Nov 6, 2012

A Steward who was a king

Eddie Futch, Cus D’amato, Angelo Dundee, Emanuel Steward. Four names, four trainers who gave a wealth of gifts to boxing. When people talk about the greatest boxing trainers, memories are often shortsighted and look to who’s on a bigger stage and who has the biggest name. Emanuel Steward is possibly the best trainer of all time based on his credentials alone.

How many champions did he train? Over 40.

This alone should be enough to convince you that he was the best but the reality is that you have to see who he trained and how they performed. Did his fighters listen to him at all times? Did his tutelage embed them with the necessary knowledge to get to the next level? Did he take a broken down fighter and fix him? Did he take fighters who lost and help them avenge their defeats? All of the above can be answered with a simple yes.

Fighters who trained under Manny were often fiercely loyal and were better for it. He also trained fighters for single fights where you saw the mark of a great trainer in his boxer as they stepped into the ring. One of the best examples would have to be the second fight between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield. In this fight, a taller, bigger heavyweight came on the short end against Holyfield. On paper and if you saw the other two fights, there was no way you’d give Evander a shot in hell to beat Riddick… but there he was, sticking, moving, jabbing, being aggressive and showing the heart that has made him one of boxing’s greats. In his corner, spurring him on was Manny… feeling the elation of a game plan put into effect and working even if they did get some help from above... in the Fan Man not God. 

In recent fights, you saw Emanuel in the corner of Andy Lee, who recently lost via KO to Julio César Chávez Jr. The verdict? When you’re outweighed by 20 pounds, your punches won’t necessarily rock the other guy. Add to that a small ring, and Andy had everything to lose, and he did. Now if the fight would have been against a middleweight and not a cruiserweight and the ring would have been just two feet wider, there’s no doubt in my mind we would have seen a very different fight. Be the case as it may be, I mention Andy Lee because he’s a kind of fighter Manny brought out the best in and stuck by him no matter what. That’s because Emanuel often took the role of being a father figure to most guys he trained. He spoke, you listened and he’d work with you, you wouldn’t and he’d bust your balls. Oh, and he never gave up on his guys… so I’m sure if Manny would be around, it would have taken about 1 year to get Lee back into contention and winning a championship. That’s what could have been if Manny were still with us… what he actually did accomplish was the restoration of heavyweight boxing’s number 1 fighter.

Eight years ago, Wladmir Klitschko suffered his second defeat by KO. This was his first fight under Manny’s tutelage and it wasn’t a pretty sight to see Klitschko unable to get past the 5th round in large part because he punched himself out. After two fights, he faced Samuel Peter and after clearly dominating for various rounds, got dropped a whopping three times, though managed to weather the storm and win a unanimous decision… again, not the best outing. Seven years after that shaky victory, no one has come close to beating Wladmir, including Peter who got punished int heir second fight. Every fight since then, he’s gotten better and though some fights have been lackluster, does it really matter when you win 90% of the rounds and knock out 10 of the 13 people you've faced? Exactly. Amidst all that was Manny, pushing for his fighter to be better and often spurring him on to get the knockout he at times seemed unwilling to take. That’s because Manny wasn’t a trainer who was afraid to have his fighter pull the trigger.

His tenure with Lennox Lewis demonstrates the value of two things… a good jab and right hand and fighting tall. Unlike many heavyweights, who tend to crouch, Lennox Lewis fought tall. Think Riddick Bowe, think Klitschko. These guys stand their full height and use their jab to keep anyone away until they whack them with a right cross. Lennox was among the best who did this and the last guy to be the undisputed heavyweight champion. I’m sure people will look to his last fight as a sign that he was going to be beat… that’s beside the point. Even in poor form, he did bust Vitali Klitschko bad enough to cause the fight to be stopped. And it wasn’t a bad stoppage… honestly. And this is from a Vitali fan who despises Lennox Lewis… But the facts remain. He’s one of three heavyweights to avenge every loss, so technically he beat everyone he faced, he unified the heavyweight division and he did so under the tutelage of Steward.

So how good was Manny with heavyweights? Well if Emanuel Steward’s experience with heavyweights in championship fights would be a boxing record, it would have been 34-2-1. That’s not a total record… that’s championship fights.

So why was he so good? Well with an amateur background like his, you either turn pro or pass on your knowledge and if you think his record with heavyweights was impressive, you’re really going to be impressed with his record as an amateur. 94 victories out of 97 fights as an amateur bantamweight only to go on to win the Golden Gloves in his division. He brought that knowledge and passion into his professional work and that’s why he was able to help Tommy the Hitman Hearns earn championships in 5 weight classes… the first fighter to ever do so and one of the best fighters of all time, with some of the most memorable fights in boxing, including his 3 round war with Marvin Hagler, a 14th round TKO loss to Sugar Ray Leonard, a Draw with Leonard everyone saw Tommy winning after dropping Sugar Ray in the 3rd and 11th rounds and a knockout of Roberto Durán. When you saw Tommy Hearns, you saw a lanky black kid from Detroit that looked like he could be blown over by a strong gust of wind… Manny saw a champion who could knock people out and as was the case during most of his career, Manny was right. That’s because Steward went beyond the surface and saw deep into the core of his boxers.

I mentioned Manny wasn’t afraid to have his fighter pull the trigger. Many a time he would give clear concise commands of knock this mother#%$% out, and his fighters usually obeyed with devastating consequences. That’s because Manny was a fighter and loved a good fight. His idea of a good decision was having a referee decide to not have to count to 10 to call a knockout. I also read that he taught many a fighter the secret handshake of the Detroit Athletic Association, a left hook to the body followed by a right cross to the head. He loved the sport with passion and brought the same intensity into his fights as an amateur, his work as a trainer, his relationship with his fighters and his work as a color commentator.

Regarding his relationship with his fighters, Manny was the guy who cried when Tommy Hearns got knocked out against Leonard in their first fight. He was the guy who mentored countless amateur kids who just wanted to box, he mentored Andy Lee to the point where they became family. This means that apart from passion and faith, he also had a heart… something we were able to get glimpses of in his work as a commentator.

As a fight fan, I always tended to focus on what Manny said most out of all the color commentators I’ve seen. Very seldom did he say something I didn’t agree with most likely because I hadn't noticed it and when re-watching a fight would go, wow, he was completely right. He was a fan of balance, a fan of speed, a fan of a good jab, and a fan of going to the body. And when you saw a fight he was commenting on, he would live the fight and soak up the entire experience, often being the most vocal among the on air crew. This isn’t to say Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman, George Foreman, Harold Letterman, Roy Jones or Larry Merchant don’t have anything to offer… it’s just to say that he was the voice of reason and passion you tended to gravitate towards to the most. He was honest, knowledgeable and kind to the point where you couldn’t help but want to be a better person… That’s what many of his fighters actually said… Manny inspired them to be not only better boxers, but better people, and if that isn’t a sign of a true champion… then I don’t know what is.

From a fan who’s lamenting the loss of a great figure in boxing,

Cheers Manny


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