Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward knows a thing or two about heavyweight history. Not only does he train reigning heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko (who became champ and had eight successful title defenses since teaming up with Steward), but he also worked with former undisputed heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. Steward also trained many other notable heavyweights, including Evander Holyfield who defeated Riddick Bowe to regain the heavyweight throne and Oliver McCall who Steward trained in his second round knockout victory over Lewis.
I was recently afforded the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with the legendary trainer that focused on the rich history of the heavyweight division. During the hour long conversation, we discussed some of the most decorated personalities the sport has known and touched on some of the more memorable moments. This is part one of a three part series that explores heavyweight history with Emanuel Steward..
Q: A lot of Mike Tyson supporters tend to believe that he was unbeatable during his prime and many maintain he would never have lost a fight if Cus D’Amato had not passed away and some even argue that Tyson was ruined when he parted ways with Kevin Rooney. On the other hand, many of his detractors say he is overrated because he presided over a weak division. In your view, Emanuel, what is the truth about Mike Tyson and his legacy?
A: Well I think there’s definitely a legacy to begin with. I think that Mike Tyson, after Muhammad Ali, has had more of an impact on boxing—in particular heavyweights—than any other fighter I would say in the last twenty years. Tyson came up with the all black stuff on and no socks and that affected so many boxers, really in all weight divisions, where traditionally everybody wore the white stuff because that’s what the Ray Robinsons and Muhammad Ali (were wearing). He just had that much of an impact to the point where, sometimes I’ve trained guys who were 6’3”-6’4” and they start off they’re trying to do the Mike Tyson move, bob and the weave. So he has had a definitely strong impact on boxing—stronger than any other heavyweight I think other than Ali in the recent twenty years.
I think as a fighter he came along at the right time with a lot of guys who were really intimidated—I hate to say it, a lot of them, by him—because most heavyweights have big bodies but very small hearts and that’s why the strong minded guys such as he, Larry Holmes, George Foreman—they dominated the division because they’re strong-minded and strong-willed individuals. But I thought Mike came along at the right time with the speed, the intensity, and he made up for his lack of size by incorporating speed, and that’s what’s always effective, but when he fought the bigger guys who were like 6’4” guys or 6’3 ½” who were not afraid of him, he had problems. So I still have to respect him for what he did to be a little guy, only about 5’10 ½” It’s truly phenomenal. I think he still had his limitations. When he fought the guys like James “Quick” Tillis, my fighter Tony Tucker, I think even “Bonecrusher” (Smith)—these big guys who were not afraid of him and not intimidated, they were effective because he was still a small heavyweight, but all he could do is do what he did. He knocked out people but he did it in such a vicious, cruel manner and the way he came out with the destruct and destroy type attitude, it was just something that people thrived on.
I know, myself, I was up one time on a Friday night having a good time and I said, “Well, I got to leave, go home and watch Mike Tyson on HBO”—it must have been around about ’88 or ’89, and I know the HBO fights were on Friday nights and the guy asked me, he said, “Well who’s Mike Tyson fighting?” I said, “I don’t know, I don’t even care” because that’s how exciting you got to be about Mike. He was going to knock out somebody with their head snapping up in some cruel manner, but he brought that intensity and animal instincts out that I don’t think I saw any fighter in my lifetime, still, be able to do. It was just exciting to watch and totally transformed the image of boxing, as far as I’m concerned, in the heavyweight division to the degree that no one still after him has still captivated and had that impact on the audience and other fans the way that Mike Tyson has.
But as a great fighter? Eh, maybe he wouldn’t have held up with some of the bigger guys because he was still a small heavyweight and when he fought guys like figure Lennox Lewis and then the Klitschkos and them, he may have had problems but he did what was requested of him at his time—he knocked out everybody that they put in front of him and therefore, I have to say he definitely should be considered still a great fighter. He should be in the Hall of Fame because of the tremendous impact that he had on boxing.
Q: Now Emanuel, you trained Lennox Lewis and as I’m sure you know, a lot of fans were critical of him when he reigned as champion, however, since his retirement a lot of fans seem to have grown a deeper appreciation for Lennox and many now view him as the last great heavyweight champion. You had the unique perspective of working with Lennox—exactly how good was he?
A: Lennox was good enough that he would have been a problem with any heavyweight in history. You still have size and usually the biggest disadvantage of big fighters, I always say when they hit over 6’4”, is they lose coordination and that’s why the shorter fighters always could neutralize that size advantage because they were much faster and better coordinated. But Lennox became a fairly good coordinated fighter. His good left jab, he had a very good variety of punches—he was pretty decent with his left hook, he developed a good right uppercut, and as we all know he had a very good strong right hand always—and Lennox could be very physical when he wanted to. That was the one thing that made him a little different. Maybe not like Muhammad Ali running around the ring and a lot of times he fought a little technical but still, even with me and the rest of the camp, we didn’t know what he would do sometimes.
