Boxing: The champs' champion

Lennox Lewis is the latest top boxer to benefit from Emanuel Steward's gifts. Harry Mullan met him in Las Vegas

Even With a world title fight only hours away, the Detroit trainer Emanuel Steward was still covering all the angles. When we talked in his Las Vegas hotel suite, he was clutching the video he had just been showing Lennox Lewis next door, in the hope that the big man might pick up a move or two before what would be a bizarre meeting with Oliver McCall. It was a compilation of the great middleweight victories of Sugar Ray Robinson, 52-year-old Steward's dream fighter.

"I was surprised Lennox knew so little about him," he said with that hint of disapproval which true fanatics reserve for those who do not share their obsession. "I'd have enjoyed working in that era [the Forties and Fifties]. Fighters had so much more seasoning then. But there are a lot of fighters I see today who would have held up in any era, guys like Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roy Jones."

Hearns, the first to win world titles at five different weights, was Steward's masterpiece. He had him from the days when Hearns was a skinny 14-year-old, and the only reason they are no longer together is that Steward feels Hearns's retirement is overdue.

Hearns is best remembered for his rivalry with Ray Leonard, who stopped him in the 14th round of perhaps the finest welterweight title fight of all time, in 1981. We didn't know it at the time but behind the rivalry was a deep and lasting friendship.

"I always had a great relationship with Ray," Steward said. "In fact, I helped him get to the Olympic Games in '76 . Ray had passed up just about every chance to make the team, but we did not have anyone in his weight class in Detroit so I put up $10,000 to bring the Eastern Regionals to Detroit, and he won it, and that's how he got in the Olympic team. He always had a special warmth with Hearns because of that.

"When Tommy made his pro debut in '77, Leonard left his family and flew down to Detroit to support him, at his own expense. Another time, when Ray was training to fight Floyd Mayweather in September '78, he needed somebody tall to work with and the relationship was so good that I didn't even go with Tommy - he just went there and worked with Ray on his own."

Steward's passion for boxing took root early. "It began when I was eight, when we were living in West Virginia. I got a pair of boxing gloves for Christmas. I got a train set, too, and plenty of other things, but the gloves fascinated me. I became addicted to boxing, don't know why. There was no organised boxing in West Virginia at that time, certainly not up in the mountains where we lived, but they found another kid who liked to fight, brought us both to the American Legion hall, made a ring and took bets.

"I had about 15 or 20 of those illegal fights, until we moved to Detroit after my parents split up. The kids there made fun of the way I talked, so I got into street fights. Finally, the police sent me to Eddie Futch's gym, and they put me in with a boy way more experienced than me. But I'd learned a little trick or two, and I whipped everybody so they put me in the Recreational Championships, and then the Golden Gloves.

"I was a big bantamweight [he is 5ft 9in] and over the next few years I won everything, including the National Golden Gloves in 1964. I could have gone to the Olympics that year but I'd just got married, got a job and was studying to be an electrician, so I turned down the trials - and then two weeks later I lost my job anyway. I thought about turning pro, had people who wanted me to, but all the old guys who knew about boxing didn't know about the business side of it, and the ones who knew the business were mostly crooks, so I decided against it.

"How good could I have been? Well, I've been good at everything I've done in boxing, and I believe I could have been the first four-weights world champion. But I got disillusioned watching guys I'd beaten, like Hedgemon Lewis, going on to fight for world titles. I didn't want to know about boxing. I didn't even go to the fights.

"I stayed away from the gym for a couple of years, until my father got in touch with me. He had remarried and I now had a half-brother who wanted to learn how to box. I started teaching him some moves in the kitchen at home, and then I heard about the gym at the Kronk Center. I took him there and coached him in a corner, just me and him, until one night I got a call from the people who ran the centre. The guy in charge had walked out after a row and they asked me to take over. I did, and the Kronk became the most successful club in the area. We swept the junior championships and set records that have never been equalled in the Golden Gloves."

Like All great coaches, Steward lives the fight with his boxers, rehearsing and creating the moves in his own mind and then demonstrating them with the easy grace of the fighter he could have been. (He has the same conversational technique: a vivid raconteur who illustrates tales of knockouts by bouncing around the room, fists flashing as he builds towards the final combination ... and then crashing full length on the floor in precisely the position of the beaten fighter.)

