... and In This Corner
Emanuel Steward has been a laborer, a die setter, an auto worker and a trainer of young boxers. Now he has put his life on hold.
We honor the passing of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward by looking back at one of the most memorable stories in Sports Illustrated history. This piece originally appeared in the Sept. 14, 1981 issue.
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I went to a motivational training course once, a course of self-discovery, and I found out after a week that my fear -- it was not a fear of not being accepted -- was a very violent fear of failure.
-- EMANUEL STEWARD, trainer/manager of Thomas Hearns
For Emanuel Steward, Thomas Hearns is the embodiment not only of Steward's craft as a trainer -- he is the only trainer Hearns has ever had -- but also of his savvy and judgment as a manager. Steward has trained and managed professionally for less than four years, since Hearns turned pro on Nov. 25, 1977, but he has already raised two world champions out of Detroit's celebrated Kronk Gym. The first, Hilmer Kenty, won the WBA lightweight title from Ernesto Espana on March 2, 1980. Five months later to the day, Hearns knocked out Pipino Cuevas to win the WBA welterweight championship. Kenty has since lost his title (to Sean O'Grady), but the undefeated Hearns has defended his three times (Luis Primera, Randy Shields and Pablo Baez). Meanwhile, Steward has put the Kronk and most of its fighters on hold. "It's right to say I'm in transition," Steward says.
That's hardly new. In one form or another, Emanuel Steward has been in passage for almost all of his 37 years. He was born just outside the coal-mining West Virginia town of Bluefield, on July 7, 1944, the eldest of three children of Catherine and Emanuel Sr. No one in the family boxed, or urged young Emanuel to, but he began when he was eight, after his parents gave him a pair of Jack Dempsey-model gloves. The gift enthralled him and set the direction of his life. When he wasn't picking wild strawberries in the surrounding hills or plucking fish out of a nearby creek with his bare hands, he was rearranging the shape of his mother's pillows or inviting friends home to have their noses bloodied.
"I had a wonderful time in West Virginia," Steward says. When he was 10, his parents separated, and his mother and the children went to Detroit by train. "I'll never forget that long, lonely ride," Steward says. "We left on Friday and it rained the whole trip. We got to Detroit on a Saturday evening. I didn't know what was going on. I thought it was the end of the world -- not knowing that it was the beginning of a new life."
Steward brought with him the urge to box, and by the time he was 12 he had found his way to the Brewster Gym, where Joe Louis got his start. The gym fascinated him -- the fighters in headgear, the rhythm of the men working the bags and skipping rope, the sparring in the rings -- and it drew him back. As an amateur bantamweight, fighting first as Little Sonny Steward, later as Sonny Boy Steward, he developed into a good student of the stylists of the day.
"I used to love to see Willie Pep and Ray Robinson," Steward says. "To me, the epitome of a great athlete is a great boxer. I just love the rhythm of seeing a man dance, slip punches. I loved the dancers and boxers. I would see them and be mesmerized."
They influenced his style. Robert Watson, today the chairman of the Michigan State Athletic Board of Control, refereed a number of Steward's fights. "A good boxer, a jabber -- smooth, slip-and-counter," Watson says. "He wasn't a slapper. He punched sharp, but he didn't hit hard. He knew all the things to do."
Steward won 94 of 97 amateur fights, and crowned his career in Chicago by winning the 1963 national Golden Gloves bantamweight title.
Steward didn't turn pro, becoming instead a coach. In 1963 he guided five juniors, ages 10 through 15, to five titles in a tournament sponsored by the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department. His first fighter was 14-year-old Elbert Steele Jr., to whose sister, Marie, Steward was engaged. Elbert was undefeated in 20 fights under Steward.
