The History of Boxing with Emanuel Steward Part IV: Amateur Boxing
“A lot of guys try to emulate him, but there will never be another Pernell Whitaker”—Emanuel Steward
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – With his vast wealth of knowledge, experience, and an amazing track record of success, Emanuel Steward is undoubtedly one of the greatest trainers the sport of boxing has ever seen. In fact Steward has trained and/or managed 41 World Champions, including the reigning heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko. This is Part Four of an ongoing series with Emanuel that will explore past champions, historical fights, mythical match-ups, great rivalries, memorable fighters, and Steward’s own personal experiences as a world class trainer. This edition focuses on theme of amateur boxing. Steward (*pictured to the right, standing over Eddie Gonzalez during the semi-finals for the National Golden Gloves Championship, in Chicago, on March 6, 1963) spoke about his own experiences as an amateur National Champion. He also provided opinions on the American amateur boxing scene, the Cuban program, and various amateur boxers he has both seen and worked with over the years, including: Sugar Ray Leonard, Mark Breland, Floyd Mayweather Junior, Tommy Hearns, George Foreman, Pernell Whitaker, Howard Davis, Ronnie Shields, Roy Jones Junior, and more! Here is what the Hall of Fame trainer had to say:
The Stages of an Amateur Boxer:
Well the stages of a person’s amateur career I think are very important, and it’s something that I refer to in life often now. When you first go into the gym as a kid you start learning how to hold your feet and hands properly, or at least you did then. They don’t even do that nowadays, hardly. Everybody wants to just jump right on the pads now and go pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! But at the time when I came up, you learned how to do everything basically and fundamentally sound. Then you get to where you feel very comfortable doing that. It’s like a game where you can hit a bag or do whatever you’re supposed to do, and block a punch, and punch back. Then when you’re comfortable doing that, all of a sudden the actual boxing starts.
There is a different element of anxiety then because punches are coming at you. There is another human being that is in the ring with you. Everything is moving. There is a different flow. You’re getting hit and you’re trying to punch, and things are not the way they were before when you were just on the floor working with a teacher, where everything was simple and basic like a game. Then finally you adjust to that, and the next thing you know you’re having an actual boxing match. You come out, and you have crowds of people screaming. At the time I was boxing as an amateur we didn’t wear headgear, but today all of a sudden you have a different element. So you’re nervous, you’re uncomfortable, and it’s a whole different psychological, and emotional, and spiritual experience that you’re going to go through that you hadn’t been through before.
After that, maybe you would enter a tournament where you have crowds of people screaming and hollering, and if you win you know you’re going to fight another guy—maybe a guy that you’re watching winning who is knocking someone out. That’s going to be your reward if you win. So you have to develop a certain type of comfort on the psychological level and you have to be comfortable at that level. Now if this is a national thing, then the next thing you know you might enter one internationally. That’s a whole different environment where you see people coming in from all parts of the world, and there are different systems. The game gets to be more about rules than it is about actually boxing.
So those are the different stages that boxers go through. Mine was just a little different because mine started off with just a bunch of guys just betting money and throwing whiskey and stuff. You had me and another little boy just barefooted, and we just jumped around there and threw punches until one of us quit and started crying, and then that was the end of that. That was how I started, but basically that’s the way amateur boxing starts off. Some kids grow, some kids don’t. But the point that I’m trying to make is that every stage of boxing, from the beginning to the end, is a different level. You have to be mentally comfortable and you have to grow into that situation.
Emanuel’s Amateur Experience
It’s the same as if you have a boxer that starts off fighting locally in his hometown, and he’s the king of that town—like I was myself in Detroit. Then all of a sudden I would wake up and I’m in Chicago with all of the roughest guys in the United States all right there in the same building where I am. Everybody was a champion from every city. I mean so there were no regulars. Everybody was a champion! Just from like Ohio alone, I remember we had Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Columbus—and that was all just from one state, and I mean all of these guys were phenomenal fighters. Then you had the guys from St. Louis, and at the time Louisville, Kentucky was really strong. In fact, Cassius Clay at the time and Jimmy Ellis had just won that same tournament just a couple of years before I got there. All of these guys had known each other because they had been to several tournaments, and I realized that I was in a totally uncomfortable situation. I had never done anything like this.
