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Emanuel Steward: The Ring General

Jun 1, 2010 – 11:35 AM
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Thomas George

Thomas George %BloggerTitle%

Editor's Note: This is the first of two parts.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Emanuel Steward for more than six decades has been a survivor, a promoter, a fighter, a visionary and an ambassador. A Detroit icon. A global figure.

A boxing steward.

Watching him train Miguel Cotto last week here at the Fight Factory revealed poetry in a ring. It was dancing with punch and power in gloves. And, believe it, Steward, who reaches age 66 on July 7, was squarely in that ring, matching Cotto step for step and juke for juke. He's still got it -- the will, the enviable skill of how to illustrate and teach boxing proficiency.

He is in Manhattan now with Cotto prepping for more distinguished, historic boxing fair. Boxing returns on Saturday night to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 24 years when the three-time world champion Cotto (34-2, 27 knockouts) clashes with WBA junior middleweight champion Yuri Foreman (28-0, eight KOs). The old Yankee Stadium featured fights by several spectacular staples, including Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis and Gene Tunney and Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

But this is the first fight in the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in April of last year.

It is the perfect setting, the perfect moment for Steward to showcase once again his work in the sport and in a corner. He is a member of both the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has managed or trained 39 champions and six Olympic gold medalists. The list of his pupils -- from Hearns to Lewis to De La Hoya to Klitschko and beyond -- is striking. He has worked fights in 23 countries. He made Kronk Boxing in Detroit renown. He has drawn an array of fresh admirers in recent years with his boxing commentary on HBO.

"Just being in New York again with a boxer and what this means being in Yankee Stadium, it's just beginning to hit me,'' said Steward, who has trained fighters professionally for the last 49 years. "I'm used to crowds, to the attention, to super fights. The venues all blend. But I am realizing this is a whole different thing.

"You have Miguel, who has a tremendous Puerto Rican following in New York, and you have Yuri Foreman, who is Jewish and has a strong following there. You are talking about two great New York ethnicities who are going to bring great energy. And when I walked through the stadium a few weeks ago for the first time, I could feel the historic business model the Yankees franchise is and the energy in New York that, simply, the place brings. This Yuri Foreman, no one knows how good a fighter he is. I tell Miguel he is in for the fight of his life.''

And everyone watching Steward work another corner, work a fighter in prime view again is in for a treat.

That is what Angelo Dundee, 88, Ali's former trainer and a 52-year-career boxing aficionado, says.

"Emanuel and I have been friends since he came to South Philly years ago and we drank red wine that my dad made,'' Dundee said. "We have worked against each other in the ring, corner to corner, more times than I can count. We still talk about boxing like two college kids talk about their courses. He knows fighters. He knows talent and how to work it. He is a tremendous pro. A class act. He talks our language. There is a warm twist to him. Everybody loves Emanuel. He is honest. Sincere. He is all those things that don't cost you nothing.''

Steward was 94-3 as an amateur boxer and won the 1963 National Golden Gloves bantamweight title (118 pounds) in Chicago when he was 18. Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis says Steward's in-ring boxing experience complements his tutoring.

"Emanuel provided a different style of training for me and was a guy who could break it down to you in a great way,'' Lewis said. "He is a trainer of champions. He sees what you need and sharpens you up. He loves to work with kids in and out of the ring. He spends time with them. He gives them places to stay. He cooks them meals. I admire him for that.

"Does the fighter make the trainer or does the trainer make the fighter? With Emanuel, it's sharing on both sides. His contribution to the sport of boxing is ordained. I wish we had 10 of him for boxing because a lot of people need him.''

Steward trained Oliver McCall when McCall beat Lewis in 1994 for the WBC heavyweight title. Steward trained Lewis when Lewis beat McCall for the same title in 1997.

"He is a trainer of champions. He sees what you need and sharpens you up. He loves to work with kids in and out of the ring. He spends time with them. He gives them places to stay. He cooks them meals. I admire him for that."
-- Lennox Lewis
Larry Merchant, a Steward HBO Boxing colleague, said that "encapsulates'' Steward's career.

"What was it that the NFL coach Bum Phillips said about Don Shula? He can take hisn's and beat your'sns and he can take yours'ns and beat hisn's? That's Emanuel,'' Merchant said. "His ability to visualize and exploit and tap into the old boxing world of Detroit, to train and maneuver through the upper echelon of boxing commerce is marvelous. All of the talent he nurtured in Detroit was a big deal, led by Tommy Hearns. He created and then re-created a culture of boxing that excited people in Detroit and then redeveloped and reworked guys like Wladimir Klitschko. He hasn't had all success -- some fighters can't be fixed. But he has a wide portfolio and a pretty impressive body of work.

