Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – I was recently afforded the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with the 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 final chapter in a three part series that explores heavyweight history with Emanuel Steward.
Q: If Sonny Liston had gotten his shot earlier against Floyd Patterson and if he didn’t have Ali coming up, how good could Sonny Liston have been?
A: Sonny Liston, I watched Sonny Liston when I was a teenager do something that I’ve never seen any heavyweight do—walk through the whole division almost from being the number ten guy all the way up to the champion because he was that devastating like around ’57, and ’58, and ’59. I mean he had unbelievable brutal punching power. He was mean, punched with both hands, and I think that the time that he finally got to the title, I think his best years had gone and right after he won the title he began to live the life of a middle aged wealthy man. He lost the real focus that he had earlier. ’57, ’58, and ’59 he was one of the most vicious machines probably ever in boxing, but after he won the title, from my reports and from what I gather, he started drinking a lot and he was golfing and he just lost that total edge. He was living the life of a comfortable man and then here comes exactly what the computer prints out—the thing in the world for him..
A fast, young fighter, good movement, a solid amateur background, and who had been fighting on a regular basis, so therefore when the match-up came it was just perfect timing for one, terrible timing for another guy who had slipped past his prime—but if they had fought, in like say ’58 or ’59, a prime Sonny Liston and a prime I would still say Cassius Clay or whatever—I don’t know. I don’t know. Sonny at that stage was just such a really powerful wrecking machine and I remember the fights he had with Cleveland Williams—oh my God. I don’t know, Sonny might have won if they would have fought at that time.
During the 1920s, much in the same way Babe Ruth helped redefine the sport of baseball, Jack Dempsey helped redefine boxing to some extent. Is Dempsey’s legacy tarnished because of his refusal to fight certain fighters?
A: Well, I know when you mention all time greats you don’t see Dempsey’s name mentioned up there but he is to some degree like an American folklore hero. It was not so much, really you dissect him and look at the great accomplishments or the super fights—it’s not there. I mean, you have the time where he was criticized so much because of not going into the service and serving his time. I think the fights that he had with Gene Tunney, which were fights that he lost, made him become more loveable and attractive to America, which is weird, and then the fact that he lived in New York, moved and became right there he was right in the media capital of the world and he had this restaurant and everything. He’s another guy whose legend grew more after he quit boxing, but I think the fights with Tunney is what really made him.
Then he knocked out Jess Willard it was probably about, at that time, one of the most vicious fights in boxing history when he I guess knocked him down six or seven times and he caught the attention of the whole world because he was such a small guy. They said, ‘Whoa, look at this little animal’ and he came out and beat him, and then the fight with (Luis Angel) Firpo where he goes out of the ring, so he had those fights and the fights with Tunney but at the time, a boxing champion was just like almost, the popularity was like almost the President of the United States. Sometimes I was reading in history that the heavyweight champion of the world had the same honor and dignity if he was brought into a room as the President and that’s how times have changed now, but there wasn’t really that many other superstars in any other sports except Babe Ruth probably. So it was just being in the right place at the same time when a boxing heavyweight champion was something very special. The fights with Tunney, I think, is what really set it off even though he lost that fight on the long count the one time but all of that still added to his likeness or whatever, and the emotions of the fans when they fell in love with him with more sympathy in the fights he lost more so than when he won.
Q: What are your views on Floyd Patterson as a fighter?
A: Floyd Patterson was a very good fighter with all of that speed and whatnot, but cannot be considered an all time great because of his inability to take a punch and the fact that the caliber of guys that he fought for the most part, which was not a fault of his, but his management at the time. Cus (D’Amato) was doing what he thought, which was right, to try and keep him from being able to fight guys who were mob-controlled much like Sonny Liston. So once again, he was a phenomenal fighter when it came down to speed and combinations, but he didn’t fight the big quality fighters of his era, not that there was a whole lot. At the time, it was similar to what we have today, really. He was a good fighter but I think him being a New Yorker really enhanced his popularity a lot, especially at the time when New York was the boxing capital of the world of the media and everything, and then his lack of a personality being such a humble man and very approachable to anyone and so down to Earth that he was easy to like and very difficult to dislike. So his popularity is more due to the fact that he was a very warm likeable person and a New Yorker.
