit. I told him, ’You can stay wherever you want.’ I figured he wanted to live in one of the big suburbs because he got a big allowance each month. He said, ’I’d rather stay right here in Detroit if you don’t mind. I can stay in the room upstairs if nobody is staying there,’ So he spends a lot of time here, he and his brother."
If you’ve ever been to Steward’s two-story house in an upper middle-class section of Detroit, belying the economic hardship that has devastated this region, it’s like a museum dedicated to boxing, Motown and Steward himself. It’s the perfect setting for Lee who has an insatiable appetite for the sport and its history.
Lee says, "Being in this house and being around the people here and Emanuel and his nephew, Javon ’Sugar’ Hill- who’s also the assistant trainer- they’re like my second family now. Me and my brother came here for training and it’s like going home. We know we have the run of the house. We cook- we just got through cooking and we just ate- it’s amazing. I can remember after about a year or two, I used to get these pangs, like looking across the hall from my bedroom looking into Emanuel’s room and saying, ’That’s Emanuel Steward in there. You’re in his house. It’s crazy.’ But now, it’s just the norm but it’s very good to have this close relationship with him and you still learn and pick up a lot of things from just being around him outside of boxing and inside of boxing."
The unwritten book says that trainers and fighters must keep a certain distance between them to function properly but Steward points out, "The fighters I’ve had great success with were the ones I’ve been very close with too personally, just beyond the gym and I know I can get the best outta them. I understand what makes them tick and I know what buttons to push."
So growing up in Limerick, Ireland, what did Lee really know of this noted cornerman who churned out champions from the noted Kronk Gym like a Ford assembly line churned out sedans?
"I knew about Thomas Hearns and I knew those great fights with the four great middleweights of that era," is Lee’s answer. "The first time I saw Emanuel, really, was when Naseem Hamed was having a real hard fight in England. It was with a guy named Paul Ingle and what happened was Emanuel got up into the corner and told him one simple move and there was all this talk about Emanuel. Naseem talked about him and next thing you know, Naseem was training with him. So that was the first time. From then on, I kind of kept an eye out. I was only a kid at that stage. I never, ever dreamed I would be here. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, really."
To make his boxing dreams come to fruition, Lee effectively moved to the States. The transition has been eased by this relationship.
"It’s made it a lot easier being away from home, coming here. I am away from home and my family and stuff but being here makes it a lot easier because like I said, this is a second home now. People in the gym have been very nice to me. I’ve been here since 2005. It’s routine now," said Lee. "I’ve got a lot of friends here outside of boxing as well, so it does make it easy. If I wasn’t as close to Emanuel, it would be hard to be here and if I didn’t have this type of atmosphere."
Making it even easier is that Lee is about as amiable a fighter as you’ll ever meet.
"He’s a nice person," said Steward. "He’s very helpful in everything I do. Like just now, we just finished eating. He’s cleaning up the kitchen. He also went out and checked out a problem I had with my car and then he’ll go downstairs and go shoot some pool with his brother, so he’s an asset to have around." One of the reasons why Steward is not preparing Chad Dawson for his bout versus Bernard Hopkins on October 15th is that Dawson was reluctant to go to Detroit and Steward was unwilling to uproot Lee from his familiar surroundings. Steward clearly stated that Lee’s fight- regardless of the payday- was much more important to him.
And for Lee, there is no understating the importance of evening the score against Vera, who shockingly halted him back in March of 2008 as the Lee bandwagon was just burgeoning. After a quick start, he was stopped by the rugged Texas brawler in seven rounds. Was it just a bad night, a necessity or something to grow from?
