Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – I was recently afforded the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with legendary trainer Emanuel Steward that focused on the rich history of the heavyweight division. During our 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 two of a three part series that explores heavyweight history with Emanuel Steward.
Q: Muhammad Ali always said he was the greatest. Was he the greatest, or does Joe Louis have something to say about that?
A: Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali both were the two greatest but in different ways. Joe Louis was the greatest champion because of the fact that what he did at the time. I thought having those record defenses and it’s just hard to be a guy who over eleven years had twenty-five defenses. He was a perfect image for what he did for the country and the fight that he had with Max Schmeling was probably the most epic event that I still have known of in my mind in, not just in sports, but in any event of the history of the world because that night was like the night that the world stood still, and this mean German machine that was like trying to take over the whole world, Hitler, that it was strange that these two men in a little small limited little space in America here, half naked with just something on their fists, were going to almost determine the fate of mankind so to say. And I learned as I’ve traveled, it wasn’t just in America. It was all over the world everybody was on pins and needles waiting on that, and the fact that Joe Louis came out and had such an unbelievable great knockout—especially in view of the fact that it was the same man who had knocked him out—and that was like trying almost to stop that whole Hitler reign. It was just that night, he became bigger than a boxer and no man is ever probably going to be in that position to do what he did. He was a world, when you say “champion”—I thought the epitome of the word “champion” was Joe Louis..
If they fought, I think Ali would have definitely, I feel in my mind, beat him because Ali was the computer printout of everything that was a problem for Joe Louis. The movement which Joe had problems with, even in a little small light heavyweight Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott, those guys Joe always had problems with. I was fortunate enough to get to know one of his best friends who came from Detroit like I did, and he said Joe’s management always had to keep him away from boxers, people who could move, because Joe had problems with movers. But you know, he did what he had to do. He beat everybody of his era and held the title for so long and was a perfect gentleman when it comes down to what was required and necessary at that time.
So I think he was the greatest champion when it comes to the word “champion” but as far as who would have beat who, I think Ali would have beat him, and then I have a lot of respect for Ali because Ali was the only champion that I know of that fought anybody, everybody. It was nothing about styles. He fought guys who were terrible for him style wise, but Ali would just tell Angelo Dundee, “Let’s fight”—and he put him with a guy like Kenny Norton who was always going to be a problem because of the way Kenny kept his elbows, he blocked jabs and right hands and that’s all Ali basically had and then he fought him I think three times; Joe Frazier; he went to London to fight Brian London and Henry Cooper; and he went I think to Canada to fight (George) Chuvalo; he fought Karl Mildenberger to fight the German in Germany. He didn’t care whose style that he had to fight so in that way, Ali was the greatest because fought anybody, everybody, in their country, if it was a style that was bad for him he didn’t care, fight him in a rematch he’d do that, whatever.
In their own ways they both were the two greatest, I think, heavyweight champions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they could have still beaten a prime Larry Holmes or maybe even a George Foreman.
Q: Who do you think represents the toughest style match-up for Ali when he was at his very best?
A: You know, it’s hard to really say that because Ali fought every style there was and I think as rough as it was, would have been the guy he had so much trouble with—a little guy like Joe Frazier. If Joe Frazier would have been about I would say three inches taller and ten pounds more he would have really been a nightmare—but I think Joe Frazier because of the way Joe would go down, bob and weave, come out with a punch, but more than that Joe Frazier’s mental mindset. Joe had that same tough attitude that when Ali would try to do his psych stuff it didn’t bother Joe because Joe had the same type of a tough street attitude, too, and that was what made him such a big challenge to Ali. It’s just fortunate enough for Ali that Joe was not bigger, but Joe was the biggest threat to him I still think just because of just the style.
Ali could never just beat Joe with his jab and the right hand and that’s what made Ali I think great, also. At a certain point in the fights, in particular like the third and final fight, when he realized that his boxing skills were not going to take him to victory because he just couldn’t his rhythm together with Joe. He just said, “Oh I just have to fight, so every time I get hit with two punches I’ll try to throw four punches” and he did what he had to do to find a way to win and that was one of the unique things about Ali. When he found out that something wasn’t working he would just abandon the boxing skills, the pretty boy, and all of that stuff and just have to sit down and just outfight a guy and he had to do that really with Kenny Norton, I would say, the same thing, too. Norton’s style gave him problems but Norton wasn’t mentally, even though he was bigger, he didn’t have the mental meanness and toughness of a Joe Frazier.
