Steward embraces task to prepare Taylor vs. Wright

6/17/2006 - Boxing

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward vividly remembers the first time he met Jermain Taylor.

Steward was in Las Vegas for a major fight in 2001. Taylor, who had recently turned pro following his bronze medal-winning performance in the 2000 Olympics, was in the dressing room warming up for one of his early pro bouts on the undercard when a mutual friend introduced them.

What Steward saw made an impression on him.

"I looked at him as he was warming up and I saw an intensity that I never forgot," Steward said. "I saw him warming up by himself, really intense. I always thought of all the guys on the 2000 [U.S. Olympic] team, this was the most intense guy that I saw."

Years later, Steward saw that same intensity during their seven-week training camp at Detroit's famed Kronk Gym, Steward's home base.

"The second day he sparred he got in an actual fight with [sparring partner] Corey Johnson, and I was just amazed," Steward said. "They got into a battle out of the ring, choking and biting and kicking and everything. I sat back and watched just to see what would happen. [Taylor] actually made this guy break down, apologize to him. I then realized he was legitimately a tough guy."

Steward, 61, has trained more than 30 world champions and is new to Taylor's team. He was brought in a few months ago to help the undefeated champion improve on two less-than-stellar performances in a pair of close victories against Bernard Hopkins last year.

That meant Taylor fired Pat Burns, even though Burns had trained him for his entire pro career and led him to the undisputed middleweight championship.

Steward's first task is to prepare Taylor (25-0, 17 KOs) for what figures to be a difficult title defense Saturday night (HBO, 9:30 p.m. ET) at the FedEx Forum; Taylor faces mandatory challenger Winky Wright (50-3, 25 KOs), the former undisputed junior middleweight champion who is widely considered the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

"He's brought a lot to the table," Taylor, 27, said of Steward. "He's brought his experience. I give him so much respect. He's not the type of person to go in there and try to change your style. He's the type of person who takes what you've got and makes it better. I feel this is exactly what I needed. He's a great trainer."

The move to hire Steward was orchestrated by Ozell Nelson, Taylor's father figure, amateur trainer and assistant professional trainer.

"It wasn't my idea. It was Ozell Nelson's idea," Taylor said. "He brought it to me. When he speaks, I listen. He came to me with the idea, and I can't do nothing but respect what he thinks. If he wasn't in the corner, I would be worried. I've been listening to him since I was age 11. So when he speaks, I listen. He said it, I did it."

Promoter Lou DiBella said that while he respected Burns, he likes what he has seen so far in the Taylor-Steward pairing.

"I went to Kronk to look at how things were going, and it was intense," DiBella said. "I've never seen Jermain more intense and calm and confident. His head is in a great place."

Taylor insisted that there are no hard feelings between him and Burns, and that Burns would still be paid his percentage of the purse for the Wright fight.

"Me and Pat Burns are fine," Taylor said. "He called the other day to wish me good luck. I love him to death. He's a great guy. I miss him. If Ozell feels it's ever time to go back to him, I will."

Said DiBella: "I give all the respect in the world to Pat for what he did, for getting Jermain to that undisputed title. What I think of Emanuel is separate and apart from what I think of Pat. Emanuel is a Hall of Famer and one of the best guys [for] getting a fighter to adjust in the history of the game, and he's a teacher.

"It's not that Pat didn't give the right advice to Jermain. But sometimes a fighter and a trainer don't connect in a way that the fighter listens to what that trainer is saying. For whatever reasons, there were mistakes Jermain continued to make even if Pat was telling him the right thing. Ozell and Jermain saw that and they felt a change was necessary to help him rectify those mistakes. The results will speak for themselves."

Steward is pleased with what he has seen in the short time he and Taylor have been together. He said Taylor has been a model student, a willing learner and a hard worker.

"He's picking up on things. His workouts the past couple of weeks have been unbelievable," Steward said.

Under Burns, Taylor's usual training camps in Miami were quiet and private. It couldn't be more different at Kronk, where the music is loud, the competitive sparring outstanding and there is no place to hide from others using the gym.

Taylor was initially surprised by the atmosphere, but grew to like it.

"As soon as you go in there, they don't care who you are," Taylor said. "They yell, 'Fresh meat! Fresh meat!' I walked in there and they hollered that. It doesn't matter who you are. Ain't no world champions in there. You have to go in there and make your own name. It's a totally different atmosphere than Miami. Everyone wants to be owner of the gym."

So where did Taylor rank in the Kronk hierarchy when his camp was over?

"I wasn't owner, but I'm part-owner," he joked.

Steward liked seeing the toughness Taylor displayed while sparring with such fighters as Johnson, Sechew Powell, Ronald Hearns and Andy Lee.

"The boxers he was boxing with looked at him like a sparring partner," Steward said. "It was just really top-notch competition every day. That's what really has carried him to another level.

"They always talk about Jermain as that nice 'yes sir, no sir' guy, but I could see a tough, meanness in those little eyes of his. I think that is a very important factor in boxing. You look at all of the great champions, [Muhammad] Ali, Ray Leonard, [George] Foreman -- they were all tough, mean guys inside. The skill level is not that important. If he has that level of toughness, I can develop some skill if it's there."

Steward has a lot of experience with middleweight champions, including Thomas Hearns and Gerald McClellan, and gushed about what he sees as Taylor's untapped potential.

"He has more natural talent than both of them," Steward said. "Jermain has been nothing but a 1-2 [puncher]. That's all he knows how to do, and he was still able to become middleweight champion. Tommy was trained and taught to do what he did. Jermain has more natural talent. He has not even been developed. Even Tommy was watching him the last day of sparring, and he said, 'He would have been a problem for me.'"

So respected is Steward's presence in Taylor's corner that the odds on the fight in many places have shifted from Wright being favored to Taylor as the favorite.

Wright figures that the addition of Steward will also be helpful to Taylor, even if he doesn't think it will change the outcome of the fight.

"It makes a difference because he got a great veteran trainer in his corner," said Wright, whose own trainer, Dan Birmingham, is the reigning two-time trainer of the year. "For me, I'm not fighting Emanuel. I'm fighting Jermain. It was probably good for him to get Emanuel Steward. We will see."

Steward's goal when he came on board was not to make wholesale changes to the undefeated champion. That would be difficult in such a short period of time, especially with such an important fight on the horizon.

Instead, Steward spent the training camp working on improving what Taylor already had in his arsenal.

"I'm working with him in the style he is already doing to improve a few things," Steward said. "I am just hoping to get him through this fight, and if we can get through this fight then in two or three more fights he will be a much better fighter. But right now, I've got to try to work within his style and hopefully get through this fight. You're not going to change him overnight. It's stupid to try to do that."

Steward, whose most famous former champions include Hearns and former heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis, has made a career out of fine-tuning fighters for major fights. He said he takes those situations as a challenge.

He's had a lot of success.

He trained Oliver McCall for his knockout victory over Lewis, and then took over Lewis' training and helped him regain the title by beating McCall in their rematch. Steward trained Evander Holyfield for his heavyweight championship victory against Riddick Bowe. Without Steward, Holyfield lost his two other fights against Bowe.

The pairing with Taylor is another challenge, Steward said.

"Winky Wright is, to me, the best technical fighter out there today," Steward said. "I think he should be above [Floyd] Mayweather. I find it a challenge to go against the guy who is probably my favorite fighter in boxing today. To try to defeat him is a big challenge."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.