Emanuel Steward passed away on Oct. 25 in a Chicago hospital where he had been recuperating for several weeks after undergoing surgery for diverticulitis. He was 68.
Steward was an inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame as well as the World Boxing Hall of Fame. He molded some 41 world champions and was, perhaps, the greatest boxing trainer of all time. Yet he was much more than that.
He embodied the toughness, tenacity, industriousness and hope of an entire city.
Steward was a life coach, and he instilled in his fighters that the key to winning both in and out of the ring is to give it your best and to never give up; that if a person followed and acted upon this, they could never lose.
Legendary boxer Thomas Hearns said that when he was an adolescent starting out at the fabled Kronk Gym in Detroit, he was told by some cynical, old-time trainers to take off his gloves, go home and forget about boxing because he was too skinny. Steward did not share their sentiments, however, for he saw something special in the gangly youngster and took him under his wing;, and the rest is history.
It was Steward’s love and passion for boxing and his mission to bring out the best character traits of young people that made him a pillar in Detroit and a world renowned boxing wizard. And it was the pursuit and perfection of this passion that eventually released the floodgates of wealth and sent millions in revenue his way.
Yet it was not Steward’s pursuit of wealth that led him to boxing; it was the pursuit of boxing excellence and the development of the mental, spiritual and physical qualities (which are its flowering ground) that invigorated him and made him incredibly successful.
Of course, it was in many ways a much different Detroit that young Steward was introduced to when he arrived there from Bottom Creek, West Virginia at the age of 12. There was crime, but it was buffered by strong family and community ties.
Although the city was viciously segregated, despite this (or maybe because of it) the African American community maintained a certain communion of concern and commitment amongst its members. And Detroit’s storied Black Bottom section was vibrant with that unique blend of urban poverty and innovative artistry that has produced greatness in American cities for centuries.
Steward actually began boxing at the tender age of 7 while still in West Virginia, winning several junior titles along the way. When his parents divorced he moved to Detroit with his mother and turned from battling in the boxing ring to fighting on Detroit’s mean streets. He soon got in trouble with the law and was given an ultimatum to either find a boxing gym to take out his frustrations or be sent to juvenile detention. As fate would have it, Steward was able to hone his skills at the Brewster Recreation Center, the same boxing gym made famous by the likes of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.
As a boxer he established an impressive amateur record of 94 wins and only 3 losses, and in 1963 he won the national Golden Gloves championship in the bantamweight division.
Steward discovered that he had a natural ability in boxing and an innate love and inclination to train and teach others. Eventually he took a part-time job at a small basement gym on the west side of Detroit called “The Kronk” and it was this move that would propel him and the gym to international prominence. For it was when he turned in earnest to training and coaching that his light really began to shine.
Yet it was not the crafting of world champions that he seemed to be the most proud of, but the ability to mold youngsters and to infuse them with hope and belief in their own abilities, even in the bleakest and most challenging of circumstances.
“When I think of boxing,” said Steward, “I think of the little boys-and probably the little girls now that go to the gym and that are jumping around and wanting to learn how to throw a punch; maybe to try and win a little trophy; especially for little kids that are physically small and would not necessarily be able to grow and compete in basketball and football and the other sports that require someone to be big.”
The lives that Emauel Steward had a positive influence on are far too numerous to mention. Yet for Detroiters he will always be fondly remembered as the man who transformed an obscure gym in a run-down section of town into an oasis of camaraderie, learning and a veritable rite of passage. A boxing mecca that along with Motown Records and the automobile industry is most responsible for putting Detroit on the world map.
“Kronk Recreation Center was really a key spot for our community,” said Steward when I interviewed him at his home several years ago “I made the little room in the basement the most famous boxing gym in the world. I’m very happy that I was able to do that in that little basement. And Kronk is still here. I have not packed up and said ‘I’m going to L.A.’ or anywhere people have offered me.“
Steward forged other men of more imposing physiques into world class fighters and champions proving that a sport usually thought of one of brawn and brute force was at its essence an endeavor of strategy, of skill and of indomitable will. Yet his most important and enduring legacy is the love and compassion he demonstrated for others along the way.
“Emanuel will be missed because he was taking care of a lot of people,” said current IBF junior middleweight champion Cornelius “K9” Bundrage. “Whenever I needed help I could always go to Emanuel whether it was money or a place to stay or whatever. I will always remember him for that.”
Steven Malik Shelton is a journalist and human rights advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.