You got three rings going at one time, and as soon as the guy gets beat he disappears. He goes home, and then another guy goes home. I think when I first got there that there were about 70 guys or something in my weight division. You got cops all over the place, and you were fighting twice a night with no headgear on at that time. A lot of guys in that tournament had never fought professionally. They were like “professional amateurs” because there was not too much money in professional boxing at that time, unless you were a Gold Medal winner. So some of these guys would have over 300 fights, and they were still considered amateurs with no headgear. They were professional punchers, too. They were knocking out a lot of guys, especially the young and inexperienced kids.
In my case I went through a whole week of this. Then finally you look and find that you are left with four guys in your division. You had beaten everybody, and they say you could go home for about four days while they make up the program, so when you came back that following I guess Tuesday, the program would have all four of the guys’ pictures and everything in it. Then all four guys would have to fight that night to finally see who was going to be the number one fighter in the United States of America as a Golden Glover. That was a very tough thing, not just physically but mentally. I know going into the second fight, I broke my nose in the fight, and my nose was very badly damaged and the doctors told me I should not even fight. But I had to go through the tournament still with that nose like that because I had no choice, and a lot of guys were fighting with hand injuries and other stuff.
The Importance of a Strong Amateur Background:
There is a certain amount of toughness that you develop mentally and physically when you go through tournaments at that level, and that’s why I’ve always felt that guys who had good amateur boxing backgrounds was always very important. It’s not so much about winning or losing, but when a guy has done that for several years and been down that stretch and always been in the finals or semi-finals it’s important. That’s what I like about that kid Garcia who just won the junior welterweight championship. He may not have been a big standout fighter, but he was always winning those amateur tournaments. As a result I’ve had a lot of respect for any kid who goes to amateur tournaments and continually performs well, because it’s purist so to say when it comes down to the competition.
You throw your name in the bracket, you go to your hotel room, and the next morning you come down and they got all of the brackets right there. This guy’s fighting this guy, and that guy’s fighting that guy, and you can see all the way to the end who’s going to be fighting for the championship, the winner of this fight and the winner of that. And there is no politics. You can’t pick and choose the way you do in professional boxing. I mean you have to go just the way the pairings go. But in professional boxing the most important person is usually either your promoter or your manager, or sometimes your network. In amateur boxing it’s really on a square level. You really get the best fighting the best.
The Decline of American Amateur Boxing:
Now it’s changed in the last twenty years or so, and it’s gotten to be one of the most disgusting and embarrassing things in the world when it comes down to the international level. You’ll see it in fights where officials are even admitting that they are selling, like the Roy Jones situation. It was twenty years later or whatever it was, the guy admitted that he was paid to rob Roy Jones. I guess in our recent Olympics there was some of the same thing. I don’t even watch the international amateur boxing any more.
The whole amateur boxing scene has just lost its flavor for lots of reasons now. First of all, you don’t get televised fights in amateur boxing anymore, and this is where a lot of your top recruits came from. You either saw something on TV, or you saw Sugar Ray Leonard winning the Gold Medal. That’s what motivated me. I wanted to get into amateur boxing. You don’t really see that any more. The guys who were on the Olympic Team this year from America, I don’t think I ever saw any of them in a full amateur fight, and I’m embarrassed to say that because there is no television that shows amateur boxing any more. Back in the 70s you had ABC’s Wide World of Sports, NBC sometimes, CBS Sports Spectacular, and I remember on two or three occasions working the corner with Sugar Ray Leonard when I was one of the American coaches. All of the guys back then—Michael Dokes, the Spinks brothers, Howard Davis—and by the time that those guys fought for the Olympic Trials, which were even televised, then they went onto the Olympics and they were like household names already. The star of the Olympics, to some degree back then, was the American boxing team and maybe track I would say. But boxing was right up there as one of the top sports.
Now nobody even knows who the team members are, first of all. You very seldom even get to see the bouts, and when they did have them on it was like at 2 o’clock in the morning. In this last Olympics I didn’t even know when the fights were on. Somebody would call and tell me and I would tune in, and I wouldn’t have even known there was boxing on at all. I had no interest in it at all, and it was just totally the opposite. It’s almost like they don’t even have an interest in boxing anymore in America, and the television just totally got away from amateur boxing.
