Emanuel Steward: The true definition of a boxing trainer

Photo by Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Photo by Paul Sancya/Associated Press

 

 

At its root, boxing is the purest of all sports the world has ever seen. Like all sports, there is the “sporting” side and there is a “business” side. Accompanying each side are often two little voices speaking to us. Every one of us who has been associated with the business side of professional boxing has answered that little horned fellow sitting on one shoulder. But on that other shoulder sits an angel with a halo, reminding you right from wrong.

 

For all he achieved as a professional boxing trainer, Emanuel Steward’s name and legacy will rightfully live on forever, being enshrined in the International Boxing Hall Of Fame. But beyond the bright lights and enticing allure that come with fame and celebrity status in the world of professional boxing, a place where that little horned fellow likes to hang around, one that could be compared to Sodom and Gomorrah at times, there is another place where the streets are paved with gold. I like to think of this place as “Kronk Gold” and that is where Emanuel rests now with a halo over his head, watching over us all.

 

Steward’s accomplishments as a trainer are well documented; from statistics to titles to records, the facts speak for themselves. I am not here today to talk about those facts. I am here to talk about the facts that not many share. The reality is, Emanuel Steward is in the Hall of Fame for being one of the greatest trainers the sport of boxing has ever seen. To those of us who spent time with him in that little boxing gym located in the basement of John Kronk Community Center, he was more than just a trainer. He was a mentor.

 

July 7, 2016 brought about so much emotion in me. It was not only Emanuel Steward’s birthday but also the birthday of my big brother, former world title challenger, original Kronk boxer and light heavyweight title challenger Ka-Dy King. While Emanuel was not here to celebrate with us, I couldn’t stop thinking how proud he would be to see me and Ka-Dy still so close after meeting each other all those years ago inside the Kronk Gym. Sure, my big brother boxed out of Kronk and got a shot at the world title but the mentoring he received from people like Emanuel helped him live to celebrate his greatest victory to date: his 50th birthday.

 

I will never be able to express what I feel as eloquently as I would like to. I apologize in advance; I graduated from the School of Hard Knocks, not the Ivy League. I didn’t have a teacher instruct me how to use “proper English” and put together paragraphs. I had mentors teach me skills that, despite my being perhaps in the lower 10 percent of my graduating class for my boxing career, I went on to become part of the one percent because of the life skills it gave me.

 

Today there are more so-called “boxing trainers” than ever, thanks to what I refer to as “fitness boxing” offered in fitness facilities and boxing-themed fitness clubs. You will not find anyone with the skill set of Floyd Mayweather Jr. training there, as these are where the weekend warriors can come “look the part” and do flashy pad work like Mayweather. There might be a lot of calories being burned at these places but there is little – if any REAL – boxing lessons taking place. And with the cost of memberships and target demographics, these are hardly the types of gyms that are trying to save lives and mentor the youth.

 

Long before YouTube showed these new-school trainers how to give fancy pad work to soccer moms and tough mudders, down at Kronk, it should be noted, is where pad work was birthed by Emanuel Steward. It was something special to watch Emanuel and Thomas Hearns work the pads; let me tell you…But so was watching Emanuel exit the ring and spend even more time teaching a young man how to properly wrap his hands, tie his boxing boots and then make sure he had a couple dollars in his pocket when he left the gym so he wouldn’t go to bed hungry.

 

Unlike many trainers I see today, Emanuel did not charge people “per session” to train them and monitor the time he spent with them. Emanuel was so heavily invested in training the kids at Kronk, he would often lose track of time. Emanuel even gave his time and efforts to save others from doing time. On so many occasions, Steward would be going down to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice pleading with judges to just give young men one more chance, so he could do his part to mentor them and be the father figure they never had, so they would not end up in the vicious system that breeds hate, not world champions and productive citizens.

 

The Kronk Gym was where boys grew into men. It was a place where black, white and brown brothers all joined together under the Kronk Gold and bled red, in pursuit of a little green to hopefully have a rainbow come out after the dark stormy days that surrounded so many.

 

Emanuel Steward will forever be remembered all over the world as one of the greatest trainers in boxing history but, to those here in Detroit, he will forever be remembered as one of the greatest mentors we ever had. Sadly all the great gyms and rec centers closed down because of budget cuts or politics. I guess the financial bottom line matters more at times than the lives of our youth in the inner cities today. My heart truly hurts.

 

The John Kronk Community Center was more than the building that housed the Kronk boxing gym. It was a place where senior citizens like Calvin could come and get a shower and play checkers. It was where little kids who were not cut out for boxing could still stay off the streets and use the pool or play in the basketball program. The door to the gym read “THIS DOOR HAS LEAD MANY TO PAIN AND FAME” and several media stories referred to the Kronk Gym as “The House of Pain.” This is all true. But I would like to point out, as Luther Vandross so beautifully explained, there is a big difference between a house and a home. To so many of us, the Kronk Community Center was a home! The media also referred to Emanuel as “The Goldfather” but, to so many of us, he was indeed a father figure.

