“I mean in 1981 as a kid I was reading about Emanuel in a magazine and watching that big fight, and then years later whatever it was, here he was working my corner in the gym”—Iceman John Scully
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani: – This is Part Two of an ongoing series dedicated to the memory and legacy of one extraordinary individual, Emanuel Steward, whose contributions to the sport he loved are simply immense. In this installment, trainer Iceman John Scully provided his perspective and shared some of his experiences with the legendary Hall of Fame trainer. Here is a complete transcript from my discussion with Iceman Scully:
GEOFFREY CIANI: John, a week and a half ago was a very sad day for the boxing world, and we lost a remarkable individual when Emanuel Steward passed away. As a trainer, a commentator, and an overall ambassador for the sport of boxing, when you think of Emanuel Steward what do you think of his impact on the sport and his legacy?
JOHN SCULLY: I mean I’ll tell you when I first started boxing, when I first started getting involved in boxing as a fan as a kid, he was one of the premiere trainers at the time. It was the late 70s and in the early 80s. So he had Hilmer Kenty and Tommy Hearns at that time, and the Hearns-Leonard fight was a huge part of my youth in boxing. So I’ve obviously been very, very aware of Emanuel since that time, and what’s funny is it just dawned on me the other day. After he passed away and I read one of his obituaries, it dawned on me one of his amazing feats is that when Leonard and Hearns fought the first time, Emanuel was only in like his mid 30s at the time as his trainer. He was training the beast that was Tommy Hearns in that huge fight, the trainer was only I think 37 or whatever he was at the time. I think he was 37. So putting that in perspective, I mean that’s pretty amazing in itself what he was able to accomplish at such a young age.
And for me it’s a loss. It’s obviously a loss for boxing in general, but for me because I had just really—like I first met him 1987. I first saw him at the Ohio State Fair amateur boxing tournament in Ohio where I actually beat one of his fighters early in the tournament. Then years later I got to know him, and work with him with HBO, and in fights, and I actually was in training camp with him. I had a fighter sparring with Wladimir Klitschko about four years ago. A funny story about that is in camp one of Emanuel’s super middleweights was there and he didn’t have any sparring, and I was there with one of my fighters, a cruiserweight that was fighting with Wladimir. And his super middleweight didn’t have any sparring, so I asked him if he would mind if I would work with the guy.
So he’s like, “Alright! Yeah, we’ll put you in”.
So we ended up working two days in a row, and Emanuel was working my corner for the sparring, and it was actually real good sparring and Emanuel was into it! He was getting into it and giving me instructions like it was a real fight. I just remember standing there actually listening to him, and I just thought it was so surreal because it seemed just like yesterday I was reading—there was a magazine out in 1981 called Inside Sports. It was a real big magazine at the time, and there was an article about the two trainers for the Leonard-Hearns fight: Angelo Dundee and Emanuel Steward. So there was a big article about Emanuel, and I still have it. I actually still have the issue. So it just seemed like I made a big jump. I mean in 1981 as a kid I was reading about Emanuel in a magazine and watching that big fight, and then years later whatever it was, here he was working my corner in the gym.
You know that was one of my probably happiest moments and surreal moments of my entire time in boxing. I’m really glad that that actually came to pass.
CIANI: One of the things Emanuel has always told me was as a trainer, his proudest moment was the Holyfield-Bowe rematch where he actually trained Evander to avenge the first fight—a fight I know you were in attendance there for the first fight. I know you were on the undercard there.
CIANI: But in terms of that, did you ever think having such a good view of their first fight, did you ever think that Holyfield would be able to win that rematch with Bowe? And how much of an impact do you think Emanuel had on the result of that fight?
SCULLY: Oh! I’d say Emanuel was a huge factor, especially when you consider that was the only one of the three that Evander won. I remember at the time, it’s funny because I’m actually not a fan of Evander’s at all. I don’t really particularly care for Evander Holyfield to be honest with you, and I’m friends with Bowe. I mean Bowe and I, we were amateurs together and to this day we still text each other and we’re in touch. I’m much more of a fan and friend to Riddick Bowe. But I remember that night, I actually fought that night in Boston and they showed the fight on a big screen. After the main card was over, the live card, they showed Bowe-Holyfield II. I just remember being kind of caught up in Holyfield just because the way he was boxing, and the techniques he was using, and the heart he was showing. Even though I didn’t care for him very much and I was friends with Riddick, I was actually inspired by Holyfield that night because he was beating the bigger man, and a guy that I thought was going to be an all time great heavyweight in Riddick. I think listening to Emanuel, listening to his recaps of that fight and talking about things they worked on, it’s very clear that he was an instrumental part of that victory.
CIANI: That’s just one example of the success he had over the years in heavyweight championship fights where he had an impeccable record. I’m just curious John, Emanuel always focused on balance, footwork, working behind a solid jab—those were integral parts of his boxing philosophy. What do you think it was about him that enabled him to have so much success in heavyweight title fights?
