When it comes to training champions, Steward's it

5/23/2006 - Boxing


Sixteen years before Jermain Taylor was even born, a bantamweight named Emanuel Steward -- Taylor's current trainer -- was developing the mind-set and techniques, perhaps unknowingly, that he would one day employ to lead the likes of Thomas Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya and Wladimir Klitschko to some of their biggest victories.

He wasn't thinking of being the man outside the ropes and in the corner, though. Steward, a West Virginia native who spent his formative teenage years in Detroit, had his sights on being the star of the show, the one to follow in the footsteps of the Sugar Ray Robinsons and Joe Louises of the boxing world. He was 17 and untouchable as he entered the National Golden Gloves' Tournament of Champions.

"I saw all those champions from each city fighting against each other, and I lost the very first fight," Steward said. "I had never lost a fight in my life and I had been fighting since I was 7 years old."

It was a rude awakening for Steward, one that would fuel him for the next 12 months. When he received a second invite to the National Golden Gloves in 1963, he was ready, and nothing but first place would be acceptable.

"I came back and said the only time I'll be feeling good as a champion is if I can go over there and compete on that level and win that," he said. "I wouldn't be satisfied being the Detroit Golden Gloves champion anymore."

He didn't have to be. Steward won the 1963 National Golden Gloves and led Detroit to its first team title in 24 years.

"I came home and felt like I was the best Golden Glover in America," he said.

That amateur title would be the crowning glory of Steward's career as an active boxer. After falling short in finding acceptable management, he got a job at Detroit Edison, only to come back to training in the early '70s. But the point of Steward's two-year odyssey to the National Golden Gloves title is that during that time, he laid the foundation for what would be a hall of fame career as a trainer of champions.

"My mind-set never changed," he said. "Right now, I don't feel I'm going to be good as a manager, a trainer or whatever unless I can compete at the top level and win. I judge people in life by performances against the best."

Since his return to boxing as a trainer in the '70s, Steward has made himself a home at the top of the heap as one of the best teachers in the game. The Kronk kingpin has also made a nice career out of taking on various reclamation projects where the risks were great but the rewards even greater. Call him a hired gun, but when a tough job needs to be done, if anyone can do it, it's probably him.

"That's what they say," he said, laughing. But in all seriousness, after Taylor scored two close decision wins over Bernard Hopkins last year and then immediately (and admirably) jumped right into accepting a fight against tricky southpaw Winky Wright, another one of boxing's best, there was concern from Taylor's manager and mentor, Ozell Nelson, that an addition to the team was needed to increase the odds of a Taylor victory on June 17.

A call went out to Steward, requesting his services as a technical adviser while trainer Pat Burns remained as the lead man in the corner.

"I was surprised," said Steward of when he got the call from Nelson, "because he's always been such a quiet man, when we had the HBO interviews, he would never say anything."

But Nelson, who has been with Taylor from the start as more than just a trainer or manager, but also as a father figure, knew he needed to take a more vocal role to look out for the best interests of his fighter. He told Steward that Burns would stay as the trainer, but they could use a little bit of the wisdom Steward had amassed over the years.

Steward wasn't too receptive to the idea of a two-trainer system.

"I really wasn't that interested," he said. "I've tried that before with Naseem Hamed and it just doesn't work. Especially since I'm so detailed about every little thing, from the color of their outfits to the way the shoes are tied. I'm a very specific person, and with Wladimir [Klitschko] and these guys I've been effective because I pretty much had everything moving the way I wanted it."

Nelson was persistent though, and he called Steward again. Steward again declined but gave Nelson a couple of suggestions for other trainers he may want to contact.

Then Steward led Klitschko to an eye-opening blowout of Chris Byrd -- a southpaw -- on April 22, and Nelson had to give it one more shot. This time, Steward agreed to come on as an adviser. He changed his days off, HBO agreed to have him come in on the day of events so he wouldn't miss any days of camp, and he readied himself for Taylor's arrival in Detroit.

But soon enough, the inevitable happened, and Burns remained home in Florida while Steward became the lead -- and only -- trainer, with Nelson saying the two-trainer system would have been too distracting for Taylor.

"I think that having two strong personalities, even if it would have appeared OK, I think it's going to be a problem," said Steward.

Now it was simply sink or swim for Taylor and Steward. The first few days in the legendary and no-nonsense Kronk would be telling ones.

"He comes in and he's looking around, looking at all the guys who've trained there and looking around at all the people's names who trained there," said Steward. "He comes in, and he boxes the first time with Andy Lee, a left-handed middleweight who's one of the stars at our gym right now, and they had a real rough and spirited workout. It was nip and tuck."

After his session with the 2-0 Irish middleweight, Taylor came out of the ring and spoke to Steward.

"I'm not used to that," Stewart said.

But the next time the two sparred, as Steward recalled, "There was electricity in the air."

Again, Taylor spoke to his new trainer.

"I've been here for two weeks training," said Taylor. "Never once has somebody asked me for my autograph. Nobody's even asked to take a picture with me."

Steward responded, "You've got to realize that you were taking on the middleweight champion of this gym in Andy Lee. This is his turf right here, and despite you being the middleweight champion of the world, you've got to earn that respect here."

"I love this, though," Taylor said. "These workouts we're having are razor sharp and I can't make a mistake. It's given me competition that I'm not used to."

"What's it normally like?"

"They bring in sparring partners, guys that I beat up and do what I want with."