When I was the National Director of Coaching for the USA amateur boxing program, I think it was around 2002-2003, one of the biggest problems we had in addition to that was it was just a totally dysfunctional organization. That’s just a fact. I’m not even going into details, but there was just no money up front. When they had international tournaments and America doesn’t show up and doesn’t even compete, all of the other countries, not just one or two, they all have an attitude.
“Why do the rich Americans have their noses stuck up in the air? They don’t even feel that it’s worth their time to come and participate in this tournament that we’re having over here”.
Nobody is going to believe that America doesn’t have any money to send a team, but that’s the truth, and as a result all of the other countries are anti-America. So regardless of who you’re fighting, they’re all against America as a general rule. That’s totally inexcusable. The program up there is in total disarray.
Myself, I just feel that if a kid needs to get amateur experience, then I’m not worried about him winning Gold Medals. Don’t even worry about winning national titles anymore. After you get a certain amount, 30 or 40 or 50 amateur fights, if you can win a title or two, fine. If not, go ahead and turn professional. I don’t even put that much value particularly on winning Gold Medals anymore. You can look at what happened to Andre Ward. He was one of the best amateur fighters we have ever had, and coming up from the amateurs I think he only got something like a $100,000 signing bonus. One of the reasons was because nobody really even knew who he was, even though he won the Gold Medal and was still one of the best fighters in the world. He just never got any exposure when he was fighting during the Olympics, when compared to the guys from the ’84 Olympics, and to some degree the ’88 Olympics. I think the last “organized Olympics” that had any organization qualities to me, was probably ’88. Then we got down to ’92, and then ’96, and then after that it got to be a little worse.
Floyd Mayweather was I guess a victim of a close decision in ’96. If he was given any fair break he probably also been a Gold Medal winner also in the Olympics in ’96. But that’s when I really found out that Floyd Mayweather could fight. He was maybe accused of picking and choosing as a professional, but I remember he was fighting a guy named Augie Sanchez in the final Olympic box-off, which was life and death. It was a fight situation where Floyd had to just fight. He couldn’t win this fight with Augie Sanchez by outboxing Augie. He actually had to stand toe-to-toe to pull it out, and he did it! That is why I always said regardless of what he may do as a professional, I know as an amateur if he had to dig down deep, he could do it! He went on, as we know, to become one of the great fighters.
But right now, starting with the 2000 Olympics and 2004, there has been a steady decline.
The 1984 US Olympic Team:
Actually in the 70s I spent a lot of time helping them put together the Olympic training camps, and right now there are almost no camps that are set up properly. In fact the ’84 Olympic Team, which I really had six guys who trained with me in preparation for the Olympics from like ’83 to ’84, which was: Pernell Whitaker, who was here in Detroit and moved here; Mark Breland; we had Jerry Page, who was Hilmer Kenty’s brother-in-law, my champion; and naturally Frank Tate; Tyrell Biggs; and Steve McCrory.
Anyway I had six guys here. What I did was I had these guys training with professional fighters all of the time, because I knew the Cubans were going to be our toughest enemy. They were really professional fighters, and we did extremely well against them. We actually left directly from here at the Kronk Gym and went and fought internationally without even going to the training camps on a few occasions, and the Olympic Committee did not have any complaints because we were winning. During the pre-Olympic years, like from ’82 to ’84, I know I had about five or six international trips that I probably went on, and during those trips I had Pernell, and Mark Breland, and so many other fighters that did extremely well. Some of the fighters that some guys had lost to, they beat later on when we had the pre-Olympic fights in California on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, at the Sports Arena. Because we got used to the international system, the guys got to be mentally and physically very comfortable, whereas guys going for their first time were not used to this. You have to adjust to every level in life that you go through and get a comfort level before you can be effective.
I remember in June of ’84 on a show that we had in California as I mentioned earlier, we had Tyrell Biggs fighting Teofilo Stevenson. Stevenson had knocked out Biggs before that, but in preparation for this Biggs had relocated here to Detroit and he was training everyday with Tony Tucker! I think that was appropriate because those Cubans are professional fighters. They are guys who go from one tournament to another beating up our kids, but that I’ll get back to later. Anyway back to their other fight, Tyrell loses a close decision. I remember Frank Tate surprised everyone by defeating the Cuban to win the ‘World Championship’ as they called it. I remember Pernell Whitaker being dropped in the first round, and Pernell came back and beat the Cuban kid. Mark Breland, who statistic-wise has still got to be the greatest amateur boxer ever in American history—Mark Breland defeated his guy, and I think it was the same guy who fought Ray Leonard in fact. We just had an overall good time, and Medric Taylor was just a 17 year old kid from Philadelphia who came in at the last minute, and he scored an upset and beat a Cuban.
