... and In This Corner (cont.)
It didn't take Steward long to build perhaps the finest amateur boxing program in the land. Interwoven with the themes of unity and order and inspired by ferocious competition, the Kronk, under Steward, became a kind of paradox: a Boy Scout troop set in a Darwinian laboratory. The boys hung out together, cheering for each other from Chicago to Cleveland, and Steward insisted that they behave decorously and dress neatly, in the Kronk red, gold and blue.
"It was a unit," says Don Thibodeaux, a trainer at Kronk and one of Hearns's cornermen. "Emanuel in the corner giving instructions to fighters sparring in the ring. Trainers on the floor working with their fighters. It was like an unbeatable team, a family -- spar, work, play and fight together. And then go out of town and come back with all the trophies." "I think it's important psychologically that people feel unity," Steward says.
Steward was the sustaining voice and presence of the Kronk. And he was also its master trainer and technician, teaching his youngsters -- Hearns, Kenty, Mickey Goodwin, Milt McCrory and the rest -- how to fight. He encouraged them to think for themselves and find the routines that suited them.
"I'm not a fanatic on certain things, like skipping rope," Steward says. "For instance, Thomas doesn't like to skip rope; he never liked it." So he doesn't do it. Nor does Hearns like the speed bag, so he doesn't do much of that. If there is one abiding theme in the gym, it's the withering work in the ring. Those not fit do not survive. "They don't have heart, they don't make it through the gym," Steward says. Frequently, as with Hearns, Steward will have his fighters work with bigger and heavier opponents.
Kronk fighters all tend to look like Ethiopian long-distance runners; the spike-thin Hearns is the archetype. Steward's critics say he emaciates his charges, working them too hard in a gym he keeps too hot -- more than 90????. "All I can say is, I have a very good track record and I'm not changing," Steward says. "There's not as much oxygen in that hot gym and I think it's great for conditioning. I believe in a lot of boxing. You can train and work on the speed bag and heavy bag, but when you get in the ring with another fighter, it's a different story. Punches are coming at you, there's physical contact, muscle against muscle. It's like a guy shooting baskets. He can sit in the backyard and shoot baskets and he can be a genius at it, and then he gets in an actual game and guys are coming at him from every direction and now he's got to shoot fast, from every position, and it's a different ball game. So I think that sparring a lot is very, very good. Even if you wear headgear, blows are partially going through, and I think the muscle and tissue alongside the jaw get strengthened.... I've never had a guy knocked out in a professional fight."
Some Kronk fighters carry their left hand hazardously low, but Steward says he doesn't teach this. "It's more a Hearns characteristic," says lightweight Davey Armstrong, a U.S. Olympian in 1972 and 1976 who began training at the Kronk last year. If Steward has a passion, aside from an insistence that his fighters attack the body -- "Go to the liver!" he yells to them repeatedly -- it's balance.
"I think the real key is to have the weight evenly distributed between the left and right legs at all times," Steward says. He believes that balance is the key defensively -- to getting out of trouble -- and offensively -- to making trouble. "Thomas holds his left hand low sometimes, but his weight is so evenly distributed that he can move to the left and right, step straight back, step in. A lot of his knockouts have come because when he punches, he gets such beautiful position and leverage. Most of your heavyweight fighters today don't punch that good because they're off balance, off on one leg or leaning to the right, imitating Ali. But Thomas is like one of the old-timers: good position, leverage and balance, his weight evenly distributed."
Techniques aside, Steward has gotten so much out of so many fighters because he has made himself a student of them all, searching for what moves them. He sees Hearns motivated by the same fear that drives him: failure. For Goodwin, his middleweight, it's money. On Aug. 22, at the Glacier Arena in Traverse City, Mich., Goodwin tangled with a tough, inspired, if unknown, middleweight named Jimmy (School Boy) Baker. It was a close fight, and going into the last round Steward chanted into Mickey's ear, "Look, you're blowin' this damn fight! You know that apartment you want? You know that bar and restaurant you wanna buy? All of that is gone, man, if you don't win this fight! You're standing on the threshold of a good TV fight and you're gonna screw it up. You're blowin' it, Mickey!"
"I'm tryin', I'm tryin'," Mickey choked. "What should I do? What should I do?"
"Do what I been tellin' you. Don't hit him and then lay on top of him and smother your work. Hit him and step back, hit him and step off to the side!" Fighting like a man possessed and doing what he was told, Goodwin stopped Baker in the final round.
Steward insists that when he started at the Kronk, he had no intention of turning it into a professional enterprise. But then his amateurs outgrew the three-rounders, and had to make a living -- and Steward went pro with Hearns in 1977. "Otherwise, I'd be making champions for someone else," he says. "Let's be realistic: someone else would be coming and stealing everything."
Steward thought he had a license to print money, but it was a long fall and winter in 1977. One day Steward and Thibodeaux set off by car from Detroit to New York, dragging a U-Haul. Thibodeaux is a sculptor, and the rig contained a 1,200-pound metal sculpture of Muhammad Ali, made of welded automobile bumpers, depicting Ali throwing the punch that felled George Foreman.
Thibodeaux was bringing the piece to sell it, while Steward was bearing a scrap-book of Hearns's amateur exploits, hoping to sell his fighter to network television. Leonard and his fellow Olympic gold medal winner, lightweight Howard Davis, had turned pro the year before and signed lucrative TV contracts. Steward wanted some of that action. He and Thibodeaux must have looked a sight as they walked down the Avenue of the Americas: the 5'8", 155-pound Steward very neatly shaven and dressed in a trim dark suit ("He looked like a Muslim," Thibodeaux says), the 5'8½" sculptor, weighing 235 pounds, 100 above his amateur fighting weight, wearing a cranberry-colored dashiki beneath a chin festooned with a foot of flowing red beard.
Thibodeaux showed his sculpture in Madison Square Garden but didn't sell it until much later, for $40,000, to a Michigan doctor, and Steward didn't make it with the networks. "CBS told me not to bother," he says. "NBC let me talk to them, but they weren't interested in getting involved in a fighter. With ABC I got into the lobby. I talked by phone with someone upstairs, and he told me to leave the scrapbook. I never did. I wanted to cry. Don and I said the hell with it and went back home. I used to be bitter, but no more."
Now Hearns has his chance. As for the Kronk, many of the fighters there feel they've been pushed aside in Steward's rush to get Hearns to the top. Steward hardly goes to the gym anymore, and his absence has been an emotional wrench for those to whom he had grown so close. Kronk fighters feel neglected and rejected. Steward sympathizes but says the game has changed, that all hinges on what Hearns does against Leonard, that Kronk will never be what it once was.
He asks only that you hear this: "I want to finish up with the amateur kids I have now, so then I will have given every one of them a chance to go as far as they can go in professional boxing. (Pause.) Then, after that, I want to retire from professional boxing. I think six or seven years. Then go back to amateur boxing again. Get me some little kids about 10 years old. That's what I really want to do! Get me another Kronk."
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