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.