By Jason Keidel
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Maybe this missive only reaches a few fans, what with boxing relegated to the back alleys of the sports section and the dark corners of America’s soul. But some men can’t leave this world without a word from us who knew of him.
When boxing was an important sport, Steward was an important boxing trainer. Steward made his bones during boxing’s heyday, when it still defended its title and prerogative as a vivid and violent portal to the American dream. Just before it finally dissolved under the weight of corruption, Don King, and the death knell — money — the 1980s hosted epic fights between epic fighters.
Eventually, team sports paid the same, if not more, without the inherent danger of dementia. “Punch Drunk” isn’t some clever colloquialism. It’s a serious problem afflicting men of middle age, who at 40 can barely walk, speak, or think, almost invariably wed to younger women who double as au pairs or seeing eye dogs, living off their husband’s halcyon days.
Athletes are often defined by tandems. Terry Bradshaw had Chuck Noll, Joe Montana had Bill Walsh, Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson, Muhammad Ali had Angelo Dundee, and Thomas Hearns had Steward. And few of us doubt that either would have been quite as good without the other, even if the archives are largely reserved for the performer.
Hearns fought everyone on the food chain, and was the only man to drop Roberto Duran, flat on his face, with one punch. Everyone remembers the three rounds of brutality against Marvin Hagler, a fight many consider the best in history.
Hearns dominated Ray Leonard for most of 13 rounds. Sadly, they fought 14, with Leonard summoning enough power and punches to stop Hearns six minutes before a surefire victory for the Hitman. Hearns dropped Leonard twice in their rematch, yet somehow got just a draw.
(I forgot to add boxing judges as another malady leading to the sport’s death. Just watch Tim Bradley’s inexplicable victory over Manny Pacquiao a few months ago. Even Bradley and his manager conceded the fight before the judges emerged from their twilight zones.)
Steward climbed the vocational ladder in Detroit, where he worked with Hearns inside the iconic Kronk Gym.
Jon Wertheim — the best sportswriter on the planet — wrote this homage to Kronk, Steward and to a fading ideal. This was from a 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
We often hear of the ‘throwback boxing gym,’ but really, is there another kind? If you’re learning to fight at a gym that offers smoothies or wireless access or iPod jacks on the elliptical machines, odds are good you’ll be getting your a– kicked in the ring. By definition boxing gyms should be dingy sweatboxes with an atmosphere thickened by leather, liniment, body odor and time. The soundtrack should consist of thwacks, grunts and the whistle of jump ropes slicing up air molecules.
Wertheim noted that the recent recession, which fell on Detroit like financial napalm, eviscerated the second-most recognized institution after the auto industry (Kronk). Inside a silent, shuttered city, it was a most fertile boxing farm, where Steward trained his prized pupil to stardom. Kronk withered into weeds, like the auto plants, relics scattered across “The D” like fallen dominoes.
But then Steward went into action, taking the unprecedented initiative of starting another Kronk, paying for it alone and refusing to take a dime from anyone who wanted to use the rustic, realistic equipment at his disposal. It was the symbolism more than the superficial accoutrements that made it essential. And the gym thrived, with the gym’s boxing team winning regional titles.
Though the redux was dingier than the original, it was real, just like Steward. Boxing has always been the sport of the poor, where kids from the streets can feed an addiction everyone respects and can afford. Steward never charged anyone for membership, keeping the blue-collar ethos of his time and town close to heart. While Steward also trained famed champions like Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya, he was with Hearns from the ground floor.
Frankly, we spend most of our lives doing nothing. So it was with unbridled glee that I spent about 30 minutes with Steward in the bowels of Madison Square Garden over a decade ago, both of us covering a Felix Trinidad fight. They used to call it the Felt Forum before it mutated into some theater whose name I can’t recall, nor do I care.
Rather than be disturbed by a 30-year-old acting like a child sitting on Santa’s lap on Christmas Eve, he let me pick his formidable brain before he had to excuse himself to join Jim Lampley and George Foreman. He was gracious, if not gregarious. I learned more about boxing from him in 30 minutes than I had in 30 years. (Only Bert Sugar dropped more knowledge on me. But everyone knows that Bon Vivant is the undisputed champion of boxing knowledge.)
We often tire of the cliché, “they just don’t make men like him anymore.” In Steward’s case, the mantra is authentic because the rusty, hardscrabble conditions that make men like Steward — blood, sweat, pain and the simple, Spartan coda of the prizefighter — just don’t exist today. You can’t ask Steward about those days anymore, but you can ask anyone about Steward. And you’ll hear the same thing. He was as great as the sport he worshiped.
This morning, a fan scolded WFAN co-hosts Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts for omitting the sweet science from their program, citing a fight card at Barclays Center as a reason to revive the sport. I felt for the guy, but it’s not a talk-show host’s fault that the sport is on life support. Blame those who bled boxing dry without giving back, from the mafia to King to corrupt, sanctioning lords like Jose Sulaiman.
Steward did his part, and then some.
Little by little, the pillars of a crumbling, sporting castle fall into the ocean of history. From Joe Frazier to Sugar to Steward, we’re not just losing athletes or writers or trainers, but men who defined American history.
What will you remember about the late, great Emanuel Steward? Share your thoughts and memories in the comments section below…