While there is some debate over what really felled Emanuel Steward and exactly what time he passed away on the fateful day of October 25th, 2012, there is no argument over this: boxing lost more than just a Hall of Fame trainer, manager and a noted broadcaster; it lost a piece of its history and tradition. Yes, it’s true; unfortunately, we have lost one of the good ones. Gone at the still-too-young age of 68 but he’ll never be forgotten.
From his humble beginnings in West Virginia as young lad to his National Golden Gloves winning days in 1963, the legend of Steward really began in Detroit where he climbed telephone poles for Detroit Edison. It was then - in all his spare time - he began his training career in earnest, driving young amateurs all around the region to various tournaments. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he had turned the Kronk Gym -an old recreation center in the heart of Motown - into an assembly line of champions rivaling anything churned out by the likes of Ford and General Motors. One by one they came, young, hungry boys (mostly African-American) who were nurtured into fighting men.
No, Steward wasn’t Kronk’s only trainer; colleagues like Bill Miller, Luther Burgess and Walter Smith should not be forgotten. But Manny was their unquestioned leader. If this was a football staff, he was Kronk’s Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson. And soon, they were not only winning fights on a regular basis and winning world titles but creating stars who shined on a national stage. It began with Hilmer Kenty and didn’t stop for a good decade. Back in those days, Kronk meant just as much to Detroit as the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons. Before this city became a punchline (and much worse, a flashpoint to today’s economic struggles), Kronk gave this city a sense of pride and honor.
They would regularly sell out the Joe Louis and Cobo Arenas for fight cards in this era. These were fighters who didn’t need checks from a television network to make a living; these guys had a legitimate fan-base in this city from which to draw upon. They weren’t just fighters from Detroit - they seemingly fought for it.
Emanuel Steward (Collage)
And it’s why Steward is every bit as monumental to this city’s sports history as Gordie Howe, Isiah Thomas, Al Kaline and Barry Sanders.
Before Steward became boxing’s most coveted troubleshooter, he was one of its last real do-it-all cornermen, who not only trained and managed most his boxers but, in many instances, he cooked and lived with them. There was no need for any nutritionists or strength-and-conditioning coaches. Here, that was all covered by one man under one roof. In the second half of his career (which saw him work with over 40 world champions), he was best known for resurrecting the likes of Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko to heavyweight glory. But it says here that his signature fighter will always be one Thomas Hearns. Quick, ask any fan to name a fighter trained by Steward; I’ll bet the majority will say “The Hitman” without hesitation. Steward would line ’em up and Hearns would knock ’em out. He wasn’t just the guy who worked his corner; Steward was also a paternal figure in Hearns’ life and he’d tell you that he looked at Tommy as more than just a fighter.
They were both cinches for the Hall of Fame.
Back in this era, when you saw a fighter with the trademark gold Kronk trunks (with the red and blue trim), you knew you were going to see a well-conditioned, hardnosed, skilled fighter. For any young boxing fan growing up in the ‘80s (which this reporter certainly was), the Kronk garb was every bit as iconic as Notre Dame’s gold helmets or Yankee pinstripes. You had to meet a certain standard in those eras to have that gear on you. Boxing by nature isn’t a team sport. But this gym - which famously traveled in bunches with the coolest looking warm-ups and gym bags you had ever seen - was one unit, bound together like a fist.
Above - Kronk Classic
Below - New Kronk
When you took on a Kronk fighter, you weren’t just facing a boxer but a brand, a reputation, the city of Detroit and someone given the seal of approval by Steward himself.
Steward, as Bum Phillips once famously said about Don Shula, could take his and beat yours and take yours and beat his. That was never more evident than in the rivalry between Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis, who split a pair of star-crossed fights back in 1994 and 1997. But Steward was in the winning corners both times, having trained the mercurial “Atomic Bull” to his knockout victory over Lewis in their first match-up and in the opposite corner as Lewis gained revenge a few years later. He was brought in by Evander Holyfield - thought to have no chance at winning the rematch with Riddick Bowe in 1993 - and helped “The Real Deal” recapture the heavyweight crown (I can still see Steward blindside tackling Holyfield after the bell had sounded for the end of the 12th round). There was Steward’s reunion with Hearns (who had just struggled mightily with James Kinchen) for the long-awaited bout with Ray Leonard. By 1989, Hearns was thought to be a faded fighter and given little chance of even being competitive with Leonard. Going back to their Kronk roots and training exclusively in Detroit, they did enough in most eyes to win that fight (which was scored as a controversial draw).
Lewis was always a bit frustrating to him; Steward always felt Lewis should be more of a checkers player in the ring instead of the chess aficionado he was outside of it. But without Steward, Lewis doesn’t have a place in Canastota. Who can forget his loud and forceful cajoling of Lewis during the middle rounds of the Mike Tyson fight, understanding that the only way Tyson could win that fight was if Lewis fought passively. Like a great jockey, Steward understood when to go to the whip. Klitschko was thought to be shattered into a thousand pieces back in 2004 (in fact, their first fight together, he was stopped by Lamon Brewster) but he eventually reinvented and rehabilitated the hulking Ukrainian to a point where he is still in the midst of a dominant heavyweight run.
Miguel Cotto was Steward’s latest reclamation job. He took a shaky, broken fighter and gave him back a sense of confidence and, just as importantly, his balance.
