When the average person thinks of boxing, certain names come to mind. Ali, Foreman; Tyson, Douglas; Balboa, Drago. However, one of the most prominent names in American boxing never actually stepped in the ring as a professional fighter, yet each of the champions above would have loved to have Emmanuel Steward in their corner. Known as the Godfather of Detroit Boxing, Steward reshaped the American fighting scene in a career spanning over 3 decades. He was coach to dozens of premier fighters, including Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Tyson Fury.
Born in West Virginia in 1944, Steward moved to Detroit at age 12 with his mother. He began boxing at the Brewster Recreation Center, where Joe Louis once trained. “Manny,” as he was known to those close to him, ended up going 94-3 as an amateur, with a Golden Gloves title in 1963. Despite that success, it was as a coach where Steward truly found his footing in the fight game. Steward began as a part time coach at a run-down basement gym called Kronk, coaching his brother, James. After relatively quick success with James, Steward soon became the head coach at Kronk gym, and it was a match made in boxing heaven.
As many fans of dingy workout culture will appreciate, Kronk gym was originally formed in the basement of the oldest recreation center in Detroit. Before Steward, Kronk was considered a second-class gym, compared to the Brewster center. Over time, however, Steward - and Kronk as an extension - became a fixture of Detroit, offering young athletes an option, when few were extended to them. One of the most important steps that Steward took with Kronk was to regularly host and promote amateur fights in Detroit. This was massive in creating support for boxing within the city.
Stewards’ most successful early trainee, Thomas Hearns, fought his way to the top of the World Boxing Association, and earned a fight with World Boxing Championship champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard, one of the best fighters of all time, would prevail in this fight, but Hearns pushed Leonard to the 14th round. Steward would later say that defeat was the most painful experience of his life. Regardless, Hearns’ professional success brought notoriety to Steward and Kronk gym.
Eventually, Steward’s popularity would lead to some interesting confrontations. In 1994, Steward was training Oliver McCall when McCall knocked out Lennox Lewis to win the heavyweight title. The very next year, Lewis would come to Steward for training, and by 1997, Steward had coached Lewis back to the mountaintop, as Lewis defeated McCall in a rematch. It was a wise move by Lewis to choose the man who had strategized his defeat to help architect Lewis’ rebirth. Luckily for Lewis, Steward had a reputation. Within his immediate circle, Steward was known as a caring figure. He would often go so far as to have fighters live with him while he trained them. For a June 2012 fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Andy Lee lived with Steward during his prep. That level of care was surely one of the main reasons why Steward saw so much success with so many different fighters in wildly different stages of their careers.
Steward passed away in October of 2012, but he had been immortalized in the International Boxing Hall of Fame almost 20 years earlier in 1996. When he passed, he was remembered through numerous tributes from colleagues, family, and past trainees, all of whom did not hesitate to regard Steward as a friend first and foremost. There is perhaps no truer measure of Steward’s contributions than the fact that Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral. Not even Apollo Creed could say that.