Q: Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. A lot of people do not rate him highly, however, because he is considered too small by today’s heavyweight standard. How should Marciano be judged, by his size or by what he did in his era? Also, do you believe Marciano’s size would be an impediment for him today from being as dominant as he was?
A: Marciano’s style definitely, he wouldn’t have made it today because when you don’t have size you make up for it with speed and he didn’t have the best speed, either. He came along at a time when there were still good heavyweights. I don’t think he gets the credit for what he should have gotten for fighting the guys like, even though Marciano was fighting (Ezzard) Charles when Charles was a little past his prime he was still a good tough fighter. I look at Archie Moore, when he knocked out Archie, I think Archie came back and went on another winning streak and really he had never even lost the light heavyweight title.
I think he was the epitome of what we call just an “overachiever”. When I was at the Kronk Gym, we had big posters pictures of Marciano and no one could figure out why because he wasn’t considered a great, but when you looked at his record and you looked at his accomplishments regardless of what, all you can do is be the best of your era. I think of his era, he fought and he beat the best but the fact that he was a small guy, not that well coordinated, short arms, had so many different physical handicaps and went on to do what he did through just unbelievable training and conditioning and great one punch punching power. So you have to respect him for that, and there was nobody of his era that he dodged. He just couldn’t find anybody who was a great fast fighter so he did what he could do for his era—beat everybody who was out there.
I think he was a much smarter fighter than people realize, too, in his own little short of way. I studied films of him, I would see him like get into a move and look like he’s going to move into a little clinch and just when he’s about to touch each other he changes in there with a short left hook, and he would sometimes look at your body like he was going to throw his right hand or jab to the body and then throw the right hand right over the top, but he was very cute and smart in his own ways because he knew he was handicapped in other areas.
I think his punching power and conditioning were phenomenal. You look at the knockouts of (Jersey Joe) Walcott—one punch in the thirteenth round after losing and being knocked down, and then to come back with Archie Moore after being on the deck with Moore, who was still a good fighter, and came back and knocked him out, and then the cut, nose torn completely apart with Ezzard Charles and they told him they were about to stop the fight and he just comes storming out and scores a knockout over that. So you had to have a lot of respect for that. And he created the word “Rocky”. He made it have a lot of value because for particularly the Italian fighters the kid coming up, even today, a lot of them feel he’s still their hero because he had more impact I think as a champion, in particular for the Italian kids and the white fighters, than any fighter probably maybe that I know of in history because of that unbelievable one punch punching power and his image for being in unbelievable condition.
Q: What are your views on the Super Fight computer match-up between Ali and Marciano that had Marciano winning by thirteenth round knockout, and how do you see this fight going down if Marciano and Ali squared off at their best?
A: If Ali and Marciano fought I see Ali winning. Ali was just too big and too fast and the fact that Ali had that great chin. Computers are programmed by men so to me, I don’t think if that was the case we wouldn’t even have to have any of the fights we have today—we could just have the fights on a computer to tell who won and who lost. You couldn’t do that. I think that Ali would have just been too big and too fast for Rocky, because Rocky was in an era when he was what heavyweights were—188-190 pounds. A 200 pound heavyweight was a big, big man then. A 200 pound heavyweight today is not even a heavyweight it’s a cruiserweight and really, a small cruiserweight compared to how some of them come in. At the time he was a heavyweight and he beat everybody around but I don’t think he would have beaten Ali, by no means. I think Ali was just too big and too fast, and in particular with Ali’s great chin and Ali’s great stamina in the late rounds.
Q: Jack Johnson is an interesting man in the rich history of the heavyweight division. Some fans tend to overrate him, others tend to underrate him—how do you rate him?
A: I think he was a totally amazing man more so than just as a fighter. I think that he was a good fighter. He brought a whole new era of control in a fight that I don’t think anyone ever controlled a fight with so much ease and was so relaxed during the course of the fight. When I look at his accomplishments in the ring, I think they’re amazing and good but I think he was more known for his, really, his character beyond boxing. His total going against going against the system and his total really just mission he had of just really like embarrassing the white male race and doing things that no one had ever done and probably today I don’t think anyone would do the things he did—that is what to me is more of his character than the actual boxing attributes.
I think he was a good fighter, but when we break it down, beating Tommy Burns a 5’7” guy in Australia, Stanley Ketchel another middleweight 5’7”, Jim Jeffries who was brought out of retirement to redeem the dignity of the white race—a man who had no business fighting a fighter in his prime, especially considering the fact that Jeffries was 36 years old I guess or something. He still didn’t fight the black fighters of his era that were good fighters and then I guess he loses to Jess Willard which he said he threw the fight.
