Commentary

Mayweather, Steward meet at a crossroads

Sure, we all know Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov, but who are the men behind the fighters? Marc Lichtenfeld takes a look at trainers Emanuel Steward and Jeff Mayweather.

Originally Published: February 20, 2008
By Marc Lichtenfeld | Special to ESPN.com

Wladimir KlitschkoAlexander Heimann/Bongarts/Getty ImagesKlitschko, right, and Steward are leaving no stone unturned in preparing for Ibragimov.
The stakes are as high as they get whenever two heavyweights battle for a championship. Wladimir Klitschko will be trying to add to his legacy when he squares off with Sultan Ibragimov on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

For his part, Ibragimov is trying to start his own.

The two trainers working the corners of the boxers seem to parallel the men they are coaching.

Klitschko's trainer, Hall of Famer Emanuel Steward, already has his name cemented in boxing history, having achieved greatness with Tommy Hearns out of Detroit's Kronk Gym. As a gun for hire, he has become known for his work with Lennox Lewis and Klitschko, among others. He is also developing a stable of very good prospects including undefeated middleweight Andy Lee, cruiserweight Johnathon Banks and Aaron Pryor Jr.

Despite being an Olympic silver medalist and holding the belt of a fringe organization, Ibragimov is still fighting for respect and notoriety. Jeff Mayweather, for his part, trains for the same things.

Ibragimov's manager, Boris Grinberg, thinks Mayweather is a "genius."

While not ready to nominate his counterpart for Mensa, Steward is impressed with what Mayweather has achieved with Ibragimov.

"Jeff Mayweather has done a fantastic job [with Ibragimov]," he said. "I see a much more intelligent fighter since the Austin fight."

In fact, it was the bout with Ray Austin that won Mayweather the gig. Mayweather was in the opposite corner that night training Austin, who earned a draw in a fight Ibragimov was expected to win easily.

The modest Mayweather (yes, those two words can go together) believes he has put the right strategy in place to defeat Klitschko.

"It's all about smart aggression," he said. "Klitschko likes to sit back and use his height and reach advantage. We have to force him to fight."

A fight is exactly what Steward is preparing his man for.

"Wladimir and I believe that Sultan Ibragimov will be the best opponent Wladimir has ever faced in his professional career," Steward said.

The camp has been a grueling one, according to the trainer. He's putting Klitschko through three sessions a day. Along with the physical training, three big-screen televisions constantly play video of Ibragimov's recent fights. Klitschko and Steward study Ibragimov's rhythm, how he moves, what punches he throws and what he gets hit with.

In the evening, they watch video of the workouts they just completed. If they feel like mixing it up, they may pop in a film of great fighters from the past.
[+] EnlargeWladimir Klitschko
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty ImagesSteward, right, has put Klitschko through three sessions of training a day in preparation for his unification title match.

And while he might not admit it, this bout is important for Steward, too. No one can deny the success he's had with numerous boxers. Klitschko has improved greatly under his tutelage. His last high-profile project, however, did not go as well. Most observers believe Jermain Taylor actually went backward while Steward was in his corner.

Steward blames the fact that he had little control over Taylor's camp and career.

"I wanted him to fight Edison Miranda," he said. "Instead, they told me we were fighting Cory Spinks."

He added that it's tough to look good against awkward southpaws such as Winky Wright, Kassim Ouma and Spinks.

But the fickle boxing public may not be interested in a logical explanation. All it knows is that Taylor was not successful under Steward's guidance. Should Klitschko fall to Ibragimov, Steward has to know that the skeptics will grow louder and his stellar reputation could be tarnished.

Mayweather, on the other hand, would love to have a reputation at stake. He hasn't had the opportunity to work with many big-time fighters. And then there's the matter of being overshadowed by his boisterous brothers, Floyd Sr. and Roger, who themselves train fighters, and his nephew, Floyd Jr., the pound-for-pound king.

Nevertheless, he speaks with the quiet confidence (yes, I wrote that about a Mayweather) of a man who knows his craft. He has outlined a plan for Ibragimov that would nullify the impact of the guru in the opposite corner.

"Klitschko is a fighter that's been stopped three times. We have to take him to the same place as he was against [Ross] Puritty and [Corrie] Sanders," Mayweather said. Klitschko was stopped by Puritty and Sanders earlier in his career.

Mayweather suggests that a fighter can learn better defense and to throw different punches, "but one thing you can't do is get inside his head when he's in a tough place. No trainer can get in his head and say, 'Hey, we know what to do.' Because one thing he has done in the past when he's been in trouble is cooperated. We think he'll cooperate on Feb. 23."

When asked to shine the spotlight on himself and describe what the fight means to him, Mayweather paused, then stated emphatically, "I'm looking forward to matching wits and strategy with Emanuel Steward."

He added a little more softly, "If Sultan wins, I'll no longer be just the 'other' Mayweather."

Marc Lichtenfeld, who hosts the nationally syndicated "Through the Ropes" boxing show on the Sports Byline network and Fightnews.com, contributes regularly to Boxing Digest and ring announces boxing and MMA events.