Marie and Emanuel were married in 1964 -- she still wears, on a necklace, the diamond-studded Golden Glove he won the year before -- and they settled into a six-room apartment in Detroit. Steward had graduated with honors from Eastern High School in 1962 and knocked about in odd jobs: as a laborer in the folding-door company where his mother worked; later as a die-setter; as a quality control inspector at an auto-parts plant; and on the assembly line at Chrysler. He was working for Chrysler when he took the job that changed his life -- laborer with the city utility, Detroit Edison. By 1965 his first daughter, Sylvia, had arrived, and the following year Steward began to climb utility poles. He also enrolled in the electrical apprenticeship program at Henry Ford Community College, working days while going to class at night.
"I decided, if I'm going to be there, I didn't want to be no damn laborer," Steward says. "When I started, I sat in class and didn't even know what they were talking about. I was so embarrassed. I had been an honor student, but the standards at inner city schools had been so low. I had never done any algebra or geometry, and I couldn't participate in class. I used to go home and study related books till three o'clock in the morning, trying to understand. It was rough."
For three years Steward stayed away from the gym. "I didn't even miss it," he says. "I bought myself a new little brick bungalow, in a nice section of the city. I bought a German shepherd puppy. I had a new little LeMans sports coupe, burgundy and black. I had a career at Detroit Edison. In 1969 another kid [Sylvette] was on the way. The Great American Dream. I was really happy. And then fate intervened."
Steward's father, who had remarried, called from West Virginia and asked him to look after his 15-year-old son, James -- Emanuel's half brother. Steward agreed. One day in the fall of 1969, James quietly asked Emanuel, "Can you take me somewhere to get some boxing lessons?" They were living on the far West Side at the time, and there happened to be a gym nearby. It was named after a former city councilman, John F. Kronk.
Soon Steward was immersed in boxing again. James won the 1970 subnovice Golden Gloves title in Detroit. Steward became a part-time coach at Kronk at $30 a week, and in 1971 seven of his kids won Golden Gloves titles. "I got so engrossed in it then," he says. "I started taking the kids on weekends to little tournaments, trying to get them more experience, running here, running there, and it got back into my system."
Steward was climbing steadily at Detroit Edison -- he was a master electrician by then, a project director supervising 200 employees; he also had a new gold Cadillac and a salary of $500 a week -- but the gym was becoming more demanding. Marie didn't like it. "We had a regular check coming in, with overtime," she says. But Steward took $5,000 from their savings and invested it in a cosmetics distributorship. Then, on March 3, 1972, he resigned from Detroit Edison and started to devote all his attention to his amateur program at the Kronk.
"I decided to see how far I could go in this," he says. "My dream was to take an amateur team and make it nationally famous. The deep dream of everybody is always to have a world champion, but I never really had any specific plans for professional boxing."
Elbert Steele Sr., Steward's 68-year-old father-in-law, recalls when the two used to fish for crappies and bass from the banks of the Detroit River. Emanuel would let Steele off by the bank and then drive a block or two to park the car.
"By the time he got to the river, I'd have caught three or four fish," Steele says. "This went on a few days. One day I said to him, 'Man, Sonny, you're so slow. What are you gonna do when you're my age?' He said, 'When I get to be your age, I hope I don't have to do nothin'.' His ambition was to be rich. He knew he couldn't get there working for someone else. If he'd just wanted to make a living, he could have stayed at Detroit Edison. He'd have been making $1,000 a week by now. He'll make more out of this fight than he could have working a hundred years."
"It's just something that happened," says Marie. "It wasn't like, 'I'm gonna get in there and build these fighters up and, wow! we're gonna be rich one day.' He loved boxing, and I think that's why it happened."
Whatever, if a very violent fear of failure possessed Steward, it didn't govern him. Detroit Edison meant success, security, and he left it to court what he feared most. It wasn't an easy time. The cosmetics distributorship failed, so he did electrical work and sold health insurance on the side. The gym work paid him $1,500 a year, and he used what other money he could scratch together to support his family and finance the weekend excursions of the Kronk Boxing Team.