Then when the Olympics started in August, the Cubans pulled out! So everyone was saying, “Oh well America had so many Gold Medals, but they wouldn’t have had this or that if the Cubans would have been there”. I think differently. We had a good test with them, and I think even Biggs himself, by the time that August came would have beaten Stevenson, even. The point is the kids had a lot of pre-Olympic international experience. So they were very comfortable in those situations. Now the kids, some of them are fighting in the Olympics and it’s the first time they ever fought internationally in their lives. You just can’t do that, and with the program I don’t see it too much right now.
Claressa Shields Winning the Gold Medal:
The fact that the only Gold Medal winner we had at the recent Olympics was Claressa Shields, which I saw quite a few of her amateur shows around here, and she would always be out there and was often frustrated because she couldn’t get anyone to fight. What was amazing about her is that she is one of those exceptional, exceptional athletes. I don’t think it says anything great about our program. She had so much fire and determination in addition to skills that she just came through, regardless. You come across that once in awhile. I don’t think it’s anything reflective of anything good about our amateur program. I think it was just one of those situations where we ran across one of those rare athletes like her.
I remember a similar situation in 1968 when they were having a tournament in Maumee, Ohio, which is a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. At that time I had quit boxing completely. I know a lot of people don’t realize that. I guess from ‘64 to ’69 I was totally out of boxing, but anyway I was working for Detroit Edison as an electrician. I asked a friend of mine, I said, “How is that tournament going down there?” It was the National AAU tournament, which was a qualifying tournament for the Olympic Trials.
He said, “We got a couple of good exciting fighters down there. We got a real sharp boxer named Ronnie Harris from Ohio, and we got that kid named Al Jones”, who was from Detroit. He was a very rough tough left-handed guy. He said, “But the funniest thing is we got a big clumsy heavyweight kid, I think from the Job Corps. He’s about 19 years old or something. He’s just so mean and determined”. He said, “He will miss a punch, spin all the way around, and still hit the guy with the punch. He’s falling all over the place, but he’s winning the fights because he’s just so mean and has so much fire inside him”.
So I went down and watched one of the fights, and I couldn’t believe it! No skills at all, but he was so determined and mean. Next thing I knew, I’m looking on TV a few months later and this is the Olympic Gold Medal winner. He hadn’t improved that much and still, I realized later on that this was only about his twentieth fight then. So all of his fights were just in those tournaments, but the point is sometimes you run across some athletes who are just exceptionally determined, and they have so much fire inside of them that it will take them to victory. That’s what made George Foreman not only one of the greatest fighters ever, but it helped him come back at the age of 40-something. Even in the fight with Michael Moorer, if you look at that man’s eyes, he’s a mean tough man! Forget about all of the smiles and everything, and the deals with the grill and stuff. When it comes down to being in that ring, George Foreman is one of the meanest men to have ever been in the ring. Believe me.
The point with Claressa is she came through, against all odds, because of her exceptional toughness. When they interviewed her, I saw her on one of the news shows, and they asked her what was her secret to winning. She said, “I just like to beat people up. I like beating up other girls”. That really was the truth. That’s what carried her through, but it was in no way reflective of something good about our program. It shows just how bad our program was, but it was a great situation for women’s boxing. Not only was it the first time ever that a woman won a Gold Medal, but she was the only American who won in boxing, and the fact that she is just 17 years old.
She’s exceptional, but I think the overall picture is that amateur boxing is not good in the United States any more.
The Greatest Amateur Boxers:
I’ve been fortune enough to see and work the corner with a lot of the great amateur boxers over maybe the last 30 or 40 years. I would say Mark Breland is the best simply because of just the record alone. Mark Breland’s legitimate record, I don’t know, I think it consisted of almost 120 fights, and these are not just fabricated. I mean his fights were mainly in New York and places where they were well documented, and he only lost one fight, and that was a close fight and he reversed that fight. I was with him in a lot of fights where he was fighting the best fighters in the world and I’ve never seen anyone that won fights and made them look so simple. He had such great punching power with those skinny little arms. He would be just moving, or he would be slipping-and-sliding, and all of a sudden you see guys hit the floor. You would think it was a slip or something, but the guy would actually be hurt or knocked out.
