The Alpine air sweeps through the gym, circulating a crispness and freshness that is not ordinarily associated with boxing and not previously associated with boxing Emanuel Steward-style. The Kronk Gym in Detroit, where the venerable trainer turned out Thomas Hearns, Hilmer Kenty, Milt McCrory and Michael Moorer, among others, was stilling and oppressive, the thermostat set for three figures and the testosterone level dialed up just as high.
Well, things do change. Steward, 53, boxing's Motown Mogul, is now operating out of Big Bear, Calif., a resort getaway, about two hours east of Los Angeles and 6,500 feet above it. He rents a house on the lake, where he resides most of the year, and his gym is about two miles away. He frequently allows the big overhead garage door of his gym to be opened to provide his boxers a chance to spar alfresco, the townspeople setting up lawn chairs in the parking lot to watch. You can actually smell pine needles. The thin mountain air does not seem to offend his urban sensibilities, nor does being on a mountaintop seem to disturb his equilibrium, as he is planning to devote most of his time and effort to training boxers in this new high-altitude boxing mecca. The fighters that flock to him grow in number each week.
It is not surprising that boxers scale mountains to receive his advice because Steward, the most omnipresent trainer of the late '70s and the '80s, has come to be seen as a guru, a man of rare wisdom. He has been behind some of the heavyweight upsets of the '90s—Oliver McCall's defeat of Lennox Lewis in '94 for the WBC title and Evander Holyfield's improbable victory over Riddick Bowe in their '93 rematch for the WBA and WBF crowns—and is in demand by promoters and managers in need of quick fixes or career boosts for their boxers.
In fact that is the difference between the Detroit Steward and the Big Bear Steward. He has become more of a contractor—a hired gun—than a factory owner. The days when he rolled out fleets of welterweights from his Detroit plant are gone; now he moves from corner to corner, taking on impossible missions from dueling promoters, fixing this boxer or that one, then moving on. The man who crafted the Hitman has become one himself.
The transformation is odd for somebody who had turned boxing into a team sport, his Kronk fighters, who wore matching colors as if they were in a Golden Gloves tournament, traveling from one million-dollar fight to another. Those were the days he'd bring a kid up from the peewees, nurse him through an Olympics, then be trainer-father figure to him in the pros. It was not particularly unusual for a boxer to live in Steward's house as family and call him Pops, as Moorer did from '88 to '92.
Now Steward carries as many as three shirts (one of them still says KRONK) in his gym bag as he moves through his day. This is not to say he's disloyal; if you've fought for Steward, you have a friend for life. But it's no longer unusual for him to train a boxer for a title fight and then work the other guy's corner in the rematch, as he did with McCall and Lewis. The fact that he backed the winner each time (McCall in the upset over Lewis, Lewis in the rematch two and a half years later) does not make him a front-runner, just a very good boxing trainer who goes where he's needed.
At the moment he's in the process of turning WBC welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya, 24, back into a flashy knockout artist, a boxer who produces as much excitement in the ring as he does in GQ fashion spreads. De La Hoya, who faces Hector Camacho at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, is probably the most important product in the fight game right now, a rare talent of undeniable charisma who has a chance to make everybody forget the recent debacles in the heavyweight division. He could become the glamour boxer of the '90s, the Sugar Ray Leonard of the MTV bunch.
But first Steward must restore De La Hoya's punch, refashion him as the kind of welterweight walloper Hearns was more than a decade ago. The stakes are high—they always are by the time Steward is called in. De La Hoya, despite a tremendous buildup that began at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only U.S. boxer to win a gold medal, has been incurring more doubt than glory in recent fights.
Since pureeing Mexican legend Julio César Chávez in their 1996 fight, De La Hoya has failed to hike the next slop into stardom, unable to display his advantages in strength and resolve in two bouts that followed. Most notably, he allowed Pernell Whitaker to nearly dipsy-doodle him to death in April, and De La Hoya's decision in that fight was so controversial that his marketability was seriously damaged. Camacho, whose high profile in boxing is due as much to his ring dress as his skills, is just one more cutie pie capable of frustrating De La Hoya. The Golden Boy not only must win this fight but also must destroy his opponent.
So the call went out to Steward: Fix this kid, fix him fast. And if you don't mind, please come to Big Bear, where Oscar likes to train.