Ten years have passed since the late, great Emanuel Steward, widely recognised as the finest trainer of all time, died at the age of 68 after a short illness.
Often called the Godfather of Detroit boxing, Steward was the head of the Kronk, the world’s most iconic gym, and in Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, instrumental in the success of not only three of the finest fighters of three different eras, but three of the finest of all time.
If with Hearns, one of the revered Four Kings, he masterminded the evolution of a once unremarkable puncher into one of the most devastating in history, in the similarly great Lewis and Klitschko he rescued and rebuilt the careers of two heavyweight champions whose futures were under threat. With Lewis, as the trainer of his then-opponent Oliver McCall, Steward had even proved the inspiration behind the significant upset victory that ultimately proved Lewis’ making.
So heavily favoured was Lewis, then the WBC heavyweight champion, the night of 24 September 1994 that not only had McCall been installed as a 5/1 underdog – even amid an awareness of his success as a sparring partner for Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno – but that an agreement existed for Lewis to fight his great rival Riddick Bowe the following March, after which it was hoped that the winner would meet the imprisoned Tyson. In McCall’s corner that night, however, working his 94th world title fight was Steward, as effective a motivator as he was technically and tactically aware.
Recognising Lewis remained reliant on his natural talent – since impressing in stopping Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock in two rounds he had laboured to victories over Tony Tucker, Bruno and Phil Jackson – Steward had prepared McCall to counter what he perceived to be Lewis’ lazy left hand. When one such left was thrown in the second round and Lewis’ chin was unprotected, McCall threw and landed a powerful right, knocking the champion to the canvas at Wembley Arena so heavily that after Lewis returned to his feet following a count of six the referee Jose Guadalupe Garcia rightly rescued him.
Already frustrated with the methods of his then-trainer Pepe Correa, the previously undefeated Lewis, after also considering the decorated Angelo Dundee, recruited none other than Steward to be Correa’s successor and oversee the rebuild required to make him the world’s leading heavyweight. “I was making a lot of mistakes and I wasn’t being told about it,” Lewis later said. “I had a great cheerleader in my corner, but not much of a trainer. I do accept some responsibility.”
The most difficult night of Lewis’ career was also the greatest of the erratic McCall’s. By the time of their rematch, at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas on 7 February 1997, Lewis, under Steward’s guidance, had beaten Lionel Butler, Justin Fortune, Tommy Morrison and Ray Mercer. McCall, who had replaced Steward with George Benton, had beaten Larry Holmes before losing his title to Bruno, and then secured victories over Oleg Maskaev and James Stanton.
They were again fighting for the WBC title, this time vacant after Tyson had given it up having won it from Bruno. “Lewis could lose his career if he loses, and he knows it,” Steward said, before sagely adding: “Oliver’s full of confidence that he can beat Lennox because he has been led to believe Lennox doesn’t have heart. But I don’t think he’ll ever attain the level he was at for the first fight again. He was extremely sharp and focused that night.”
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“If Oliver McCall beats me, I deserve to retire,” Lewis had said. His opponent, asked about Steward’s role with Lewis, responded: “I prefer that Manny be in Lewis’ corner more than anyone else because I know what Manny will teach him to try to do to me.”
Even at a time when McCall remained a significant figure in the thriving heavyweight division, his career and psyche had started to unravel. Since the defeat by Bruno in September 1995 he had encountered legal problems and abused drugs. There had been time in rehab to battle addictions to cannabis and cocaine; two arrests in the summer of 1996 on charges of possessing drugs; 11 months of inactivity before the rematch with Lewis, which had been preceded three months earlier by another arrest on charges of vandalism, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
From the opening bell, Lewis’ increasingly authoritative jab – one of the finest of any heavyweight – proved instrumental, and in the second, when like during their first fight McCall sought to land his powerful right hand, Lewis was capable of defending himself. Steward’s methods were succeeding again.
As Lewis continued to build his lead and keep McCall off balance, McCall, ignoring instructions from Benton and Greg Page, became less and less interested in defending himself from or engaging with his opponent, leading to the referee Mills Lane rescuing him 55 seconds into the fifth round. McCall’s painfully public breakdown became the defining narrative of that evening, but in the context of Lewis’ career, the faith he had placed in Steward – and that Steward had placed in him – since the trainer had overseen the end of his undefeated record had been vindicated by both his performance and the win.
“I’ve seen guys quit,” Steward said. “But I’d never seen it to the extent that they let the whole world know they didn’t want to fight.”
“I still remember Emanuel Steward in the corner,” Lewis later said. “‘If he doesn’t wanna fight, you make him fight, go out there and beat him up.’
“[He] showed me how he beat me in the first fight. He showed me levels of the fight game that I had no clue existed before that point. I was playing checkers when he was playing chess.
“My alliance with Manny went on to be a fruitful one, as well as one of the most important relationships of my life.”
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- Manny Steward trained Tommy Hearns and Wladimir Klitschko, masterminded Oliver McCall’s win against Lennox Lewis, who then became an undisputed champion at Kronk and his legacy lives on with SugarHill and Tyson Fury
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