But I think his record internationally and with the New York Golden Gloves, and I know I was with him for about five international matches and never saw him lose—I don’t think anybody will ever top that. You know we can talk about other things, but statistically what you got to look at is that his statistics were compiled in a lot of top amateur tournaments: the National Golden Gloves, the National ABF, every kind of big tournament you can think of, the World Games, the Pan Am Games, and the Olympics. So that’s why I would say statistically he was the greatest US amateur boxer ever.
As far as talent, I would say the most impressive I ever saw of maybe any fighter I ever had was Howard Davis, who was on the 1976 Olympic Team. He was what we would just call a “Boxing Machine”. That was the way he was referred. He would do everything so automatically: switching, moving from left to right hand, punching, moving, slipping, and sliding. I know in 1978 I was one of the coaches in the World Games, which were in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and I was just shocked!
I said, “Look at all of these European fighters all fighting like Howard Davis”!
I did not realize at the time, the great impact that he had and the impression he had, during that Olympics in Montreal. Even the coaches and boxers, they went back to their countries trying to emulate Howard Davis. That’s the kind of impact that he had on boxing.
But to me the best just all around guy to some degree, who can never be overlooked, and I was able to work with him fortunately as an amateur. In May of ’76 he actually came and trained at the Kronk Gym with us for a month in order to make the Olympic Team: The great Sugar Ray Leonard. Ray Leonard as an amateur boxer, and I know this is going to sound crazy to a lot of people, was maybe better than he was as a professional. I would always tell Marvin and Tommy that. As an amateur boxer, Ray Leonard was physically very strong. He was a good boxer. He could punch, whereas in his professional career he was most of the time fighting with sore hands. I remember in a lot of fights that I was with him or just watching, he would always come out and close the show. That was a thing that I knew. Even in the fight where he lost to Duran the first time.
He always had unbelievable stamina for a guy who had this baby face and didn’t look so physical, but he could be an extremely physical fighter. In the amateur tournaments he was stopping guys. I mean I saw him break one guy’s nose with a jab, and this was a tournament of top fighters. I told Tommy it was going to be a hard fight because Ray has unbelievable strength, both mentally and physically. Going down the stretch whether it was the Hagler fight, or both of the fights with Hearns even, Ray would always come out and close the show down, but physically he was a very strong kid also, too. So as an amateur he could do what he had to do, and could make adjustments and change his style completely whenever he wanted to.
Speaking of great amateur boxers, there is one that I almost forgot that I would definitely say was one of my favorites who I loved to watch, was a guy named Ronnie Shields. Ronnie never did make it big professionally, I think a lot because he didn’t get anyone to really manage, and care for him, and move him properly, but as an amateur boxer he was phenomenal! He was like just a picture book boxer with the hands up, the movement, the balance, and the precision punches. He was like an example of a perfect boxer. I remember he beat Tommy Hearns in ’75 in one of the amateur tournaments. The year before that in 1974 was the first time I ever saw him. It was a Junior Olympic tournament in Peoria, Illinois and I had a kid named Bernard Mays, and Bernard Mays won the most outstanding fighter in the division in lightweight, which was up to like up until 112 pounds because Bernard was only like 106. Then the next most outstanding fighter award to a guy named Ronnie Shields.
I hadn’t paid much attention to him, and then I saw him nationally the next year in a tournament and he beat Tommy Hearns, and he went on to win that tournament. Then actually in ’76 in the National Golden Gloves, he and Ray Leonard were going to be fighting each other in the semi-finals I think, or the quarter-finals. Ray pulled out. Ray said his hand was hurt or whatever injury he had, but at that time I’ll be very honest with you, I think Ronnie had a good chance of even beating Ray. That’s how good he was. So when Ronnie went back home as a teenager and just went to school and didn’t spend much time in international matches. When he did fight for the final Olympic trials I think in June, Ray Leonard beat him. Ray had come and trained here in Detroit at the Kronk Gym, and he had about six fights, and Ray had gotten sharper and beat Ronnie. But at that time from ’74 until really the first half of ’76, Ronnie Shields was one of the best boxing machines I have ever seen. He never mentions it as a trainer, but I tell his fighters often when I see them. I say, “If you can ever get some tapes and watch your trainer when he was boxing, you will see what a beautiful boxing machine is supposed to look like”.
