By Thomas Gerbasi
In a sport where great teachers are becoming rarer and rarer by the day, boxing sadly lost one of the last legends of the craft Thursday, as Emanuel Steward, trainer to the likes of Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez, Miguel Cotto, and Wladimir Klitschko, passed away after a long illness at the age of 68.
Steward's sister, Diane, confirmed her brother's passing at 3:29 EST on Thursday.
"He went home about half an hour ago. He fought harder than Hagler and Hearns. I'll tell you more later. It's too tough right now," she told Detroit reporter Tom Leyden of ABC Action News.
Ill for the last several months, Steward’s voice and insight was sorely missed on the HBO broadcasts where he had become a staple, and even his prized pupil, heavyweight champion Klitschko, was forced to go through training camp for his November 10 bout against Mariusz Wach without him. It’s just a taste of the impact that the West Virginia native had on the sport he was involved in from the time he was a child, but one that he didn’t truly fall in love with until he began spending his teenage years in the city he became synonymous with: Detroit, Michigan.
Boxing wasn't something he had intended to be involved with from outside of the ropes, though. Rather, Steward was planning on being the one with the gloves on, and at 17, he entered the National Golden Gloves’ Tournament of Champions in 1962.
“I saw all those champions from each city fighting against each other, and I lost the very first fight,” Steward told me in 2006. “I had never lost a fight in my life and I had been fighting since I was seven years old.”
Devastated, Steward nonetheless went back to the gym and worked twice as hard. A year later, he received another invite, and this time he made it count, winning the 1963 tournament, leading Detroit to its first team title in 24 years in the process.
“I came home and felt like I was the best Golden Glover in America.”
That amateur title would be the crowning glory of Steward’s career as an active boxer, as he went on to get a good job with the Detroit Edison utility company before returning to the gym as a trainer in the early ‘70s. His philosophy then was the same as it was when he was fighting.
“My mindset never changed,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m gonna be good as a manager, a trainer, or whatever unless I can compete at the top level and win. I judge people in life by performances against the best.”
And when competing against the best, more often than not his fighters came up aces, with Hilmer Kenty becoming his first world champion after stopping Ernesto Espana for the WBA lightweight crown in 1980.
Back then, the exclusive place of business for Steward was the now-legendary Kronk Gym, and it got that “legendary” moniker thanks to the fighters and the philosophy instilled in those fighters by the man in charge. In the Kronk, there was no picture taking or autograph hunting when a visiting fighter came to town. In that old-school gym, you showed up to work to do just that - work, and when it was time to spar, it wasn’t sparring - it was a fight. For survival.
“Down here, nobody gets respect,” Steward said in 2006, before leading Jermain Taylor into his middleweight title bout against Winky Wright. “Ray Leonard was training over here in ‘76 in order to make the Olympic team and he was boxing all these other kids, and even when he fought Donny Lalonde he came here and trained and he loved it because you’re just one of the fighters in the gym. He had to wait his time to get in the ring just like everybody else, but he loved it.
“One of my philosophies that I’ve always believed strongly in is strong competition in sparring,” he continued. “I don’t believe in sparring partners and I don’t even have them. Wladimir’s last two weeks of sparring for Chris Byrd, he sparred with my undefeated cruiserweight, Johnathan Banks and Andy Lee. Andy was on the undercard and I told Wladimir, ‘He’s looking at you as a sparring partner because he’s getting ready for his fight.’ (Laughs) That’s why his speed level was so high and intense for Byrd that nobody could believe it. After the second round, Wladimir said Byrd was slow. I said ‘slow?’ He said, ‘yes, compared to Andy.’”
“We always had that. Tommy Hearns, when he was preparing for his fight with (Roberto) Duran, had Mark Breland, Mike McCallum, Milton McCrory, and Frank Tate. It was that type of intense sparring every day. So when he went in there with Duran, Duran looked like a slower man. That’s part of my success as a trainer – I’ve always had competitive workouts. I feel that’s what the Kronk is known for.”
It also became Steward’s calling card. Known as an offensive mastermind, Steward’s fighters didn’t wait for things to happen; they made them happen. Just look at Tommy Hearns, Gerald McClellan, Naseem Hamed, Cotto, and Michael Moorer, just to name a few. And while he was seen by some as a hired gun brought in for various reclamation projects over the years, he still dedicated plenty of time to his homegrown talent, which in recent years included Banks, Lee, and Octavio Lara, and also made the most of managerial and broadcast opportunities presented to him.
But despite his success, his love for the sport never waned, as anyone who ever had the pleasure of speaking to him would attest. Interviews with Steward could turn from 10 minutes to one hour affairs in a split second, with his storytelling ability second to none. Talking to him was like getting a boxing history lesson from someone who lived it, and not having him around will leave a void in a game already hit by the sad deaths of Johnny Tapia, Jimmy Bivins, Michael Dokes, Angelo Dundee and Corrie Sanders in 2012. But the legacy of the man inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 is secure, as he was one of the rare people who trained like he fought, with a confidence that when he was in the corner, winning was going to be the only outcome.
“The one thing I have, is not so much the faith in my fighters, but I have unbelievable faith in myself,” Steward told me. “I had that when I was fighting myself, and I have that same confidence today. If a fighter has any natural talent and will work with me, I feel like I can do a good job.”
Rest in peace, Manny.