The boxing world has gotten a little emptier with the death of hall-of-fame trainer Emanuel Steward last week at the age of 68. Those who follow boxing will understand when I express that this wasn't just any death in the boxing world.
Steward will go down as one of the top five greatest trainers in the history of boxing. Pick whatever four you want to include on the list alongside him, but Steward should make every top five list for all-time greatest boxing trainers. There are few trainers that were as identifiable by face and voice as Steward, and this is even more impressive when you realize that this man never fought professionally. Most great trainers have some kind of pro in-ring experience, but Steward's in-ring career stopped in the amateur ranks when his knack for training took over his life in the boxing world.
And the boxing world has been grateful ever since. Steward trained over 40 world champions during his career and was training champions right until the end of his life. Steward has trained boxers of different skill sets, different styles, and different personalities. But the one thing that always stayed the same was the work ethic and emphasis on fundamentals that Steward brought to every fighter he worked with. The most famous world champions Steward trained regularly were Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis, and Vladimir Klitschko. With these three were different skill sets, different styles, and different personalities. But with Steward guiding them from the corner, they all achieved championship glory and did it in ways that were contrary to what was going on in their respective weight classes at the time.
Maybe more important to Steward's legacy as a trainer than the world champions he trained were the careers he saved from veering off course. To me, this is what made Steward so good as a trainer. It almost became a joke in the last few years to me that whenever I would see a talented fighter enter a period where their performance or drive started to wane, I would simply say to myself, “he should get Emanuel Steward to train him for a few fights.” Ask Miguel Cotto, ask Evander Holyfield, as these are two of the better examples of Steward's ability to come in to a new camp with a fighter he'd never worked with before, train him, and make the whole thing a success. With Steward, it tended to work out this way.
My personal grief over the loss of Emanuel Steward is more the loss of him on the commentary for HBO. In the days before I truly appreciated what a great trainer this man was, I had his voice and his boxing knowledge giving me an idea of what he brought to boxing. And what he brought was a kind of boxing knowledge that comes from a different place than what anyone else on HBO's announce team could bring. He's not a former pro boxer, not a sportswriter, and not a fan only, but he was the man behind the scenes of many, many great fighters. And that kind of knowledge and insight can be priceless to a boxing broadcast.
Another thing that always struck me about Steward was the gentleness in his voice and his demeanor. He didn't epitomize the kind of trainer that was in your face or was trying to match the intensity his fighter was attempting to possess. It was that gentleness that made him one of those people who seemed to only have rare moments of rage and anger, and those moments had more impact than a trainer or personality who was always that way. For example, it still seems a bit out-of-character to see Steward yelling openly and striking Lennox Lewis in the corner during Lewis' 2002 bout with Mike Tyson. That moment, however, did define Steward as a trainer in my mind to some degree, and it defined him as a constant competitor. When he's screaming “you've got a dead man in front of you!” to Lewis, he's not yelling it in a sadistic way, he's yelling it in a competitive way, basically telling Lewis that the game is over and it's on him to finish it and that he should finish it right now.
It's a bit tough for me to try and find the words and properly articulate what I'm feeling as a boxing fan and viewer. It's tough mainly because it still hasn't fully sunk in that I'm going to tune in to HBO for a night of boxing and Emanuel Steward isn't going to be there providing his insights. Sure last weekend was the first HBO boxing broadcast since his death, but because it was a card of lesser known fighters, cards that Steward isn't always on anyway, it didn't sink in that he's gone.
But the sad reality is that he is gone, and nothing can bring him back. Gone is a man who gave to the boxing world the gift of a magnificent career that spanned decades. Gone is a voice that helped to guide my knowledge of the sweet science and provided helpful insight to fights for almost my entire life as a boxing fan. Gone is a man whose name and gym had an aura all its own during his last decade or so in this life. And gone is a piece of living boxing history, now relegated to the history books.
Boxing, Emanuel Steward, HBO