I saw a lot of amateur boxers, but I think to me, those would be the tops that I got to see myself.
Teofilo Stevenson & Cuba’s Boxing Program:
Also, for just all around greatness, I have to mention Teofilo Stevenson, particularly the one of ’72 when I first saw him fight. He was a tall rangy skinny kid fighting guy named Duane Bobick, who was our American and a big favorite. This tall skinny kid from Cuba outboxed him and then knocked him out. Even though Stevenson went on to win other Gold Medals, and was a legend, and I got to be a personal friend of his, too—but I still never looked at it the way I did in ’72, because what it was, he was like a professional fighter. When we bring up a young John Tate, and another kid, it’s like as soon as the Olympics are over with, other foreign countries start preparing for the Olympics again, at least up until just a few years ago.
Let’s say you have a kid that’s 14 years old, like a John Tate who’s just learning how to box in 1972. In the ’76 Olympics, here’s Stevenson who has already won an Olympic Gold Medal and he’s had maybe another 100 fights since that Olympics. He’s coming back and we’re sending our new inexperienced kid, so he knocks him out. In the next Olympics we send out a new inexperienced kid, and he knocks him out. So he’s just a professional fighter fighting inexperienced kids that we’re sending over there.
That’s why I felt so good in ’84 when I had kids that I was working with a lot, even though I wasn’t the official coach. But these were kids I trained. They held up very good against the Cuban Team because they were used to boxing with professional men. Stevenson won a lot of other things, but a lot of it was that he was just a big, powerful, experienced man. We were sending kids who four years before the Olympics, were fighting in the Junior Olympic program as a little 14 or 15 year old kid. Then here he is, 48 months later when he’s 18 or 19, he’s in there with a guy who was a Gold Medal winner when he was just in the Junior Olympics.
As soon as those guys would leave from the Olympics, they got back home with their national team and they started preparing for the next Olympics. They had their schedule already laid out. I was talking to the Cuban coach and he would say, “We have the schedule laid out, and we have 22 international events, and we’re going to be in this country, and that country, so we already have our schedule with our own same fighters preparing for the next Olympics”.
Meanwhile we got our little kids here just in high school without any basic program of any type, and they got to fight these guys all of a sudden. That’s why I’ve always felt they deserve a lot of credit, but then in the recent tournament last year they didn’t do too well, and I think a lot of that started in 1996 with Wladimir Klitschko. He said if he had been like most of the fighters who had won Gold Medals from Europe, they want him to start preparing for the next Olympics. He won the Gold Medal in ’96 in Atlanta, and naturally they wanted him to come back from the Ukraine and start preparing for the next Olympics, because he was only 20. He decided he wanted to fight professionally, so he was trying to seek a promoter. He tried to go to Don King first, and that didn’t work out, so he ended up in Hamburg, Germany and that’s where I first met him and Vitali. He was talking to a guy named Klaus-Peter Kohl about possibly being a promoter, and that’s how they ended up signing with him and relocating their careers to Hamburg, Germany at that time.
But then other fighters from Europe wanted to follow him. Povetkin and Ibragimov, all of those guys wanted to be like Wladimir Klitschko. That’s why all of them, even still, he is their hero and that’s why with a lot of them it’s hard for them to even fight him. But he was the one who started the change up with the European fighters turning professional, and not staying in the amateurs like they used to do. Then in the last Olympics before this, the Cuban coach was complaining, “Well, my team didn’t do too well because I have new kids. They don’t have much experience”.
The fact was they now had to play on the same playing field that other countries have been playing on for years! Like in America, after the Olympics our kids turn professional! They don’t hang around for another Olympics. So he had a bunch of “new fighters” so to say. They only had 100 or 200 fights, so to him that was like they were too green and they got beat. He didn’t have those fighters with the 300 and 400 fights still there. A lot of people talked about how good the Cuban fighters were, but I never looked at it that way. I looked at it that they were just experienced fighters.
