by David P. Greisman
Joni Mitchell was partially correct: We (sometimes) don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. This has been true with regrettable frequency this year with the deaths of multiple fighters and notable figures in boxing. In many cases we mourn people whose names might not have passed through our lips in quite some time, as befitting the nature of a sport in which those no longer in the spotlight are left to fade away quietly.
That does not mean their losses mean less.
We paid just tribute to Corrie Sanders, for example, whose imprint had been left on us following his brief ascent toward the top of the sport when he had summarily dispatched of Wladimir Klitschko in less than two rounds, and whose battles with Vitali Klitschko and Hasim Rahman had been valiant even though he was not victorious.
And we gave due respect to Angelo Dundee, the famed trainer who had been in the corner of two of the United States’ most acclaimed boxers in Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, who had worked with several others, and who had long been established as a piece of living history.
There was no mental separation with Emanuel Steward, however. He was here, and now he is gone. His death hits particularly hard. It’s not just because of how quickly he passed away, but also because we knew what we had with him — because of how long he had held such a strong and positive influence on the sport.
It is a big loss for boxing. He is being justly eulogized and canonized with every story, every recollection, every reflection.
It is only natural for many of these memories to be of the personal variety. That is the frame of reference that helps give a life full context. Steward’s 68 years on this earth did not just bring about his individual accomplishments. In that time he also left his mark on so many who knew him, be it for a moment or for decades, and be they boxers, his colleagues or the many in the media with whom he had corresponded.
There were the world champions. Taking a boxer to a title belt seems less of a feat in this era of four major sanctioning bodies. Take into consideration, then, his longevity and consistency. Steward brought his first contender to the top in 1980 with lightweight Hilmer Kenty and continued to do so for three decades, guiding Cornelius Bundrage to a claim of the junior middleweight division in 2010.
“In all, Steward managed 31 world champions and worked with 40 fighters who had won world titles at some point in their careers,” wrote boxing historian Lee Groves last week on RingTV.com. “In that regard, Steward is the most decorated trainer in history; Freddie Roach has guided 25 titlists while [Eddie] Futch and Ray Arcel seconded 22 and 19, respectively, during their much more restrictive eras.”
He didn’t just groom talent, but attracted it, too, with boxers turning to Steward to make them better. His was an expert eye, a trusted voice, a guru who they believed could rebuild those who had been destroyed and who could cap off those who were nearly complete.
Boxing is a business. And so many of the tributes to Steward have noted how he became a “hired gun” for some boxers. Where he truly stood out, however, is in the men he groomed, both in the Kronk Gym that became synonymous with his name and in the relationships he forged with those fighters.
Andy Lee had lived with Steward since 2006, the middleweight told Dan Rafael of ESPN.com last week.
“He likes to keep an eye on his fighters,” Lee said. “I was going into a home environment at the house.”
For once, boxing wasn’t just about money or fame, but about men who became family. Thomas Hearns described Steward as “the father he never had,” while speaking last week to Lem Satterfield of RingTV.com.
“He helped me to become the man that I’ve become today,” Hearns said. “He taught me right from wrong, and he taught me about living. So with Emanuel Steward, our relationship wasn’t just about boxing to me.”
The truly great in this world earn such stature not just with the big things, but with the little things as well. Roy Jones Jr. spoke on HBO this past weekend of how he had turned down an offer to work with Steward when he first turned pro and opted instead to work with his father. Yet the fact that Steward had approached him left an imprint on the young Olympian. Now nearly 25 years into his pro career, Jones said he still carries a Kronk Gym bag with him.
Several journalists wrote last week of their relationships with Steward, of his responsibility in returning calls, of his generosity in the time he would give them, of the stories he would tell them. These were traits that writers do not take for granted.
These all were traits, professional and personal, that will leave a lasting legacy: He made Hall of Fame fighters. He had a Hall of Fame career. He seemed to personify an honor that is rare in what can be a brutal sport and a cutthroat business.
It pains everyone who knew him and loved him to have to speak or write the words that pay tribute to him. He deserves them all, but he didn’t deserve to die so soon.
The first public inkling of his declining health came in September, when the HBO commentator — another role in which he earned respect — missed two straight broadcasts due to an undisclosed illness. No one publicly disclosed just how serious Steward’s situation was. But the word began to spread about the grim diagnosis.
Less than two months later, he’s gone.
We knew what Emanuel Steward brought to this world. We know just how much we’ll be missing now that he has passed. It’s often said that you make your mark by what you leave behind.
Emanuel Steward left behind more than many — and that is why we are left with such sorrow in our hearts. His loss is truly our loss.
The 10 Count will return next week.
“Fighting Words" appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter at @fightingwords2 or send questions and comments to [email protected]