SCULLY: You know I mean he certainly had a good group of guys to work with. That didn’t hurt obviously, but it’s just in all weight classes. He’s just a good boxing mind. The reason those guys called him—you know there’s a reason. They called him for a specific reason. They saw the work he did with lighter guys like with Tommy Hearns. I think his philosophy really bode well, especially for bigger guys like when he worked with Lennox. With the mindset, I think Lennox needed a guy like Emanuel to dig him out of it, and the same thing with Klitschko. I think he brings out, from my experience in just listening to him in between rounds of their fights, I think he brings out more of them than maybe a lot of other guys would, because he can relate to the fighters. He has that kind of Detroit attitude. I think he maintained that Kronk Gym attitude that he brings with him when he works with everyone else, and those guys in particular I think benefited from it.
CIANI: Now you mentioned in some of your formative years in boxing how the Leonard-Hearns fight was big for you. When you think of the whole duo of Emanuel Steward and Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, what are some of your fondest memories there and what did you think of that trainer/fighter relationship?
SCULLY: Oh, I mean it was a special time in boxing for them to come, and early on I remember reading about how Tommy was huge in Detroit. Detroit was and is still a very oppressed area, and they were looking for somebody. And Tommy came along and he electrified the city, and I think he had with a lot of the poorer kids in the city, he gave them hope and he brought things up, and Emanuel was obviously right there with him. So that was what I call a magical time in boxing: the rise of Tommy Hearns.
I remember Emanuel used to take out an ad in boxing magazines back then. It was a full page ad. It was run in like every issue of KO Magazine, and I think Ring Magazine carried it. And what it was, was literally a full page of little pictures. They had Tommy at the top, and then I think Milt McCrory was right underneath him, and just below it there was more pictures, and there was like 30 pictures just of Kronk fighters, and it was like an All Star lineup. It was Mike McCallum, and Dwight Braxton, and Steve McCrory, and Hurley Snead, and Ricky Womack, and Frank Tate, and it was just endless. It was almost like showing off in a way. They had this ad with the address to the gym and the phone numbers and the contact information, and it was just like man! These guys could have their own league among themselves. I mean the sparring in that gym must have just been beyond belief; I mean a boxing fan’s dream. The things that Emanuel saw and the fighters that he was able to work with on a consistent daily basis, I don’t think any gym before or since can equal that. People talk about it. I mean you got the Wild Card, and you got different gyms, but I don’t think there’s a gym in the history of the world that can match the Kronk Gym in the late 70s and early 80s. The kind of sparring and workouts that were going on there was untouchable.
CIANI: In recent years, the last ten years in particular, Emanuel was most visible to boxing fans in his role as HBO’s Boxing Expert Analyst. In terms of Emanuel’s career as a commentator, how will you remember him John from that capacity?
SCULLY: You know he brought something that a lot of announcers can’t bring, because he was a fighter at one time. He was a National Champ. A lot of people don’t know Emanuel was actually a National Champion in 1963, a United States Amateur Champion, which is certainly no easy feat. So he was a boxer. He was in those shoes, and also as a trainer. I mean when you’re in the Kronk Gym and you’re training with Tommy Hearns, and Mark Breland, and Frank Tate, and Steve McCrory, and Mickey Goodwin—you get an insight that very few people, even very few trainers actually get to be among that level of talent day in and day out. I mean you have to be realistic. I mean very few guys get that opportunity. So when Emanuel Steward gives you outlooks and insight on HBO, you’re getting something gold. You’re getting the equivalent of gold. I always listened. I always appreciated talking to him in person. The same way I listened to him on TV, I appreciated talking to him in person, and just trying to pick up little things. I’d ask him questions and for advice, and a little advice about training techniques and things like that, because I know! He’s seen things that most trainers would dream of seeing.
CIANI: You mentioned his Amateur Championship from 1963, and like you said, that’s something a lot of fans don’t know a lot about. With your decorated background and experience in boxing in the amateurs, the professional ranks, and training—can you give the fans out there an idea? You know fans that aren’t familiar with the amateurs. They hear this guy won a Golden Glove from this region, and from that region. How significant was the victory Emanuel won when he won the National Tournament of Champions Golden Gloves Title in 1963?
SCULLY: I mean that’s the highest level. I mean basically the United States is broken up into sections, regions. It’s like Major League Baseball. You have a team from Boston, you have a team from New York, you have a couple of teams from California, you have teams from all over the country. They all play each other. They’re constantly playing against each other, and then once a year they break it down, and they keep eliminating people, and they eliminate teams, and they eliminate teams until there are only two teams left, and then those teams fight for the World Series championship. That’s basically what happens in amateur boxing every year. Every boxer in every weight class across the country from California to Maine, they fight each other in their regions, and they keep eliminating each other. If they start out with 400 welterweights, at the end of it they’re going to end up with just one. There’s only going to be one, and he was I believe a bantamweight in 1963 and he was the one guy left.