"Emanuel knows the marketing, selling, hustling of boxing and how to protect and promote his fights and fighters. A fight can last an hour but you can talk about it for a month. Emmanuel is a pro at that.''

Hearns calls this Steward's "gift of gab.''

"That can take you a long way,'' Hearns said. "Me and Emanuel, we developed more like a father-son relationship for so long. We learned so much from each other. He gave me everything he had. And I gave him everything I had. We gave a lot to boxing.

"It was a craft between us that was so hard for anyone to come along and map and put into words. We were two men that formed a bond that was as close as two men could possibly create. We put our best out there.''

Hearns was the story, said former longtime Steward top assistant Prentiss Byrd, but Steward was how Hearns became the story. And despite his "gift of gab,'' Steward always remembers "what he said on yesterday,'' Byrd said.

"He took kids out of their backyards at 13- and 14-years-old and made them world champions,'' said Byrd, who worked with Steward from 1978 through 2001 and currently leads amateurs for the Los Angeles-based All-American Heavyweight Academy owned by TV producer Michael King. "All of the other great trainers were hand-fed. Emanuel raised all of his kids. And then he took the bar higher with fighters who turned to him to recapture their glory. Think of Tiger Woods in golf or Michael Jordan in basketball and Emanuel's contribution to boxing compared to theirs' in their sport is 10 times greater. He is the best that ever did it.''

None of this is lost on Cotto.

When Steward speaks, he listens.

"I chose him,'' Cotto said. "He chose me. He brings a lot. His knowledge. His hard work. I think he can help me recover that part of my history. The best part.''

A Ring Life

Steward has spent his life fighting, studying what makes fighters and people tick and perfecting his boxing touch. He has spent as much time unraveling those traits in himself.

He was born in 1944 in Bottom Creek, W. Va., the son of Catherine, a homemaker, and Manuel, a coal miner. He was the eldest, with sisters Diane and Laverne following.

He said his mother was 16 years older than him, his father 18 years older. Both used to have "a good time'' and roll in "late at night'' as far back as he can remember, he said.

His aunts always told him that he was never a normal child. That his independence was astounding. That his deep-rooted common sense was not common.

These stories that Steward shares of incidents when he was ages 1 1/2, 4, 8 and 12 provide windows into his remarkable staying power and plaudits in boxing.

"My aunts told me that I was a year-and-a-half old when I fell out of bed once,'' he began. "My parents came home late one night and were arguing and woke me up. So, my aunts told me the next night before I went to bed that I put pillows on the floor all around the bed before I went to sleep. I was looking out for myself even then. A survival thing.

Emanuel Steward"I was 4 years old when one of those nights, and I remember this clearly, my mom and dad came home arguing. I got out of bed and came to the door and told them to 'Stop making all of that noise!' I was 4. They were drunk. They told me if I was so uncomfortable I could leave. I went and packed some things and walked out the door and out of the house. My grandmother lived seven doors down. It was dark. Dogs were howling. I was scared. About halfway there, fuming mad, I turned around and walked back to my home and knocked on the door. They opened it. They thought I was coming back because I was scared and wanted to apologize. I told them to kiss my butt. And this time, still scared to death, I walked those seven doors to my grandmother. And I would live there for the next three years.''

He said his father was an avid reader. That his father would often sleep on the sofa and leave for work at 4:30 a.m. He remembers planting corn with him once. And that his father took him possum hunting a couple of times when he was 8. That was it, the core of their relationship, he said.

"About the second time he took me possum hunting with his friends, he had already made it clear that my job was to climb up the tree and shake the tree until the possum fell out. I hated that job. I was scared of that. I told them all, 'Kiss my ass! I'm not doing it anymore!' And that was that. I've always been a cusser. I guess that is one of the few things I got from my dad.''

He had gained a Christmas present the year before, a pair of Jack Dempsey boxing gloves. Playing cowboys, wrestling and stuffing pillowcases with newspapers and hanging the pillowcases outside on a line to practice punches with his Dempsey gloves was how he remembers his most fun as a child. Oh, and there were the street fights that his father and his father's friends used to hold for their amusement, Steward against nearby kids from nearby hollows -- "I never lost one,'' Steward said. "No training. Just me.''

After his father had physically abused his mother for the last time, for the last straw, his mother gathered Steward and his sisters and told them they were moving to Detroit to live with family. Steward was 12. They left on a September night in 1956.

"It was a Friday night,'' Steward recalled. "Things had gotten worse between my parents. I cried all the way to the train. It was a 24-hour trip. We ate cold chicken and bread. It was my first time on a train. We went to the East Side of Detroit. Right then, I knew life was over for me as a child.''