Sometimes he would come out and be overly aggressive and knock out a guy like Michael Grant, (Francois) Botha, and even (Andrew) Golota—and then sometimes he would fight a technical fight, very safety like he did with David Tua—and then you have the fights where he would just totally come to life in the first round with Mike Tyson. He said I’m going to make Mike respect me, and he went out and went toe-to-toe with Mike the first round instead of fighting a technical fight and once he had gotten respect from Mike, then he settled down and worked his boxing plan, but Lennox had a good variety of punches. He could do it with any and everything and if he had to be in a tough fight and had to dig down deep to come and pull it out, then he did that, and I remember him doing it with Frank Bruno.
I remember going back to the Olympics in ’84, no ’88, when he was fighting and realizing that he had waited four years for the Olympics and was about to lose again after getting to the finals, and he just stormed out against Riddick Bowe after losing the first round and physically just crushed Bowe with really just strength. He just overpowered him, and I saw him do that in fights where he was losing, or maybe on the verge of losing. With Ray Mercer, when I told him the last two rounds were going to determine the fight, he looks down, and he goes out and he pulls it out even though he thought he was ahead on points already. The first fight with Evander Holyfield, even though the crowd was going crazy, I told him that I felt the fight was going to be closer. There was one particular judge I was very suspicious of and as it turned out, after winning the last round big, he got a draw. But the point is, when you told him to do something he would do it and he could be very physical and that’s what separated him from a lot of the big guys that I’ve worked with.
I would say a perfect example would really be the fight with Vitali Klitschko, his last fight. After being behind in the first three rounds, I realized that he was used to being the taller fighter and he was pulling back and relaxing and still getting hit with long punches because he was thinking he was out of range because he didn’t realize he was the shorter fighter. After I think the fourth round, I said, “Look, we got to change strategies. We got to take it to the streets.” I said, “When you out there and with your jab this time, don’t just jab—push all the way through where you push him off balance and if you miss with a left hook, bump him with your shoulders. When you get inside, start ripping uppercuts—just make it an alley fight.” He went out and he won the next two rounds, and at the end of the sixth round I think when I was talking to him, he said, “I got him now.” But he could resort to just being a brutal physical fighter if he had to and that’s one of the great attributes that I liked about him.
Look at the generation after him and the Klitschkos, which are dominating, it’s just unfortunate they really don’t have any name fighters to fight. He was fortunate, even though he was criticized earlier for being too technical and he was complaining to me that, “I don’t have a big name to fighter to fight since Riddick Bowe” who he was really looking forward to fighting, refused to fight him—and later on, I was with Eddie Futch and Eddie Futch said that was a decision that he made. He felt that as good as Bowe was, he still felt that Lennox was still mentally and physically too strong and if they had fought, that what happened in the ’88 Olympics would have happened in the professional fight—that Lennox would have still just overpowered Bowe at a certain point. So it was his recommendation that Bowe give up the (WBC) title rather than fight Lennox.
So Lennox then had no one to fight he thought, and all of a sudden—BOOM. Here comes the fight with Evander Holyfield and then the fight with Mike Tyson—even though both had been past their primes as far as I’m concerned and most of the boxing public. They still were big marquee value name fighters and the Tyson thing was attractive because he was like the street guy, the thug, the tough guy, you know the American guy from Brooklyn, the gangster type—and so Tyson appealed so much to the urban type mindset. Lennox was still the big Brit, the ‘Momma’s Boy’, the easy going guy and so Mike was too much of a street guy for Lennox and all of that more so than make decisions about who was going to win or lose on the talent level. It was more on the idea of two different lifestyles clashing, but what people didn’t know was that Lennox himself as he was raised up in Kitchener, Ontario.
They use that Brit thing but he came from England when he was twelve years and started boxing when he was in Kitchener, Ontario which is about maybe forty-five minutes south of Toronto and that’s where he learned to box and he represented Canada in the Olympics and only after realizing he wins the Gold Medal in ’88 that, hey it’s more money with the British Pound than the Canadian Dollar. They decided then to try and relocate him and label him out of England. That’s why they never really accepted him because it wasn’t like he won the Olympics for England and he was fighting international matches—he had never did any amateur boxing in England. So he was never really accepted as a Brit completely. I mean, he was there but it wasn’t like (Frank) Bruno and the rest of the guys. So he was a man that was really like caught in between, you know, Canada, Jamaica which is the place that was the ancestry of both of his parents, and then the Brit thing, and then the fact that he did nearly all of his training in the latter part of his career in America and all of his fighting in America and he had an American staff. So he was really a guy that was tied up with like four countries that he was identified with.