CIANI: John, in regards to his current champion Wladimir Klitschko, who has a fight actually coming up this weekend, he was a guy who after suffering a devastating knockout loss to Corrie Sanders, and then losing to Lamon Brewster in his first pairing with Emanuel Steward, their very first fight together. I remember that was just a few short years ago. Everybody had written Wladimir Klitschko off at that point and everybody was big on Vitali. Emanuel never gave up on Wladimir. Are you surprised with the way Wladimir, after suffering the type of losses he did, was able to go on, him and Emanuel, to have this dominant reign where at this point Wladimir looks virtually invincible?
SCULLY: Yeah. I mean with any trainer, as great as any trainer is, I mean he’s only as good as what he has to work with. There are just certain fighters out there, most fighters out there in the world today, you can have the three greatest trainers of all-time all training him and he would probably never be a world champion. So you’re only as good as what you have to work with. I’m sure Emanuel saw, he obviously saw something in Wladimir that caused the loss and believed he could fix it, and he believed in Wladimir when a lot of people didn’t. You have to give him credit for that, because I remember my feeling at the time was Wladimir just didn’t have the durability and that he was just going to get knocked out again, probably two more times and then he was going to retire. At that time, if you told me this is what it was going to be like all these years later for him, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. So for him to be in this position is pretty incredible, and now it’s gotten to the point where you just feel like there’s no way this guy can lose. I mean he’s just too big, too focused, in too great of shape, and Emanuel was there with him. I mean Emanuel is the one that you got to give the trainer his due, because like I said I was in their training camp with them that one time. I always observe and see what’s going on, and Emanuel was the orchestrator. Wladimir seemed to listen to him and believed in him, and you know why wouldn’t he? I mean with the guy’s background and history it would be foolish not to.
CIANI: When you think of Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis, and Wladimir, the three signature fighters from Emanuel’s training career—do you think they would have achieved the level of success they celebrated without his guidance? In other words, how integral do you think he was to their success?
SCULLY: I think he was huge. I mean you have to give the fighter credit. You have to. But I do think in those particular instances that he was big. They’ve said as much. Tommy has said as much, and especially with Tommy. I mean he had Tommy since Tommy was a kid. I have pictures of Tommy Hearns when he was like 17 years old in National and International Tournaments with Emanuel having brought him to that point. So I think it’s very fair to say that he is largely responsible, and I’m sure if they could do it over that they wouldn’t do it without him. I’d be pretty sure that they would agree to that.
CIANI: John, just one final question. I was wondering if you had any final thoughts on Emanuel’s legacy in boxing, and any experiences that you’ve had with him, or anything along those lines? Do you have any final thoughts?
SCULLY: A couple. On a personal level I’ll say this. Going back to those sparring sessions I had in Wladimir’s training camp. You know I had boxed like I said with one of his guys, an up and coming prospect, and I boxed really well. And I just remember, especially now that he’s gone, I really appreciated and look back on where he said. There was a t-shirt there. Everybody was wearing these Wladimir Klitschko training camp t-shirts. It was ‘The Official Wladimir Klitschko Training Camp’ shirt.
Like one or two times that day after the sparring, he was like, “Man! You looked so good today. We’re going to have to change the name of the training camp to ‘John Scully Training Camp’. Forget Wladimir!”
And I laughed. It was a nice compliment. It was making me feel good or whatever. But during the course of the next week he must have told like fifteen people in front of me. Like he kept bringing it up, just saying how as a joke like he was going to make it the ‘John Scully Training Camp’. And he actually was talking about getting me a t-shirt with that on it: ‘The Official John Scully Training Camp’ I think it was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I ended up having to leave early and I never got around to getting the shirt from him, and I always wished I would.
And as far as Emanuel as a trainer, people need to realize too, and this is the God’s honest truth: I actually role modeled myself a bit after him, especially when I was coaching amateurs, because I used to read stories about how in the 70s they would go to the Ohio State Fair and different tournaments, and he would drive. I remember this one story where he was saying he had an old car, you know a Chevy or whatever it was. It was a beat up car, and he packed in about seven or eight kids into the car with him driving, and he said often they wouldn’t have any money and they would all have to share. Like they would buy one meal at a restaurant or something, and they would take it to go, and they would take it to the room and they would cut it all up, so everybody would get like two bites of a steak and a mouthful of mashed potatoes, and that kind of thing. And they went there and they all slept in the same room, all the kids in one room, just so they could go to the tournament and fight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that as a coach with kids.
I can remember one tournament we were in, and we must have had seven or eight of us in my car, and every time, I promise you, every time I’ve done that I’ve thought of Emanuel Steward. I remember one time we were in a hotel room in Lake Placid. There was a bunch of us in the room, and I slept on the floor. I gave up the bed and there were like four kids in the bed, and I was sleeping on the floor. I just remember laying there in the dark and I was thinking, “Man! This is what it’s all about. Like this is how you come up in the amateurs”. You know the kids they really want to fight, and they’re just scattered all over the room, with just not a care in the world. They just wanted to box, and I often thought of the Kronk Gym. While I was in those instances I thought of the Kronk Gym and Emanuel Steward. So hearing those stories that he told of those days inspired me a lot, and I still follow that same ideology to this day.
I would like to thank Iceman John Scully for providing his time and insight for this installment
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