His mother gained a job as a waitress and over the next couple of years Steward would earn $5 to $6 a day delivering groceries at a quarter per deal, sell his own hot tamales and hot sausages from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. -- "late at night when the bars closed when you got the biggest crowds,'' he said. He sold popsicles around the city from his own truck and raked leaves. He would help to take care of his mother and sisters. And fight. The biggest bullies from school. And in hidden street fights like the ones back in Bottom Creek. At age 14, in January 1959, he said, he "put a boy in a coma for three days'' after a fight on Detroit's Baldwin Street. He faced being sent to a juvenile home.

A policeman intervened and suggested Steward become involved in boxing, under youth recreation leadership and supervision. That would set him on course to become the Detroit National Golden Gloves bantamweight champion in 1963, an accomplishment that had not been achieved by a Detroit boxer in 24 years. The necklace of gold and diamond boxing gloves remains one of his most prized possessions. He keeps it in a Detroit safe.

"After I won it, I was signing autographs one day as the city champ,'' he recalled, his eyes misty, his voice trembling. "And the same cop who saved me called me to the back of the room. He asked did I remember him and, honestly, I didn't. He reminded me. Most people there didn't know that story. I asked him to keep it down, keep it quiet. I was embarrassed. But then he said his sister had told him that she was about to be raped once by a group of guys one day after school and I had stopped them and beat them up. She told him I saved her life. And he said he didn't forget that. It was the reason why he intervened and helped save my life.

"I remember that night in Chicago Stadium, 13,000 screaming fans. Me, the kid from the East Side of Detroit won. I had lost in the finals the year before to a left-hander from Cleveland. This time, while we were registering, I walked up and smacked him across the head. I had been obsessed with beating him for an entire year. He was in my nightmares. I almost got thrown out for that before the competition even started. He came up with a mysterious illness during the competition and withdrew.

"I get back to the hotel after winning. I had been so weak afterward that I needed oxygen. I called my mom. I was the champion. She didn't understand. She seemed confused. About that time, there was a news bulletin that broke on TV. I could hear it over the phone, in the background. She sees it. She said, 'There's your ugly face right there!' She said it with love. She was so proud. That was the greatest feeling. I was the baddest dude in the United States.''

"I got back to Detroit and one day soon after that was walking alone on Gratiot [Avenue]. And it became clear to me right then, at that moment. Winning and losing was all mental. Everything in life is mental. You just have to make up your mind you are going to do something. And do it.''

Between his time as a fighter and becoming a full-time trainer and manager, Steward in the mid-'60s worked as an electrician, worked in the Detroit automobile assembly lines, promoted cabarets and performed other assorted jobs. Steward, now divorced, married then Marie Steele in 1964 and had two daughters, Sylvia and Sylvette.

"I am a very competitive trainer with my fighters. I am so geared the night before a fight that I get no sleep. I'm more competitive now than most of my fighters. The idea of second place nauseates me. To hell with second place. Gold or nothing for me.''
-- Emanuel Steward
Steward vividly remembers a 1969 call from his father. His father called Steward from West Virginia to tell him that his half-brother, James, was in trouble for fighting -- that he could be sent to a juvenile home. Steward said he did not even know James. But his father asked him to take James in, teach him boxing in Detroit, give him a new chance. Steward had already begun training boxers eight years earlier while, himself, still fighting. Steward agreed. After all, he had long ago become a family provider. A survivor, promoter, fighter, visionary -- an ambassador. James became a solid fighter, Steward said. So did many of his earliest fighters. And on March 2, 1980, Steward, with Hilmer Kenty, guided his first world champion.

Here in Tampa at the apartment in which he resided while training Cotto, Steward removed every picture, every painting, everything from the walls and stored all of it in a closet. He said it helped him work. Helped him focus. He kept his TV on CNN, volume low. His papers on the fight, on his businesses, on his new cadre of promising Kronk fighters, were spread across a table, leaving barely an inch of the table surface to spare. He washed and ironed his own clothes and cooked his own meals. He brought along several of his new Kronk fighters to Tampa to spar with Cotto. He brought them to Manhattan this week, too.

The way Steward sees it, a few tough guys from Detroit provide a different kind of practice. A different kid of fight.

"I am a very competitive trainer with my fighters,'' Steward said. "I am so geared the night before a fight that I get no sleep. I'm more competitive now than most of my fighters. The idea of second place nauseates me. To hell with second place. Gold or nothing for me.''

PART II on Wednesday: The style and secret to Emanuel Steward's training and boxing, and boxing insiders analyze Steward's impact on Cotto-Foreman.
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