When Gamboa and those guys left, then you had a whole influx of them just like when you had the Klitschkos make the European fighters think of not going back to prepare for the next Olympics. The biggest thing then was to be on the national team. That was the pride and joy of everything. Once these guys saw these other guys leave like the Klitschkos left and become rich and famous in professional boxing, it happened in Cuba, too! When Gamboa and those guys and Lara started leaving, then you saw an influx of them doing the same thing and you saw a decline in the dominance of Cuba in boxing. That’s why people go on so much about these great coaches from Cuba. I never knocked them, but I never was that impressed. If I had the same professional fighters going back to these tournaments year after year fighting a bunch of kids, then I would be dominant too!
The first time I saw Pernell Whitaker I think he was about 13 years old in a tournament they used to have called the Ohio State Fair. It was a little tournament where everybody in the eastern part of the country would come to, and he won the tournament. I never paid much attention to him. Then when he came to me in ’83 to train for the next year to prepare for the Olympics, his style was just where you didn’t pay much attention to him. He was just so smooth, nothing flashy. We had a big show in Japan. I mean there were very, very good fighters that they brought. It was supposed to be with the Japanese Team, but instead they switched on us and brought the Korean fighters, because the Koreans were supposed to be much tougher than the Japanese. So Mark Breland and Pernell ended up with guys who were supposed to be from Japan, but they were Koreans. But he made the fight so easy. You still, at least I didn’t, I didn’t pay that much attention.
So now finally it was on a Sunday afternoon, and Hector Camacho was training here in Detroit. For his first thirteen fights or so, his manager Billy Giles always brought him here to the Kronk Gym to train, and he was boxing with Jimmy Paul and all of the lightweight kids at the time.
So on this particular Sunday, Billy called me up and said, “Emanuel, Camacho needs some sparring”.
I said, “Well I don’t have anyone on hand”. I said, “Wait a minute! Pernell just got here, because he just came here from Virginia” and this was like 11 or 12 o’clock. I said, “But he just got in this morning”.
So I called him up and said, “Hey Pernell, do you want to go to the gym around 1 o’clock maybe and box with Camacho for a bit?”
He said, “Okay”.
Camacho was red hot at that time, and the gym was jam-packed on that particular Sunday because I had Mark Breland and all of the guys were here training for an international tournament coming up. I was shocked! All of us watched and our mouths dropped open. He beat Camacho so easily. He was just slipping and sliding punches. It was nothing flashy. He was moving just enough to make Camacho miss, and then he was always back in perfect position to punch. It was just like I couldn’t believe it as good as Camacho was. He won so easily. He just played with him virtually, and actually we ended up where a fight broke out afterwards. After the workout of about three rounds, Camacho tried to grab him and choke him after the bell. He was so frustrated in the gym with everybody looking at him, and then Billy Giles and I almost got into it. It was a big mess at the gym and we had to break it up.
Afterwards Camacho came in to my locker room and talked to me. He said, “Emanuel, I apologize for what happened and I apologize for Billy and you getting into it, too”. He said, “I was just so frustrated. I just couldn’t do anything with him”.
That’s the first time that I really, really looked at Pernell Whitaker in all that time I had been with him, because he doesn’t do anything flashy. That was the first time I really could appreciate his talent. He went on to be a professional the same way. A lot of guys try to emulate him, but there will never be another Pernell Whitaker. He makes everything look so smooth, because he used the minimum amount of effort to make you miss a punch but he was always in a position to punch back, and he had great, great instincts of knowing what punch to throw at what particular time. Especially when you look at his size, it’s amazing. But he was a very talented fighter, and I was very fortunate to have him at the gym at the same time I had Mark Breland and Frank Tate. It was just a good time for me in amateur boxing.
Roy Jones Junior:
When I saw Roy Jones as an amateur I thought he was definitely going to be what he turned out to be. Very few people realize that I actually signed Roy Jones to his first professional manager contract. I spent almost all of December 1988 down in Pensacola, Florida. Roy had made the arrangements. We made up the contract and he signed it, but just as we were completing the deal I then realized that there was a very major problem between him and his Daddy. I never had known that all that time. It came up and as a result, knowing that I had a fighter that was going to be one of the greatest fighters ever, because he was electrifying! I walked away from that and left, and Roy went on after messing around for a year or two with his father and other situations, he finally broke away himself and became what he was meant to be.
