Johnathon Banks has had perhaps as much on his plate coming into a fight as any boxer in recent memory. Not only did he lose his mentor, Emanuel Steward, in late October, he was then entrusted to oversee the training of Wladimir Klitschko and now he faces Seth Mitchell this weekend in Atlantic City as the opening bout on HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” (10 p.m., ET).
Other than that, not much has been going on in his personal or professional life.
He says with a chuckle, “It’s been kind of crazy; it’s hard to put it into words actually. The last two-and-a-half weeks have been some emotional days, some sad days, some uplifting days, some hard training days. It’s really a big mixture of a lot of things.”
Going back a month or two, as Steward laid ill in Chicago, unable to attend Klitschko’s training camp in Austria, he tapped his protégé to lead the heavyweight king for their November 10th bout with challenger Mariusz Wach. He was given the reins to Steward’s most well-known client seemingly out of nowhere.
“I was surprised,” admitted Banks, who for years worked in the camp as not only an assistant but a sparring partner, “but yet I wasn’t because as long as we have all been together, when Emanuel would leave a lot of times do his [HBO] broadcasts, he would tell Wladimir, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to spar, you don’t have to box while I’m gone. If you do want to spar, Johnathon will be here. So it’s OK; Johnathon’s here so I’m not worried about nothing. Just let Johnathon handle everything.’ He always said that and I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But to be the first name to come out his mouth, for it to be me, to be in charge - till we all thought he’d get better - it was just amazing. I don’t have words for it. It’s something else.”
Like many others, Banks believed Steward would return soon enough. It stunned the boxing world when it was announced that he had passed away so suddenly. To many, Steward was everlasting; the thought of him dying so soon was never even broached. It just didn’t seem possible. “It took everyone by surprise,” admitted Banks, who was among the first to be notified. “I mean, it’s Emanuel. So everyone thought they were going to see Emanuel again. We were saying, ‘Ain’t nothing going to happen to Emanuel; it’s Emanuel.’ But I mean, it took everyone by surprise definitely.”
While the boxing world mourned the loss of the iconic Steward (who turned the Kronk Gym into an international brand), there was still work to be done in Austria as Banks would have to pull unprecedented double-duty as a boxer and trainer.
“We both trained twice a day, so therefore, I trained at least two-and-a-half hours before he started,” Banks recalled. “So by the time [Klitschko] got there, I’d be finished and then I could train him. Same thing for the afternoon session.” Asked if this schedule drained him physically or mentally, Banks laughs and says, “Both, really. I mean, that’s the best thing about it. I slept like a baby every night because I’m telling you; it’s draining because you take it so serious that I’m breaking down his opponent. I’m doing the strategy, strategizing with him and I’m creating a strategy for myself at night for what we’re going to do the next day, what the opponent may or may not do. It’s draining, mentally. Yes, it is.”
When asked about the impact Steward had on him, the 30-year old Banks, who has a professional ledger of 28-1-1 (18), stated, “You’re talking about someone who taught me the game of boxing, taught me about boxing, who put me around the key players in boxing. Emanuel was the one who introduced me to Wladimir back in 2004 when he first got with him. So I mean, the effect he had on me was a life effect. It’s like that story they always say, the analogy, ‘If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. You teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.’ Emanuel actually gave me the tools to eat for a lifetime.”
While Steward is gone, Banks believes Kronk will live on.
“I think so; I think we had proof of it last Saturday with Wladimir," said Banks, pointing out Klitschko’s wide victory over Wach in Hamburg, Germany. “I believe the Kronk will stay alive because of the teaching of Emanuel. I was able to carry on with Wladimir because of the teachings of Emanuel. Other fighters will be able to carry on because of that teaching as well. So yes, I do believe it’s still alive.”
Banks, who plans to train fighters full-time when his career is finished, also runs a mentoring program for the youth in Detroit. He says, “One of the things I learned from Emanuel is if you have a gift, you must use it. There’s not very many people with the ability to teach something. And if that’s the ability you have - you must use it. Because that’s what he did. Emanuel loved to teach and I learned that from him and I got the same love to want to teach from him. He’s the one who inspired me a few years ago to start this mentoring thing I’m doing.”
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Banks, who attended the memorial service for Steward on Tuesday and arrived in Atlantic City on Wednesday. The journey ends with him facing the heavily hyped Mitchell, who’s had to focus on just the fight itself. Regardless, Banks says he’s ready to go.
“100 percent,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the memorial service for Steward was held at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. It was estimated that around 3,000 people showed up to pay their respects and there were hordes of media and the Detroit Free Press made it its headline story on the front page the next day. It shows the impact this man had - not only in the sport of boxing but to this city and region.
“It’s a start,” said Banks. “It doesn’t speak volumes. There are homes - where a lot of people don’t even know Emanuel - that have food in their houses because of him. There’s actually people who have no payments on their houses to this day because of him. So the impact that he had, the 3,000, it didn’t even touch the impact that he had. He had such a huge impact.”
It wasn’t just the world of boxing that showed up to pay its respects (from the Klitschko brothers, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mark Breland, Iran Barkley, Hilmer Kenty, Milton McCrory and Bob Arum) or Steward’s colleagues at HBO (including Larry Merchant, Max Kellerman and Jim Lampley - who gave a stirring tribute to Steward that had the audience on its feet at the end). There were luminaries such as former NBA star and Detroit mayor Dave Bing; Judge Greg Mathis (yes, the one from television) was present to say a few words and the great Aretha Franklin sang in his honor. It was a proper tribute befitting a man of his stature and achievements.
“It was surreal being there,” said Banks, “and yet still, you smile and say, ‘Wow, all of these people are here for a man that I know personally. A man that I lived with, a man I grew up around. A man who also taught me all these things.’ So it was surreal and yet it was a privilege. I was so privileged to be amongst that company.”
The most emotional and poignant moment of this day came from hearing Thomas Hearns (who will always be attached at the hip historically with Steward) address the audience. Hearns could barely contain his emotions and speak about his former trainer, who he described as his father and credited with teaching him, “how to be a man.” His son, Ronald, and brother, Billy, had to run up to the pulpit to basically hold him up. You got the sense that this moment was tougher for Hearns than facing Leonard or Marvin Hagler ever was. You can get over losing fights; losing someone who meant so much to your life isn’t nearly as easy. But urged on by the large throng, Hearns was able to finish and go the distance.
Emanuel would’ve been proud.
I finally had a chance to meet the first champion to represent Kronk, Kenty, who I never knew was actually from Columbus, Ohio and not Detroit. Hilmer is a real gentleman as is Mark Breland, who I had an opportunity to chat with later on...There were a group of kids who had on their Kronk paraphernalia (from shirts to letterman jackets) in attendance at the memorial service. I really hope they didn’t lose a refuge the Kronk provided them from the street life. It’s in them that the Kronk legacy - and Steward’s - will live on...Word is that both Gabriel Rosado and Fernando Guerrero are in the running to face Gennady Golovkin on January 19th. I hear some at HBO favor Rosado because he’s on a nice run recently. And others favor Guerrero because, well...he’s with Al Haymon...Banks weighed in at 218.5 pounds on Friday and Mitchell tipped the scales at 242...According to the CSAC, the Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno card at the Staples Center last weekend sold 4,785 tickets, doled out 1,156 comps and had a gate receipt of $306,565...Can UCLA finally beat USC again?...Saturday night’s plan is to hit the L.A. Sports Arena for the Brian Viloria-Hernan Marquez scrap and then watch the HBO card...