No, trainers can’t necessarily win or lose a fight; really, it’s about the guys they have on their stool. But the elite can make a small difference that can be the margin in winning or losing. Steward was certainly one of them.
No, he didn’t win all the time (I mean, who does?). You get into enough big fights, you’re bound to lose more than just a few. It happens sometimes when you have the likes of Marvin Hagler and Leonard in the opposite corner. His worst month ever was probably April of 2001 when in a span of weeks, “Prince” Naseem Hamed and Lewis were dramatically and shockingly knocked off their perches. Perhaps Steward, by then a victim of his own success and being in such demand, had stretched himself too thin to a point where in trying to train two boxers in two locations, he really trained neither.
The last time I saw Steward was on the night of June 30th when he had flown 15 hours from Austria (from the training camp of Klitschko, who was just a week away from his bout with Tony Thompson) to work the corner of Cornelius Bundrage, who was defending his IBF junior middleweight crown against Cory Spinks. He would fly back the very next morning. So why in the hell would he make this trek to Indio for this fight? “I just had to be here, Steve; this fight was too important to ‘K9.’ I was worried about him struggling and I just had to be there for him,” said Steward, explaining his insane itinerary. He understood that a victory in this situation for Bundrage could lead to bigger and better things.
After the fight - which Bundrage won by knockout - what really stood out was that Steward could not get off the ring apron for a good half-hour because he was mobbed by the masses for autographs and pictures (of which I have never, ever seen him turn down one request). It struck me, on this card, it wasn’t the fighters who were the main attraction - it was him. And it proved once again that he was perhaps boxing’s best ambassador. At times, he would carry a stack of Kronk postcards to sign. Not because of his ego but because it would be convenient for anyone who asked him for his John Hancock. There are countless stories of boxing fans across the world who have stories of their interactions with Steward. Not only did he love boxing but he enjoyed the fans and spreading the gospel.
Finally, a group of us (including my friends, Ernie and Noe - and a few of his acquaintances) had a few drinks at the Fantasy Springs Casino bowling alley. And for the next hour or two, the Goose and soda flowed and Emanuel, like nobody else could, gave us a tutorial on the “Sweet Science” and regaled us with tales of his past. Seriously, his stories are like episodes of “The White Shadow” for me and many others; even if you’ve heard them before, they’re like great reruns you watch over and over again. It’s the most educational and entertaining session a boxing fan could ask for. He explained how he came up with the strategy to beat Bowe with Holyfield, “We were at a club and I see [Holyfield] dancing and this boy’s got some moves and rhythm I didn’t think he had. I said, ‘Right there, that’s our game plan.’”(So yeah, was he clubbin’ with one of his fighters? Hey, that’s how Emanuel rolled). I reminded him of his karate gi outfit he wore in the corner back in the day; he laughed loudly and promised that if he ever fished it out his closet, it was all mine.
What I did notice that evening was how frail Steward looked. I figured it was just the travel and him getting a bit up there in age. But it turns out he had admitted to a few close associates that he had not been feeling well lately. Whispers grew as he missed assignments on HBO and there was the Kronk-promoted card in Detroit in the summer that was hastily and mysteriously canceled the night before it was scheduled. Soon, the word was out that Steward was ill, to what degree was not certain.
Boxing didn’t just lose a great trainer; it also lost one of its most beloved members of its community. Steward was a reporter’s dream; not only would he give you great stuff but he taught you something about this sport - both in and out of the ring. It didn’t matter if you worked for the New York Times or an internet site; he would give you time and knowledge. And regardless of where he was (even in some far-flung locale in Europe with Wladimir), Steward would attempt to call you back.
Detroit lost one of its pillars. Ask those around this community and those who knew Manny; they would tell you of the charitable acts he did for a multitude of people for years without a hint of fanfare. Yeah, he made a lot of money but he also gave plenty of it away. Patrick Ewing would approve. He’s gone but his legacy will never be forgotten. Boxing wasn’t just a better game because he was in it; Detroit was a better place for having him too. The doors of the original Kronk closed up a few years ago but its spirit and contribution will never fade in this city and in boxing fans across the world.
R.I.P. Emanuel Steward.
Emanuel Steward with Milton McCrory at the Bradley-Alexander weigh-in
One of my favorite stories I have ever penned was about the day I spent in Detroit with Steward the day before the bout between Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander at the Silverdome. He was gracious enough to show me around his town (and even then, it was his town in many ways). While the fight was a huge letdown, this time with Emanuel made the trip worthwhile. It’s something I will never forget.
A running joke to many fans was how Steward would state how he knew that this fight would go exactly as it was going during the middle of it (yeah, OK, he did do that on occasion). But overall, he could always be counted on to bring great insight and commentary to a big fight. And you could hear the excitement and enthusiasm in his voice during a slugfest (hey, the guy was a fan just like us) and it was especially evident during fights like Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti I and James Toney vs. Vassiliy Jirov.
But my fondest HBO memory of Steward was after Marco Antonio Barrera took apart Jesus Salud and was in line to face Hamed next. There was a lot of talk back then of Hamed facing either Barrera or Erik Morales. After this “Boxing After Dark” broadcast, Jim Lampley asked Steward what he thought of Barrera and his performance. A chagrined Steward said bluntly, “I think we picked the wrong Mexican.”
As usual, Emanuel, you were right.