For Steward, that type of training is a no-no, especially in Kronk.

"Down here, nobody gets respect," he said, laughing. "Ray Leonard was training over here in '76 in order to make the Olympic team and he was boxing all these other kids, and even when he fought Donny Lalonde he came here and trained and he loved it because you're just one of the fighters in the gym. He had to wait his time to get in the ring just like everybody else, but he loved it."

"One of my philosophies that I've always believed strongly in is strong competition in sparring," Steward continued. "I don't believe in sparring partners and I don't even have them. Wladimir's last two weeks of sparring for Chris Byrd, he sparred with my undefeated cruiserweight, Jonathan Banks [11-0 with 9 knockouts] and Andy Lee.

"Andy was on the undercard and I told Wladimir, 'He's looking at you as a sparring partner because he's getting ready for his fight.' [Laughs] That's why his speed level was so high and intense for Byrd that nobody could believe it. After the second round, Wladimir said Byrd was slow. I said, 'Slow?' He said, 'Yes, compared to Andy.'

"We always had that. Tommy Hearns, when he was preparing for his fight with [Roberto] Duran, had Mark Breland, Mike McCallum, Milton McCrory and Frank Tate. It was that type of intense sparring every day. So when he went in there with Duran, Duran looked like a slower man. That's part of my success as a trainer -- I've always had competitive workouts. I feel that's what the Kronk is known for."

The tough sparring with the likes of Lee and unbeaten DiBella Entertainment stablemate Sechew Powell are continuing, so Steward sees the improvement daily.

"One day they boxed and he was hitting Andy with shots and I said, 'That's the most that Andy's ever been hit in this gym. See, your game is going up. You've got competition, not sparring partners.' I've always believed in sparring with good fighters, not sparring partners. And Jermain loves it."

This isn't just a trainer building up his fighter, either. Those who have seen Taylor in the gym say he is showing the talent that had everyone drooling over his potential when he came out of the 2000 Olympics. And though he has shown glimpses of that talent, in the two fights with Hopkins, "Bad Intentions" appeared to digress into a one-dimensional fighter with little variety in his game. Steward, who was one of the first to go on the record to say Taylor could beat the long-reigning Hopkins, at least four fights before the bout was even brought up -- a move that drew derisive snickers from many in the fight game -- saw the same flaws.

"I got heat from what I said back then from everybody, especially Bernard, because we run into each other at a lot of speaking engagements, and I said it because I saw that he had a certain amount of toughness in him," said Steward.

"To beat a guy like Hopkins, who's also intimidating mentally, you have to have it. I also saw that he was a big kid, he had that solid amateur background, he had good coordination, physically he stood up to Bernard, and I saw he had a mental toughness, and in those two fights [with Hopkins], that was really his advantage. But then I saw his skill level starting to deteriorate each fight as he got into the higher echelon. He was doing more things in the beginning than he was later on. He was relying strictly on a jab, jab, right hand. Lennox Lewis did the same thing. They were relying too much on one thing and everything else wasn't being developed."

As Steward bluntly put it, "I know that Jermain is only operating on about 60-70 percent of his talent."

That won't cut it against Wright, so Steward and the rest of the team are pulling out all the stops to get ready for June 17.

"I've come from six weeks of preparing [Klitschko] for one of the most difficult southpaws in his own way in Byrd, and I've had five southpaw world champions," said Steward. "Andy's looking at Michael Moorer right now, so we're studying southpaw styles and Andy's showing Jermain what he gets hit the most with as a southpaw. So we've got everybody working to push him."

Taylor's also getting a crash course in boxing history from Steward, who keeps the workouts intense, but is also encouraging to his young charge, even using the photos plastered around the gym to demonstrate certain concepts to Taylor.

"You do this -- your odds of winning are improving every day," Steward told Taylor. "You're faster with your hands than Winky, you're naturally bigger than Winky, and you could put together combinations with a lot more speed than Winky. And if you do these things with speed, even Winky's tight defense is going to have a problem because he can't win a fight just by keeping his hands over his head. You don't get points for that -- you have to punch sooner or later."

And if anything, Steward -- a self-proclaimed Wright fan -- has been studying the Floridian for years, and he's not only aware of the positives he brings to the ring, he knows the toll time has taken on him as well.

"I saw the changes when Winky used to use his feet and move a lot, and lately in his career his legs are not a factor," admitted Steward. "This is a hard guy to fight, and I'm a big fan of Winky, but I see a lot of little weaknesses, and I've got a younger fighter with faster hands and who's a bigger guy by nature. If Jermain's in great shape physically and mentally and competing on a high level in the gym, he's going to be a difficult guy for anybody to fight. Everybody's looking at the fighter that fought those two fights with Bernard, and that's what they're placing their bets on. Nobody's at that gym peeking and seeing that new fighter."

But Steward's seeing him every day, he's putting him through his paces, and he's plotting the strategy he hopes will once again allow him to claim another great victory for the legendary Kronk gym. And the first step in that process is to believe.

"The one thing I have is not so much the faith in my fighters, but I have unbelievable faith in myself," said Steward. "I had that when I was fighting myself, and I have that same confidence today. If a fighter has any natural talent and will work with me, I feel like I can do a good job. And Jermain, I always saw in him what I saw in Wladimir and what I saw in Lennox. I see untapped talent."

And if anyone can get that talent out, you know it's Emanuel Steward.

Just like 1963.