"I think all those three things you said," Lee said, philosophically, "but more, it was a wake-up call. It was a crushing defeat. It’s really hard to take a defeat like that, especially when there was so much hype behind me going into the fight. In my mind, going into the fight, I just thought it was going to be an easy fight. I thought it was going to be like the fights I had before where I’d hit the guy a few good shots and he’d be falling over, y’ know? And it looked that way for a few rounds but Vera, he’s a real fighter, tough guy. He’s not the most skillful but what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in determination and strength. Look, I underestimated him. I didn’t prepare right and I paid the price. It took a long time to get the rematch, three-and-a-half years, but I’ve learned a lot in that time and I grew mentally and physically stronger. I’ve matured a lot. Now, it’s time to have the rematch. It’s a great platform for me to get this loss out of my system and then move on again."
At that point, that bandwagon emptied out as if it had caught fire. According to many pundits, Lee had been exposed but staying the course with boxers who hit a rough stretch is old hat for Steward. Whether it’s his belief in his eye for talent, the horse he’s jockeying, or just his faith in his own ability to teach and develop talent, the man is not easily swayed.
"I’ve never wavered. Hey, when I got involved with Wladimir Klitschko, it was so funny before. Lennox asked me one day when I was training him, he asked me, ’Emanuel, who do we have to look for on the way up?’ I said, ’The young Klitschko kid who won the Olympics in Atlanta,’ so we were always watching him. He gets knocked out by Corrie Sanders and shortly after that, we were in training camp, about a week or so later, and Lennox says, ’Emanuel, you still high on Klitschko? You see he got knocked out?’ I said, ’Yup, he will still be the one to dominate the heavyweight division.’ Now, I ended up being called in by his brother, Vitali. He’s the one who called me to consider coming in and working with Wladimir. So I get to working with Wladimir and he gets knocked out the first fight with Lamon Brewster. So I’m on a talk show the following week; the guy says, ’Mr. Steward, who’s going to be the next dominant heavyweight?’ I said, ’Wladimir Klitschko.’ He said, ’Wait a minute; he just got knocked out last week. In fact, you were in his corner.’ I said, ’You asked me a question. I gave you an answer,’ and Wladimir’s never forgotten that and the same way with Andy," said Steward.
So what changes in the second edition of Lee-Vera?
"As Andy said himself, he’ll have a different attitude, if anything," said Steward who admits that he himself got caught up in the hype back then. "Before the Brian Vera fight, [Lee] was winning every fight easy. The whole ESPN special they had [preceding the fight], it was almost like a whole ‘24/7.’ They came in here, showed him running, showed us playing cards and everything and we didn’t even study any film of Brian Vera. I knew he was once on ’The Contender’ show and he’d been stopped, we didn’t have no respect for him. We came in at 158 pounds- way, way too light- and obviously, [Lee] had [Vera] in trouble, knocked him down. Andy went all out trying to finish him and as a result, didn’t finish him and then he was shot and Vera came storming back and then stopped him- even though Brian got hit with a punch just before the referee stopped it. We never complained.
"But the biggest difference going into this fight is not so much trying to change strategy,” Steward offered. “We have a different respect, more professional attitude and preparation towards [Vera] and also realizing that if we think we have him hurt, we just take our time to make sure we have him hurt before we go all out. But we have a lot more respect for him going in."
Back in March, Lee dealt with adversity like a hardened pro, coming back from an early deficit to rally back and stop Craig McEwan. When asked if he could’ve came back to win that fight without the Vera experience, he gives an interesting answer. "I think I could’ve won but I think had McEwan had the type of experience I had against Vera, he might not have lost because it’s a funny thing for a young fighter when you haven’t gone through it before. Like the first four rounds, I threw everything at [Vera] and I hit him with everything and I went all out to knock him out- and then I ended up gassing myself out and then he came back punching at me. It’s a funny thing to say but it takes you back when a guy is still punching at you after you’ve given him everything you have to offer. I think that’s what happened with McEwan, in a way, and I’ve seen it in other fights since then.
"I’ve seen it in a hundred fights since then, that if a guy can take the pressure and take the punches and still come back, he usually wins the fights," added Lee, who says that like himself, this bump in the road will benefit McEwan in the future. "He’ll be better for that experience as I am now."