What was interesting about Roy, Roy in every tournament as a kid from the juniors to the Olympics, Roy wanted to turn the show out. He was always the star. I mean he never got a chance to fight a whole lot of international matches, but I thought he looked electrifying in winning the Gold Medal, even though they wouldn’t give it to him. I remember the Olympic Trials and all of the bouts leading up to that. He was electrifying! He never wanted to just win. He wanted to have everybody talking about Roy Jones Junior after the show. I mean he had one very hard fight with Gerald McClellan in the semi-finals of the National Golden Gloves I think in ’88. Gerald won the fight. It was a close fight. Gerald at the time was a stronger body puncher and that was the difference. Gerald ended up winning that fight, but the next day he was so exhausted that the next day in the finals he lost himself. But I watched Roy, and I saw Roy just had a certain show quality about him even in that fight. He was determined to be the talk of the tournament whenever he fought anywhere, and Ray Leonard had that same type of approach. Roy Jones I could see was going to be an all time great fighter.
Good Amateurs who Became Outstanding Professionals:
It’s strange that you mention that, but one of them that I know a little bit more about than almost anybody was a guy Thomas Hearns. Thomas Hearns was a good amateur. He went to the national tournaments I guess in about ’73 when he was just a little kid about 14. Then in 1977 he finally won a national championship, but up until then he was always good, but he would get to the semi-finals, or the finals when he lost to Pryor. Then all of a sudden in ’77 something happened. It was the first year that he moved up a division to 139 and he did grow about three inches in height. So I think his strength came. In that year ’77 he won everything, and fought a rematch with Ronnie Shields, who had beaten him in ’75, and he beat Ronnie. Then once he turned professional he just changed into a totally different fighter. I mean he became a good boxer, a good punch, and an all the way around goo technician.
Ronnie, like I said, was one of the best amateurs I ever saw. He just I think never got the right people managing him and moving his career along. Then you had another guy like Aaron Pryor, who was always a good amateur but he never really could get over the big hump, mainly because of Howard Davis. Then you saw what Aaron Pryor turned out to be as a professional, and Howard who, like I said, was a machine. He got the most outstanding fighter award in the Olympics and everything. I just thought once again, he was held back in the pros because of management.
Amateur Success vs. Professional Success:
To be a good amateur fighter you have to really be good. To be a good professional fighter you got to have a good promoter or manager. So the real top skill level a lot of time really is in amateur boxing. I look at how in basketball and football, if one team and another team win a certain amount they go to the playoffs. There is no picking and choosing. But in professional boxing, you don’t have to play this team if you don’t like this team. You can do that if you have a good promoter or manager. I think it’s very difficult to be a good amateur boxer, but a lot of the good ones don’t make the transition to the professionals. It’s a very strange thing, but there are a lot of different situations that turn up.
That’s why I never turned professional. With all of the fights I had, I knew I was a good fighter and I went as far as I could go in the United States as an amateur boxer. But to turn professional and go to the top, it would require having the right people behind you as a manager or promoter, people who sit down and make the decisions. I couldn’t find that so I just walked away from my dream, but I put a lot of value on having a good promoter and a good manager. We saw what they did with Joe Louis even, after losing to Max Schmelling how they still eventually got the shot for Joe, and after everything was properly set up then they brought Schmelling back for the rematch. It’s so important!
Today I feel so sorry for the kids who fight in the amateurs for so long, even when they come from the Olympics. Half of the kids, they sent me a post card of the United States Olympic Team, and I didn’t even recognize hardly anyone. I mean the super heavyweight got a lot of publicity because of I guess being a part of Michael King’s amateur program. I saw Breazeale once on TV for a minute talking, not fighting. And the girl who won the championship, Claressa, I saw her just because she’s from Michigan. I would see her at the amateur tournaments all the time, usually frustrated because she couldn’t fight. But other than that, with those kids on the team I hardly recognized any of them! And that’s terrible for somebody to be in my position in boxing to not even recognize the stars of our Olympic Team. So we got to start doing something better, and it’s not going to be easy. I don’t see any quick fix for it right now. I think it needs a complete overhaul where everything is changed from the top level.
To contact Geoffrey Ciani: