(Thomas Hearns, with Emanuel Steward)
The roster of acclaimed fighters Emanuel Steward trained, ones he built from scratch or rebuilt entirely or merely visited for a touch-up, never seems to stop scrolling down the screen: Thomas Hearns, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Julio Cesar Chavez, Miguel Cotto, Naseem Hamed, Gerald McClellan, Michael Moorer, Jermain Taylor, James Toney… but, as of today, the roster is complete. Steward passed away at age 68 Thursday.
This is the kind of trainer Steward was: With Steward in Oliver McCall's corner, McCall beat Lewis. When Steward switched teams for a rematch, Lewis beat McCall. Before Steward came along, Klitschko was a talented but deeply flawed heavyweight. After Steward came along, following a brief rough patch, Klitschko became unbeatable. Steward's specialty was unrealistically tall fighters, but what he did with them varied; Hearns was an offensive juggernaut, a kill-or-be-killed type, while Klitschko is an offensive juggernaut who bundles all that power up and avoids contact at nearly all costs as he methodically breaks down his opponents. Not every Steward reclamation project worked out well — Taylor was a misstep — but few have had a higher success rate. In his legendary Kronk Gym, Steward would subject his fighters to borderline human rights violations like forcing his middleweights to spar with his heavyweights, but he loved them all outside of it, to the point that one of his last fighters, middleweight Andy Lee, even lived with him like some kind of adopted son.
This is the kind of commentator Steward was: For all the jokes about his malapropisms and repetitive habits (he was especially fond of reminding people in the 1st round that "this fight is going exactly how I thought it would"), his words as an HBO analyst since 2001 are part of the fabric of great boxing moments. Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti I is one of the best fights ever even with the volume off, but it is all the more enhanced by Steward's spontaneous joy… "Here comes Gatti back!" and "You know, you dream of fights like this, but very seldom do they live up to the expectation. This is even more than you can dream of!" One night in Atlantic City, my boxing writer friend David Greisman and I spent all night shouting up and down the boardwalk an imitation of Steward's spastic "OH MAH GAWWD!" during Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto, merely because we loved it so. When a call makes a fight memorable for all the right reasons, a commentator is acing his job. And, to be fair, the fights often DID go exactly the way he said they would.
This is the kind of person Steward was: You'd have a hard time finding anyone who would say anything very bad about him. In this industry, that's a true accomplishment. He was foul-mouthed in private, but then so is everyone else in boxing, and besides, saltiness isn't so bad a flavor. He was personally nice to me in our interactions, courteous, eager to help, although those interactions were too few. He was, by all accounts, a steadfast friend and generous soul.
It was all murky for much of the day whether Steward had actually passed away, and before that, there were murky accounts of the exact nature of his illness. What is no mystery is this: Boxing, without Steward, is a far poorer place. Rest in peace, Emanuel.