Unless you somehow have avoided the internet the last couple of days, or are just not much of a boxing fan, then I am sure you have heard the unfortunate news that legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward (with a D) has passed away. He was only 68 years old.
Emanuel, born in West Virginia made the same trek northwest to Detroit just like my father and most of my family because Detroit in the 60’s was a city that was thriving with employment opportunities especially African Americans like no other city in the country. Many people migrated from the south to the east side of the city where the Ford and General Motors plants offered dependable jobs and employee discounts on American made muscle. For Steward Detroit came home and like so many young energetic youth, a boxing gym became his oasis.
I am not going to exaggerate my relationship with Steward. He knew me strictly by face not by name from my days of filming sparring at the Kronk gym when it moved to Dearborn. He’d give me a nod of acknowledgement shake my hand and I’d remind him my father was from West Virginia and he’d smile.
A person like Emanuel never knew a stranger, and that is what endeared him so much to a city like Detroit. While the Lions and Michigan football have some of the most loyal and passionate fans in all of sports, Detroit is a city that produces basketball players, boxers and cars.
If you’ve never been, despite being surrounded by beautiful pockets of fresh water, Detroit is not glamorous place like the West coast, or a media darling like New York or Chicago. The dog days of winter make the sky dark gray, and the one trick pony economy negative down effect on the region has been well documented. The city is tough, and prides itself on that. The Kronk gym exemplified everything about the city that Detroiters embrace. Brash and unapologetic.
Kronk was like a home team for us. The gold shorts signified Detroit. In an age of numerous logos, patches and endorsements that make boxers resemble Nascar cars, Emanuel was steadfast against anything being on the famed Kronk shorts. For as silly as it sounds that meant a lot to Detroiters.
Unlike Barry Gordy and Motown, Steward never left. The Kronk gym changed locations and went through several years of financial difficulties, but it was always ours. It was always Detroit’s. Emanuel used to bring some of his most talented fighters to train in Detroit in the renowned Kronk Gym. He once told us of how scared Prince Hamed was of sparring at the gym due to the incredible talent level, and ferociousness of the combat.
Whenever a new fighter walked into the gym, whether it be a world champion or a weekend warrior, they were not greeted handshakes and pats on the back. They were greeted with scowls and skepticism. Just the way Steward liked it. Anyone who’s ever been in that hot gym with the paint peeling the off of the walls with Emanuel in the ring in biker shorts and the sleeveless Kronk T shirt,
Steward was firm believer in a tough physical training camp to prepare his fighters. He should know, he trained 42 world champions, more than any other trainer. His gym, his style, his preparation all represented the city in a way no other professional team has in Detroit outside of the early 90’s bad boy Detroit Pistons.
Steward passing is like when long time legendary Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell passed away. I remember Ernie’s voice on a summer afternoons drinking a Faygo pop, playing football in the front yard. To this day I have only cried once over a sporting event and that was when Tommy Hearns lost his first bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. You feel like you know the better people from your childhood because of the fondness you have for what they represent. No responsibilities, no mortgage, just the fun pure innocence of rooting for your favorite team or athlete.
With the passing of Emanuel Steward the great sport of boxing lost one of its greatest trainers and a truly charismatic ambassador for the sweet science. The city of Detroit however lost much more. It lost a piece of its soul.