It wasn’t where he fought and beat that many dominant heavyweights himself, but I think his character and arrogance is what really made him bigger than life. I mean, he was phenomenal businessman, he used to travel all over the world and negotiate his own deals, dressing up and changing clothes sometimes two or three times a day, talking with the top presidents of countries. He was just a truly amazing man I think, more so, than even just when you really break down the boxing part.
Q: Joe Frazier was the first man to beat Muhammad Ali, but according to some, his all time standing suffers because of the two knockout losses he suffered against George Foreman. Is Frazier still worthy of top ten consideration?
A: Well being the first man to beat Ali was really his biggest thing and it’s like as we’ve often said, a lot of times you’re only remembered by your big fights and his big fights are when Foreman knocked him out and with Ali was his biggest notarized fights. I think the fights that he had won with the (Oscar) Bonavena’s and all that and the Jimmy Ellis’s are just overshadowed and that’s unfortunate. I think Joe was a good fighter. I watched him come up we were in the amateurs together. Anyway, that’s another story.
I think the intensity that he had when he turned professional was really much on a kind of level very similar to a Mike Tyson. Joe might have been even a little bit more, in some ways, better than Mike to some degree. That’s a question, Mike was more of a devastating one punch guy, but anyway, I think that his image is always going to be tremendously tarnished because of his biggest fights he lost and he never will get the recognition he should. His whole legacy is all tied up with the one word “Ali” more so than even Foreman. It’s Ali and Joe Frazier. I mean, I have a friend of mine in Germany who has two cats—one of them is named “Frazier” and “Ali”, but those two became together just like Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
Q: Riddick Bowe’s physical prime, most people agree, happened during his first fight with Evander Holyfield. If Bowe had taken better care of his body and took training more seriously, how good could Bowe have been?
A: Bowe would have been a very good fighter, and I would say he could have been right in that top ten all time greats the way he was moving. I thought that was the epitome of the great craftsmanship of Eddie Futch. Eddie said that was because that was the one kid that he took from the beginning and developed him into a complete fighter. I remember very distinctively the night that he knocked out Jesse Ferguson because I was there in the arena because his next fight was going to be against a guy who I had just made a deal to start training named Evander Holyfield, who he already beat. He looked so good that night that in the post fight press conference I mentioned to Eddie and to at the time Rock Newman his manager and I said he looked like he became a complete perfect fighter and I didn’t even know how the hell I was going to even train Evander to beat him. I mean he looked so good, he was doing everything—the jabs, the uppercuts, combinations, he was just doing everything.
I think right after that fight, if I’m correct according to what Eddie Futch told me, that’s when Eddie said he lost control. For the first time then when he was the one laying down all of the strategies, that’s when the rest of the people in the camp and management took over and they decided he was going to be the next Ali, he’s got to go meet the Pope, and he said from there he lost all of his focus and discipline and the next fight was with, as you know, with Evander Holyfield and I had Evander in good shape so Evander beat him and that really tarnished his image, and then the fights with Golota and whatever. But he was on his way to becoming an all time great and I think the Jesse Ferguson fight was like the last of that trend when he was moving in that direction.
Q: How disappointed were you both as a fan and a trainer that Bowe and Lewis never fought as professionals?
A: I was very disappointed in the fight because I think it would have been a big good fight for boxing. It would have been almost like an Ali-Frazier type of situation, because both of them having the good pedigree background, and then the fight that they had had in the ’88 Olympics. You know, it was just all of the elements. Two super big goods and it was the match-up in that new modern era of guys who were 6’5” who had caught the nation, and I was very excited about the fight. I thought it was a good fight because Bowe turned out to be a complete polished fighter as compared to when he fought Lennox, and Lennox had become a much better fighter so it would have been a great match-up. I think it would have been great for boxing.
Q: Who do you think would have won?
A: I think Lennox would have beaten him at the time because the talent was there, but I just thought Lennox was still mentally and physically very strong. Bowe had a little slight edge maybe in the skill area a little bit, but I think in the course of a long twelve round fight having known Lennox very closely and still being fairly close with Bowe to some degree, going to camps and watching Eddie train him a little bit, that Lennox would have done pretty much what he did in the Olympics in ’88 and that’s what Eddie Futch felt the same thing. That Lennox was still a physically and mentally very strong guy and as much talent as Bowe had, there was always still a little kid inside of him, and Lennox was still a mean tough man inside of him and I think that would have made the difference coming down the stretch.
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.
Stay tuned for the final part of this 3 part series next week!
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