The email from a friend dropped in my box and simply said: “RIP Emanuel Steward.” I thought this is a mistake, it must be, Steward always looks handsome and healthy on TV, he’s a winner, he’ll live a long time, it must be another guy with the same name who, quickly and privately, withered at age sixty-eight and died from diverticulosis. I checked it out and learned, no, it was the man who’d sculpted boxers as Michelangelo did marble, the artist who welcomed kids from Detroit ghettos of barred windows and torched buildings and, in the sweltering basement of legendary Kronk Gym, taught them to become champions. He was the foremost boxing trainer of his generation and more, a man whose roll of titlists is too long to quote but features Thomas Hearns, the Motor City Cobra, who became the first fighter to capture five world championships, and Milton McCrory, and Mike McCallum, and Gerald McClellan, and Michael Moorer, who won light heavyweight and heavyweight crowns, and it includes European heavyweights Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, both already accomplished but in need of better technique they acquired from Steward prior to dominating their division. He also prepared Oscar de la Hoya and Evander Holyfield for some major fights and worked with thousands of obscure youngsters. Most he touched became better boxers. Steward himself had been a good amateur, a national Golden Gloves champ, but quit fighting and, to support wife and child, shivered on Detroit Edison utility poles before resolving to build a ringside career.
Whether training fighters, negotiating their contracts, serving as a boxing commentator on TV, or talking to journalists, Emanuel Steward was a man people enjoyed listening to. I know. I met him in 1980 when he visited Sacramento. In my capacity as an indigent correspondent I called him at his motel and heard a man emerge from sleep as he said he couldn’t see me then but to come by in an hour. Accompanied by the man who sent the email above, and another friend, I at the appointed time walked to the room of the trainer, who was then only thirty-six. This is an updated version of what I wrote:
After letting us in Emanuel Steward returned to bed, stretched onto his back, and spoke hoarsely until he fully awakened. Lounging isn’t his normal daytime activity. He’s often training welterweight champion Tommy Hearns and other boxers at Kronk Gym in a poor Polish and black neighborhood in Detroit where many boys identify more with the city’s best fighters than their parents or teachers, and dream of winning fortunes. Steward, as Detroit’s director of boxing, often begins molding students young as age seven. Their sacrifices and his guidance have generated two world champions – lightweight Hilmer Kenty being the other – and his top six fighters have a combined record of ninety-two and one with seventy-five knockouts. Now Steward’s a roving professor of pugilism. Last night he was in Miami to help his newest protégé, Davey Armstrong, gain his sixth consecutive victory. Then he caught the red-eye flight to San Francisco, where he had a four-hour layover before coming here to hold a clinic for the Golden Bear Boxing Tournament.
“I do a lot of traveling,” he said. “I’ve spent $42,000 on airfare so far this year. Where does that come from? From my own finances. I’m going to make about a million dollars this year.
“We take these small kids and tutor them for years. They’re watched closely and brought along carefully. They get good competition and that breeds improvement. Those tough cities in the East like Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia make tough fighters. The economic conditions make a guy hungrier. There’s a very high activity and competition level in the East, much higher than in the West.
“We run a rough ass gym. Some top pros come to work out with us, but they leave because they can’t take it. Babs McCarthy, your guy from Sacramento, was an exception to that. Babs isn’t all that skillful but he’s tough and not too many top fighters can beat him.” (A few years later McCarthy drowned, or was dumped into a river, and no one claimed his body for several days.)
Hearns, the stable’s most publicized member, galvanized boxing fans in July with his precise and brutal second-round knockout of Pipino Cuevas in their title fight. It looked like Hearns was a towering light heavyweight bullying an overmatched welterweight.
“Tommy is officially six-foot-one but he’s taller, almost the same height as Muhammad Ali,” said Steward. “Tommy’s potential is unlimited. His strength is unbelievable. He sparred with light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad and he was strong enough for Matthew. In training Tommy usually works with light heavies because he’s just too strong for welterweights. But Tommy has his hands full in the gym. Then, in fights, he destroys guys.
“Despite what people say, Tommy doesn’t have any trouble making the 147-pound limit. Eventually, I expect he’ll become a middleweight and win the title. I think he can beat any middleweight right now. He could eventually become light heavyweight champ.” (Hearns would indeed take that title in 1991, decisioning Virgil Hill.)
When the future of Tommy Hearns is discussed, the name Sugar Ray Leonard usually follows. Hearns was too young and slender to compete for the 1976 national boxing team, and toiled in the basement of Kronk Gym as luminous Leonard smiled on television screens around the world and dominated opponents to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. From his professional debut several months later, Leonard earned large purses in numerous nationally-televised fights. He’s effervescent and charming while Hearns is shy and inarticulate. Leonard plays Ali to Hearn’s Joe Frazier. A collision is inevitable.
“Styles make fights and Leonard’s style could cause Tommy some trouble,” the trainer said. “But if Leonard gets hurt in the second round, like he did against Roberto Duran, he won’t make it. Tommy will knock him out.”
In fact, Emanuel Steward said Hearns had already stopped Leonard – twice. In 1980 Steward insisted that I not attribute this information to him – he didn’t want to show disrespect for Leonard – but now let’s put it in quotes: “In two 1978 workouts in Baltimore, held two days apart, Tommy pounded Leonard until he was unable to continue. He was helpless against the ropes.”
The first time they fought publicly, in 1981, Hearns frequently outpunched Leonard, battered one eye closed, and was leading in the fourteenth round when Leonard uncorked a roundhouse right that rendered Hearns incoherent. Leonard shot both gloves into the air, his victory salute, and pounced on his foe to win by technical knockout. When they next fought, in 1989, I was in Costa Rica, having arrived ill after two days of revelry in Managua, Nicaragua. I had to take to my hotel bed most of the day, and arose late afternoon to enter capital city San Jose and look for a place to watch the fight. I found a large and elegant restaurant, which turned out to be a cathouse I did not use in that capacity, and beseeched the manager to search for the fight on his cable network. Blessedly, he was able access it. As the superstars flailed each other for twelve rounds, I slurped locally-brewed beers and kept shouting “La Guerra” – The War. After the armistice, judges called the fight a draw. Despite being a Leonard fan, I disagreed. Leonard also said Hearns deserved the decision.
Emanuel Steward culminated the 1980 interview by stating he preferred amateur boxing to professional, and noted, “Amateur boxing is making things come alive all over the country. Within two years I think you’ll see eighty percent of the world professional titlists coming from the American amateur ranks.”
In the decades since my conversation with Emanuel Steward, the base of boxing has narrowed as fans and top athletes focused on football, basketball, and other sports, including mixed martial arts, that provide faster and more fluid action. Steward continued to work with professional fighters at the pinnacle, as well as amateurs, but in free time he became a follower of mixed martial arts and was sometimes seen relaxing in a cage-side seat. That’s the best place to be. Fighters too often have sad times. Tommy Hearns, after earning tens of millions of dollars in his career, lost his house and most valuable possessions due to debt he attributed to his “overly generous” aid to relatives. Gerald McClellan lost much more in 1995. He and Steward had just split over a financial dispute, and McClellan went to England to fight Nigel Benn. He knocked Benn out of the ring in the first round and down in the eighth but collapsed in the tenth and has since been blind and eighty percent deaf and must be cared for full-time. Even the professor of pugilism couldn’t alter the consequences of a violent sport.
A personal note: Emanuel Steward died in October 2011. Ironically, or perhaps a realist would say predictably, many of his finest students can no longer speak well.