I think the fact that since he retired the Klitschkos are dominating but they just don’t have any fighter that the public thinks is a good marquee value fighter so you basically get credibility by your performance against top notch opposition, and it’s unfortunate. He did get to fight some of those things, even the Shannon Briggs which was an exciting fight, the Ray Mercer fight—and none of these guys have a chance to fight any fighters right now after, so he is considered by most as being the last top heavyweight and he’s more appreciated now because of the comparison thing—of what he fought compared to what the modern fighters or champions are fighting.
Q: How would you rate a young George Foreman versus an older George Foreman, and when you take those two chapters of his career and put them together, how does that reflect on Foreman’s overall legacy?
A: George Foreman may be the most amazing, definitely heavyweight, that I ever saw in my lifetime. He had a whole career as one fighter with a personality and a style, and then ten years after a rest period so to say, a different fighter he had a different mindset and a different style to some degree—but the one thing that was really prevalent in both was a strong, strong will-minded person, and his unbelievable determination and mental strength as well as physical strength was just amazing. I think that what a lot of people don’t realize is George Foreman was an extremely smart fighter in the ring, too. The first George Foreman right after the Olympics was very aggressive, threw punches relentlessly, had tremendous knockout power in both hands, but still was such a smart fighter that he gradually burnt guys out. All of a sudden he decided to come back and not be such a mean guy, to be a pleasant jollier type of guy, but still, that meanness was still there in the ring and he changed his style a little bit to be adjusted to his age and not burn up too much energy. He developed the old Archie Moore type of crossbow defense type, but the one thing that was very consistent with him still was that he always had a thunderous jab and his jab was more like a ramrod. He would always throw a very good jab—not so technically beautiful, but it was very stiff and very hard.
He also would throw wide punches and then he would change up and throw a short punch. He analyzed his opponents very well. If you look at the knockout of Joe Frazier, you’ll see him like swishing a wide shot and Joe Frazier bobs under it and he swishes another wide shot and then he changes and throws a short right uppercut. I looked at him years later when he was fighting with, I think Michael Moorer—I saw him purposefully throw a couple of wide left hooks and he threw it again and Michael Moorer was getting into a mode of looking for wide punches, and then he stepped in and threw a short one two, then he did it again and—Bingo! You look at his fight with Gerry Cooney, same way—short left uppercut. He was very smart. He would throw wide punches, figure out where you were going to put your head in your defense, and then he would change up with a short punch, but I think he was very underappreciated. He would have been a big threat to any heavyweight of any era because of his size and his unbelievable tough mental attitude.
Q: Many fans view Evander Holyfield as one of the best heavyweights of all time, but at the same time, a lot of them believe he has hung around too long and that this is hurting his standing. Has Evander hurt his legacy by fighting on too long?
A: If history serves me right, I would say yes, we’ll say that now because we’re around while he’s still fighting too long, but after he retires as always, I think these last five years or maybe in his case maybe it’s almost ten years—I think the public will forget that, and they will go back to remembering him in his exciting fights. He hasn’t really, I think, hurt his legacy still. I think it is just today but as time goes on, it’s like Ali and so many great fighters were. I look at Ali’s last fights with Ernie Shavers, and even the (Trevor) Berbick and them and the Larry Holmes—but it’s funny, we don’t talk or remember them. The fans gradually after a certain period of time, those fights for whatever reason seem to like fade away and you remember a fighter from back in his prime. I think that it’s not going to hurt him in the long run. I would like to see him retire, but I don’t think in the long run it’s going to hurt him, though.
Q: Larry Holmes was a dominant heavyweight champion who I personally believe would have made a tough fight for any heavyweight in history. Unfortunately for Holmes, his reign fell in between the reigns of the charismatic Muhammad Ali and the exciting young Mike Tyson. How much do you think this bad coincidence hurt Holmes’ legacy in the eyes of boxing historians?
A: I have no doubt in my mind that Larry Holmes’ entry into the heavyweight championship position is definitely hampered by him falling in between two of the most dominant, I would say, personality charismatic style-wise type fighters in the history of our sport—meaning Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. Larry Holmes to me, I mean I hate to say this I don’t know, might have possibly been the biggest threat of all of these because when you talk about all time greats—for whatever reason they use Jack Johnson, they use Muhammad Ali, and in some cases I even hear Joe Louis and Mike Tyson, but nobody thinks so much about Larry Holmes and I think George Foreman. I think those are two guys who are very underrated.
I think that Larry Holmes’ left jab alone, his speed, the unbelievable stamina and determination and ability to recuperate from punches—he would have been a threat to anybody because that left jab it was almost a machine by itself. He didn’t even have to have too much more than that. I think that style-wise, he would have been a problem particularly for George Foreman because George had problems with fast straight punches, but I think that Larry is definitely underestimated and underappreciated. I think that people overlook him because he came on at a time where people were just, he was caught up in Ali’s image and after that you have Mike coming along. He’s definitely, maybe, the most underappreciated heavyweight ever in history.
I would like to give a special thanks to Emanuel Steward for providing his time and unique insight into the history of the heavyweight division.
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