Steward had worked with Lewis at Big Bear in '95 and was eager to return. Plus, he is so happy to be around fighters, especially talented ones, that he could hardly say no. He knew there were problems, a result of some strange guidance by De La Hoya's previous trainer, but he also knew he was one guy equipped to solve them.
"Don't play his game," Steward reminds De La Hoya as he watches the boxer dance around the ring (in the fighter's own backyard gym, about a mile from Steward's headquarters). "Just overwhelm him. That's the word—overwhelm." De La Hoya nods gratefully, always a good student but suddenly an anxious one.
As anyone who saw him fight Whitaker knows, De La Hoya had been plunged into a tactical nether land by a mysterious trainer from Mexico named Jesús Rivero. Rivero had been brought aboard in '95 by promoter Bob Arum to take De La Hoya to the next level. Instead the Professor, as he called himself, had the fighter performing in the ring as if the sport were flag football. The idea of defense has always appealed to De La Hoya, who grew up revering Willie Pep more than Sonny Liston, so he and Rivero made a comfortable pair in the seven fights that they worked together.
But after the Whitaker bout, during which both fighters pretended to be Pep, producing a no-hitter, there was panic in De La Hoya's camp. Out went Rivero, sent packing by De La Hoya's handlers, and in came Steward, a man who believes in the knockout above all else in boxing. "I hate decisions," Steward says. "Hate 'em, hate 'em, hate 'em." He's got De La Hoya waving a big right hand, moving forward, the only Pep now in his step.
Should Steward help De La Hoya toward a concussive conclusion, it will not go down as a miracle. De La Hoya (25-0, 21 KOs) was knocking people out before and was a vicious finisher of opponents until he got entranced by the Professor. But if De La Hoya wins as impressively as he did in his second-round KO of David Kamau in June (his first under Steward), the guru will have earned his fee.
De La Hoya is ecstatic about the relationship. "I'm back to my old style," he says, with the same eagerness to go for the kill that he once had. Interestingly, since Steward's arrival, De La Hoya has stopped talking about retiring early to take up golf and architecture.
Steward makes boxers feel good about themselves. Any conversation with him is bound to cover a lot of fighters, all of them people he has improved, either in the ring or out. He takes pride in his teaching abilities but likes to point out that he provides a total package, cooking for his guys, pulling up their socks, whatever. "The thing is," he says, when asked how he got along with the hard cases who were under his wing, "I liked them all."
One guy he liked was McCall, a boxer whom promoter Don King likes to call "my junkie." King hired Steward to help the oft-troubled McCall in 1994, when King was throwing contenders in every available ring, hoping to produce a champion in his camp for Mike Tyson, who he knew would contend for the title when he got out of prison. McCall was one of King's longest shots. But Steward found, first of all, that McCall was not a bad guy. Second, the fighter known as the Atomic Bull for his straight-ahead style could box a little.
"During training," Steward says, remembering when he was working McCall in Detroit in the original Kronk, "I was careful to keep him from his old haunts. I bought him a tuxedo and sent him over to my restaurant to sing. And you know, Oliver has a good voice. Not a good voice for a boxer, like Larry Holmes, but a good voice."
Steward spent hours talking with McCall—talking is one of Steward's gifts—and making him feel worthwhile. He also developed McCall into more of a stick-and-move boxer for the Lewis fight, which would award the winner the WBC title. To everyone's surprise it worked, McCall scoring an electrifying second-round knockout in front of a rowdy pro-Lewis crowd in London, a huge upset that not so incidentally put King back in the middle of the heavyweight picture.