"By 1977 I had Tommy Hearns and Mickey Goodwin, a handsome white kid, ready to turn pro. I remembered how, when I wanted to go pro, I couldn't find anyone I could trust to manage me so I decided to look after them myself. I borrowed some money off my grandparents, went to the owners of the Cobo Arena in Detroit and persuaded them to give me a good deal to rent the place. Our first show drew 1,800, and the boys became really popular."

Steward's first world championship came not from Hearns but from Hilmer Kenty, the only one in the camp who had not been part of the Kronk amateur set-up. Steward's account of the making of the match offers a revealing insight into the business. "I heard they needed an opponent for WBA lightweight champion Ernesto Espana. I flew down to Puerto Rico to see Espana's promoter Pepe Cordero [the late Cordero was notorious as the WBA's 'bag man' and bribes collector, and when that organisation cleaned house Cordero left to found the WBO].

"I had stretched my resources to the limit and figured I could pay $75,000, good money for a lightweight back then. We went into Cordero's office, and he put a gun on the table between us and said: 'Now, gentlemen, how can I be of service to you?' We told him, and he said: '$100,000 for Espana.' I thought, 'shit', but I said, 'You got it,' and he said, 'And $25,000 for me, and I've got an old welterweight, Angel Espada, who needs a pay day - that's another $25,000.' So I said: 'What about the ratings? Kenty's not in the top 10.' But Pepe said, 'That is not a problem - I can arrange that.' When the deal was done, I was committed to something like $300,000.

"The fight opened the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It was such an emotional night, and a great fight, and Kenty stopped him in the ninth round. By the time we paid everybody off, there was maybe $20,000 left, but I had my first world champion."

There have been a great many champions since, some developed by Steward from teenage amateurs and others, like Evander Holyfield and Julio Cesar Chavez, who engaged him for specific fights to utilise his strategic expertise. Steward has no master when it comes to figuring out how to beat an awkward opponent, which is why Lewis can rest easy as he awaits his mandatory title defence against the gangling 6ft 7in Henry Akinwande.

Steward fighters, whether champions or young hopefuls, have two qualities in common: punching power and competitive spirit. "Punching is a matter of training and technique, not just power. Hearns was never a big puncher in the amateurs, but as a pro I trained him how to hit, closing the fist at the moment of impact for maximum power, and showed him how to set guys up and manoeuvre them into knockouts. I love knockouts and I hate decisions. Even if my guy has won clearly, I'm never happy if it goes to a decision, but no judge can argue with a knockout.

"Heart is the quality I admire more in a fighter, and if he hasn't got it, you can't teach it. Joe Louis won fights he shouldn't have won just because of the flame inside him. Take Dennis Andries when he fought Tommy Hearns: he was so outclassed, in a hostile environment, against one of the great punchers and was down four or five times yet he refused to give up his title for 10 brutal rounds. That takes a lot of balls.

"Hearns showed it the night he beat Juan Domingo Roldan for the middleweight title: for me, that was Hearns's best performance. Greatness is made from inside, from the spirit, the flame inside a man, plus you've got to be a little bit crazy to be a fighter."

Leading the good fight: The Steward Hall of Fame

Emanuel Steward, who was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996, has worked with more than 20 world champions. He trained Oliver McCall to beat Lennox Lewis, and last week coached Lewis to reverse the result. He steered Evander Holyfield to victory in a rematch with Riddick Bowe, polished the skills of the multi-talented Mike McCallum and masterminded Julio Cesar Chavez's easy win over Meldrick Taylor.

For those assignments, though, Steward was in the role of "hired gun" brought in to strengthen the team. His real accomplishment lies with the men he has brought through from scratch, the amateurs he has developed into world champions or - like Britain's Dennis Andries - the raw material he has turned into a finished product. His Roll of Honour reads:

Michael Moorer WBA/IBF heavyweight champion 1994, WBO heavyweight 1992- 93, WBO light heavyweight 1988-90.

Dennis Andries WBC light heavyweight champion 1989, 1990-91.

Leeonzer Barber WBO light heavy champion 1991-94.

Thomas Hearns WBC light heavyweight champion 1987, WBA champion 1991, WBO super middleweight champion 1988-91, WBC middleweight champion 1987-88, WBC light middleweight champion 1982-86, WBA welterweight champion 1980-81.

Gerald McClellan WBO middleweight champion 1991-93, WBC middleweight champion 1993-95.

Duane Thomas WBC light middle champion 1986-87.

Milton McCrory WBC welterweight champion 1983-85.

Hilmer Kenty WBA lightweight champion 1980-81.

Jimmy Paul IBF lightweight champion 1985-86.

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