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Remembering Emanuel Steward

By Lindy Lindell
Photos: Bob Ryder

Prologue: Without Emanuel Steward, there would have been no Thomas Hearns; without Thomas Hearns AND Emanuel Steward, there would have been no Kronk. Just that simple.

The night Jimmy Paul got knocked out in Cobo Hall, Emanuel Steward decided to bury the hatchet with this journalist. I tell people that while Emanuel really isn’t a reader, he reads every word I write about him and his fighters.

What brought about the rift between us was a piece I had written for an obscure bowling publication, a tabloid newspaper out of Grand Rapids. Bill Chrisman had convinced the editor that he could fill a whole page twice a month on boxing activity in the state of Michigan. This was in the early-1980s, when activity was such that this was possible. I had seen almost all of the 100 or so professional boxers in Michigan in action and suggested to Chrisman the idea of doing an alphabetical listing of every fighter and a cogent comment about each. Some of the comments I made were well within the “smarty-pants” category. About heavyweight Dion Simpson, I said, “Grunts well, conveying the advent of his attacks with a basso profundo yelp announcing that a punch was on its way.”

The article had been printed and one day shortly thereafter I picked up the phone hearing laughter. It was Emanuel Steward: “I’m just sitting here reading your comments, and (more laughter) …” Steward went on to dominate the conversation, as he tended to dominate most of the conversations he was in, finally concluding with, “Keep up the good work.”

There was a lump in my heart when I hung up the phone because I had just turned in a column that ended getting me the cold shoulder and a year’s worth of silence from Emanuel Steward. This column featured two dozen or more sentences beginning with the phrase “Did you know …” Some of these were critical of Kronk and its maestro, then in full flower. One was “Did you know that in Kronk there are no drills designed to tie up one’s opponent?” Another: “Did you know that Hurley Snead [the bantamweight] is the only Kronk fighter who trains regularly when he doesn’t have a fight coming up?”

Then came the night of the Jimmy Paul knockout. Years later, Jimmy acknowledged that his father had rained down heavy criticism upon Steward in the dressing room. I had been hanging around, kibitzing with the fight crowd after the evening’s boxing concluded and Steward, passing through, on his way to the Cobo parking lot underground, made eye contact with myself, a surprise since he had been so studiously ignoring me for the previous year. We agreed to meet at the London Chophouse a couple of blocks away where we had a late dinner and several glasses of wine.

The wine seemed to loosen Emanuel from the troubles of the evening. Jimmy Paul had lost his title by a narrow margin to Greg Haugen and the knockout loss to the 10-8-2 Amancio Castro earlier in the evening had all but written finis to future chances of another title shot. Emanuel waxed philosophic: “You know, if it wasn’t for Tommy [Hearns], we probably couldn’t have afforded to put on this show tonight. In fact, the success of Tommy and the money he generates makes Kronk Kronk.”

It was an admission that those of us in the boxing community had reckoned, but never actually stated, or, at least written about. What Emanuel did not say that night was that he was such an integral part of Tommy’s success that if it were not for him, his astute guidance and meaningful matchmaking of Hearns, that Kronk would have been just another recreation center rather than the iconic institution that it was becoming.

Flash forward to 1989, the days before Hearns-Leonard II. Hearns was staying in Emanuel’s then-new Rosedale Park home adjacent to the one he had originally bought on Bretton; that “new” and remodeled home was serving as a kind of training headquarters for local Kronk main-event boxers as they prepared for important fights. I was interviewing Steward, who was in a good mood that day. He had been instrumental in scoring a very large purse for Tommy (and himself) for a fight that didn’t live up to the signature fights in boxing history as did Hearns-Leonard I and the war with Marvin Hagler. Geeked with the attendant excitement leading up to this forthcoming bout, he was still able to manage to recognize that he had a reporter in the room, and to revel in what I had written in the well-circulated, now-defunct Boxing Update: that the revival of Detroit boxing (in retrospect, the 1980s has become known the golden age of boxing in Detroit) was due to Tommy Hearns AND to the man who engineered him there, Emanuel Steward. In 2012, this seems almost patently obvious. In 1989, insiders were well aware of this symbiotic Hearns-Steward “package”; it just wasn’t written about much.

Hearns was sleeping in one of those side rooms on the second floor when Steward, excited about those two or three sentences in Update, went to wake Hearns up to tell him. From behind the door, I could hear Steward say, “Listen what Lindy Lindell wrote:(Steward always said my first and last names in tandem).” I could hear Steward read those sentences, but if Hearns had anything to say in response, I couldn’t hear it.

In the last decade, Steward became more reflective, and often would reminisce heavily during press conferences. He was proud of what he had accomplished, first “selling” the Kronk boxing program to Olympia Productions; making the rounds of bars and eating establishments to “sell” upcoming fights; pumping up fighters, reporters, his staff, and the public at large. In Tommy Hearns, he had what the advertisers call “product”: a lithe, cold destroyer—the Hitman Tommy Hearns. In Hearns, Steward had found the product that made Kronk Kronk.

Coda: On October 26, Tommy Hearns sat in the latest incarnation of Kronk, on west Warren and lamented the death of Emanuel Steward, announced just two days before. Diane Steward-Jones, Emanuel’s sister, was closing the gym and Hearns was in a reflective mood as he moved toward the exit. Mike Brudenell of The Detroit Free Press recorded the aftermaths of these two “deaths” as Tommy expressed a regret that the old Kronk Recreation Center, closed in 2006: “The City of Detroit, the State of Michigan—if they could clean up the building on McGraw and reopen the gym there, it would be awesome. It would make Emanuel proud and happy. We would be doing it all again.”

For the first time, at least publically, Hearns seemed to be at peace with that agonizing loss to Sugar Ray Leonard by telling Brudenell that Emanuel had been largely responsible for redeeming himself in his rematch with Ray; Steward always wanted that knockout for Hearns and all of his fighters. Recognizing that his charge Ali Haakim was on the brink of a possible stoppage win over a badly-tiring Earnie Shavers, Steward shrieked into Haakim’s ear between rounds, “Get you a knockout tonight!” But against Sugar Ray, recognizing that Hearns might not be able to knock out the deceptively very-tough Leonard, Steward advised Hearns to box his man. Hearns revealed to Brudenell, “Emanuel knew I could outbox Ray, and I did. It meant everything to me.”

Color photos: Bob Ryder.
B&W photos, Steward/Lampley shot by Chris Cuellar.

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