 

Like all families, we had more than our share of dysfunction. It’s no secret. So many of our family members have ended up in jail, dead or strung out on dope. And let me just tell you all, straight up from the West Side of Detroit, don’t bring that reality TV bullshit around us…You couldn’t talk if you didn’t live it. The reality was, to us, it the best of times and the worst of times all rolled into one. The auto factories were closing and no one was hiring but the kingpins were offering plenty of work. The crack epidemic was knocking more people out than “Hitman” Hearns. It was a time when Detroit was tagged the Murder Capital of the US by the media. News stories ran showing our youth neatly tucking pistols in their waistbands while other kids their age were still being taught by their parents to tuck in their shirts for school. Where so many teachers failed to reach our youth in Detroit, trainers like Emanuel understood their pain and got them to take those pistols out of their waistbands, get them measured up and bought them their first suits and pairs of dress shoes. You wont find those statistics on Google but those are facts.

 

Sticking to the subject of statistics, here are some stats you wont find when you Google search Emanuel Steward’s accomplishments: How many young men he taught to shave properly (he taught me right in his own bathroom. “You see, you have to move the razor downward. If you go up, you’ll get bumps on your face and irritate your skin”) or how many young kids who actually stayed in school and graduated because of the discipline he instilled in them. Sure, Emanuel was best known for being in the company of world champions, training more than any other trainer in history, but he had a pure affinity for the underclass and the underdog.

 

Yes, boxing was financially rewarding for Steward but he gave back far more than he received. He gave until, at one point, the well ran dry and he was so tired, most would throw in the towel. But Steward, like the champions he so famously trained, got up from the canvas himself, kept fighting and kept on giving. He never met a fan with whom he didn’t smile and pose for a picture. When he did manage to sleep, it was often in his favorite red leather chair where he caught a few Zs in between the endless interviews from all different time zones in the farthest corners of the world.

 

It has been nearly 10 years since the Original Kronk closed, it has been almost four years since Emanuel passed. After years of issues that led to the decline of the once mighty Kronk Empire, happily it is experiencing a resurgence. There is a new gym that carries the Kronk name and Steward’s family, after much hard work and getting things back in order, is overseeing the operation. I was so honored to be there for the grand opening.

 

But sadly, like most stories in boxing, there are not many fairy tale endings for so many who were involved in the building of that mightiest empire the world of boxing ever knew, the Original Kronk Gym. What took place in the Kronk Empire could only be compared to that of the Roman Empire. Emanuel and his fellow teachers like Walter Smith, Bill Miller, Luther Burgess, Sammy Poe and Floyd Logan developed more world champions out of that little basement inferno than any gym in boxing history. And while many did get to achieve that “fame” referenced on the door, sadly so many of my fellow Kronk brothers experienced that “pain” the door also warned us about, falling victim to the bad decisions they made or the failed system outside the confines of the Kronk Gym and ended up behind bars or dead. These days, the Original Kronk sits abandoned and appears to be headed for the demolition list.

 

On a positive note, many Kronk alumni are still active in the present-day boxing community. Emanuel’s mentoring, along with guys like Walt and Luther, are so dearly missed and needed as they too will be forced to choose what voice to listen to, perched on the right and left shoulders, one with horns and one with a halo. Just remember: While Emanuel did enjoy the fruits of his labor with the finer things in life – and he loved that Rolls Royce – often by his side enjoying those things with him was a group of inner-city kids who would be jam-packed in that Rolls, heading out for their first ever steak and lobster dinner, in which Emanuel the mentor would teach them how to use a fork and knife at the dinner table. The Kronk Gold’s success could be measured in the form of “gold bars,” as so many millions of dollars were made but how will we ever measure how successful the Kronk program was at keeping kids out from behind steel bars?

 

Emanuel was always happy to smile and share stories about working with some of the greatest fighters of the modern era but if you really wanted to see his magic smile and at him at his happiest, you would find him down in that hot basement gym, training some young 10-year-old the basics of boxing like balance and how and where to hold his hands, inside the ropes of that old, worn-out ring. Emanuel always emphasized the basics of boxing: the fundamentals. He was so much more than a trainer; he was a teacher. And if you paid close enough attention, while he was training and teaching, Steward was mentoring those kids about the lessons he so desperately hoped would help them survive outside the ropes.

 

As I mentioned previously, there are more people than ever doing “boxing training” but we are hard-pressed to find many who are actually “teaching boxing”. Emanuel Steward was a special person; he was truly a trainer, a teacher and, most importantly, a mentor.

 

Thank you for being that voice with a halo on my shoulder, Emanuel. Thank you for all you taught me and for the times we shared together. Happy Birthday.

 

 

You can follow Mr. John Lepak on Twitter @Lightning_JL and on Instagram @lightning_lepak.

 

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