IT is said that behind the success of every man is a woman. But if the man happens to be a professional boxer, you can bet the rent money that the individual behind his success is a no-nonsense male trainer.
For three decades, more than 40 world boxing champions benefited from the training acumen of Emanuel Steward, the proud founder of the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit. It was Steward who introduced to the world the paralyzing power of Thomas “Hitman” Hearns in the 1980s and some two decades later convinced reluctant British heavyweight Lennox Lewis to “punch more and think less.” It thus did not come as a surprise that when Steward recently succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 68, the entire boxing world mourned his passing. More than being a trainer, Steward served as a second father to the boxers whose careers he chiseled to near awesomeness.
The son of a coalminer and a seamstress, Steward first saw the light of day in Bottom Creek, West Virginia. After his parents divorced, Steward moved to Detroit with his mother. It was in Detroit where Steward learned how to box. He took part in several amateur competitions and was good enough to capture the bantamweight National Golden Gloves title in 1963. Steward never turned pro, however, opting to work as an electrician in 1970.
The boxing bug refused to leave Steward, though. He rekindled his passion for the gloved sport after his half-brother James convinced him to train some youngsters at the Kronk Gym (named after a Polish-American politician) located at the basement of the oldest recreation center in Detroit. Steward learned the tricks of the trade from the master, Detroit native Eddie Futch, who trained the likes of Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, and Riddick Bowe. In particular, Steward learned from Futch the correct way of wrapping a boxer’s hands and the art of properly tightening a boxer’s fists before unleashing them.
While Steward became a household name for guiding power-puncher Hearns to the World Boxing Association (WBA) welterweight throne in August 1980, his first world champion was the little-known, less talented Hilmer Kenty, who was crowned WBA lightweight champion three months before Hearns butchered Mexican Pipino Cuevas for the welter belt. Following Steward’s instructions to the letter, Kenty bucked the odds and stopped Venezuelan Ernesto Espana in nine rounds for the lightweight crown before a crowd of over 13,000 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
By the time Kenty lost the belt to Sean O’Grady in April 1981, Steward was on his way to making a mark in the sport. Hearns carried the Kronk flag, winning world titles in the super welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions. Steward was in Hearns’ corner when the ‘Hitman’ waged war with world middleweight champion Marvin Hagler in 1985. In a classic brawl that elevated both boxers to legendary status, Hearns rocked and cut Hagler early in the fight before capitulating in the third round.
In addition to Hearns, Steward also guided the careers of American fighters Milton McCrory (WBA welterweight champion, 1983), Mike McCallum (WBA super welterweight champion, 1985), Jimmy Paul (International Boxing Federation lightweight champion, 1985) and Duane Thomas (World Boxing Council super-welterweight champion, 1986). Steward also worked with a host of British fighters that included Lewis, Naseem Hamed and Dennis Andries. Tony Tucker, Evander Holyfield, Gerald McClellan and Wladimir Klitschko also worked with Steward.
The famous Kronk Gym closed shop in 2006 despite a feverish campaign to save it. By that time, however, Steward had found a new niche in the sport as a boxing analyst for Home Box Office (HBO) Boxing. Steward was still under the employ of HBO when his condition took a turn for the worse. When reports came out that Steward was already in dire straits, Hearns was among those who led numerous prayer vigils. According to relatives, Steward went down fighting “as hard as Hagler vs. Hearns.”
Steward won the Boxing Writers’ Association of America manager of the year award in 1980 and 1989, and was named trainer of the year in 1993 and 1997. In 1996, he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Steward, whose marriage to Marie Steele ended in divorce, left behind longtime partner Anita Ruiz, two daughters and two sisters.