If they can defeat Vera in impressive fashion on Saturday night, the focus will turn to the man who headlines this bill, the lineal, consensus middleweight champion of the world, Sergio Martinez, who faces Darren Barker.
"We definitely want to fight Martinez," said Steward. "Andy’s had close to 30 fights now. I don’t like to call him a ’veteran’ fighter but he’s a seasoned fighter now. He came here, moved to this country to win the middleweight championship of the world. If he’s not going to be prepared now, he’ll never be."
Lee states, "I don’t see any other legitimate middleweight contenders out there right now and there won’t be much else for me to do, to prove. This is the only hiccup I’ve had and I’ve fought good fighters. I’ve fought contenders and now Vera’s a legitimate contender since his win over Sergio Mora and his recent form. So beating him means a lot personally and it means something in my career. His recent success has proven so, so there would be nothing for me to do but fight for a title. I’ll have 28 fights by then. I’ll be 27, so there’s not much more for me to hang around for but go for the title. I have no fear of Martinez. I respect him. He’s one of the best fighters in the world, no doubt, but I see a lot of things I could exploit. He’s an athletic guy but there’s a lot of illusion. He does a lot of tricks and a lot of guys follow him and fall into his traps.
"There’s not that much that holds fear for me when I see Martinez."
There is now a chance that WBC 154-pound beltholder Saul “Canelo” Alvarez could headline the November 26th “Boxing After Dark” card on HBO alongside Adrien Broner.
"I’m waiting for a final answer from ’Canelo’s’ people," said Eric Gomez, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, on Tuesday. Gomez says this card would take place in Mexico. "We’re just waiting for ’Canelo’ to give us an answer to see if he wants to do it. It’s a quick turnaround for him and he would have to start training next week but he’s willing to do it. He’s in shape. He didn’t get banged up or anything in the Alfonso Gomez fight and he wants that HBO exposure before the end of the year. So I’m waiting on that. That’s what we’re working on right now."
As for the opponents, well, unfortunately, TBA and TBD are facing Alvarez and Broner as of press time.
Regarding the lead-off bout for the November 5th edition of “Boxing After Dark” that features Alfredo Angulo-James Kirkland from Cancun, Mexico, it could feature a battle of two guys who sparred a bit at the Wild Card Boxing Club in the past, the aforementioned McEwan and Peter Quillin.
Gomez says, "We’re waiting for HBO to give us a final green light on it and then numbers as well. So that’s a possibility but y’ know, obviously, Peter wants to be on HBO and McEwan deserves another opportunity. He had a good fight with Andy Lee, so we’ll see. I think it makes sense. It’s a good fight but there’s a few things that have to happen first."
If the rematch between Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez is agreed upon (and all indications are that it will be) and added to the pay-per-view show featuring the grudge rematch between Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto, I think Top Rank deserves a tip of the hat. There are no Butterbeans or Mia St. Johns here.
In addition, it looks like you’ll be getting Mike Jones-Sebastian Lujan and the appearance of the always fan-friendly WBA lightweight champion Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios (who I’m told could be facing Rocky Martinez).
Combine this card with the atmosphere inside the newly-renovated Madison Square Garden, this just might be THE night of the year in boxing, as far as I’m concerned.
Tell Jim Lampley, yes, I want the violence.
I’m beginning to think Oscar De La Hoya needs to go back to rehab- for Twitter. I don’t know whether to laugh or cringe as I see some of his re-tweeted stuff on my timeline...The bout between Carl Froch and Andre Ward has been rescheduled for Dec. 17th at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City which means that this December will be as active as any in recent memory...I’m glad Ozzie Guillen will be getting another gig. Baseball just isn’t as much fun without him...Is Lache Seastrunk, whose recruitment will get multiple programs on probation, the modern-day Hart Lee Dykes?...Red Sox Nation, are you having flashbacks to 1978?...OK, I gave “Pan Am” on ABC a try and I think it’s pretty solid. Count me in...“Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t look like it’ll be going through any sophomore slump on HBO...I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing.