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.