Q: How do you think someone like Archie Moore who had some success at heavyweight, although he lost his two title fights—how do you think he would have performed in a different era?
A: Archie Moore would have been good in any era, I think. He was a very smart guy, very cagey, and it was really amazing he wasn’t really a big tall guy that much, but very smart, knew how to conserve his energy, placed his punches very well. He would have been a threat in any era. He lost to Patterson who was a young, extremely fast fighter whose speed and youth was too much for him at the time and Marciano with just too much just determination. With just normal heavyweights, I think Archie Moore would have been good in any era, even the guys back in the 40s he would have done well with.
Q: Andrew Golota is a good example of an A-level talent who never amounted to becoming an A-level fighter. Would someone like Golota have had more success if he had fought in a different era?
A: I don’t think Golota would have been any different in any era. Golota was not a winner inside, and champions are made inside. All of the heavyweights champions that we have mentioned, when we were talking about with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Marciano—they were strong tough guys. To give an example, once we talked about Marciano. Fights where he was knocked down, his two greatest victories were (Archie) Moore and with (Jersey Joe) Walcott coming off the floor, those type of efforts. Champions are made inside, and Golota was a loser.
I saw him winning a fight when I was doing the broadcast with Michael Grant and he just quit because it got to be rough, and with (Riddick) Bowe. He really just quit. He purposefully threw low blows it looked like just to get disqualified almost, and with Mike Tyson, in the fight Mike was doing his best and after about three rounds before Mike’s like I guess getting tired or whatever, and I remember he went back to his corner and when his trainer jumped in his corner and took his mouthpiece out he said, ‘You ought to keep this because I don’t need it, because I’m going to the dressing room’, and he just left! He just walked out, but he was a quitter. He wouldn’t have held up in any era with anybody because as soon as the heat got on him, even if he was winning a fight, I knew he would quit.
Q: Vitali Klitschko retired for several years before he came back to reclaim a portion of the heavyweight title. Does Vitali Klitschko still have time to be remembered as one of the greats?
A: I don’t think he’s going to enough time because even though he had his biggest claim to fame, and he tells me that and we laugh about it, he says, ‘The biggest thing that made me famous was losing to Lennox Lewis’, and he has still done nothing to really exceed that believe it or not still. It’s just a case of not having any fighters around for him to be the big name and the fact that he won’t be around long enough where you can say, well, he didn’t have any big name fighters but he had a reign for like five years or six years so you have to give some credit for that even though he fought a bunch of nobodies, but I don’t think he’s going to have that long of a career and that many big heavyweight championship fights to really reach that level. So I don’t think he’s in a good position to be considered a great yet, but who knows. He still may have a fight, you never know. He could end up with a high profile fight with David Haye possibly himself, or Nikolai Valuev with two of the biggest men ever. That would definitely be fights that would really be standouts in his career when people look back at him, but right now he would need about two more years to continue if he just dominated over these types of guys.
Q: Emanuel, where do you think the fighter you’re currently training, Wladimir Klitschko, fits into this discussion of heavyweight greats?
A: Right now, I think his last fight even though it wasn’t seen that much, is the first time that people are taking up notice that maybe we may have something special on our hands that we’re not really appreciating. I’m just reading what I see on these internet comments, and oh he’s been too cautious, he’s too this, he’s too that—but I think the public is starting to look at all of the knockouts, still, that he’s accumulating. So he’s right there still, just starting to get on the borderline where I’m just reading the fans that, the people have said maybe he is possibly going to be a great fighter because of his unbelievable one punch knockout power that you just don’t see from anyone, but right now he hasn’t arrived yet.
There’s, unfortunately for him, no big super fights but if he continues this totally dominating run for I say two years, and the way it looks maybe three years, he’s going to be considered up there. You’ll see these printouts about what would Wladimir Klitschko have done with a George Foreman—he would have moved into that era of those types of conversations. A David Haye fight would throw him right into that mix of being considered if he had an impressive knockout over a David Haye or something like that. It would throw him into the mix where maybe being like, whoa, this guy with his size, and jab, and everything, and his punching power, and his left hand, right hand would put him where people will start at least thinking and say, ‘Well, can’t just say that any fighter of any era would have beat him because nobody is around in this era’, but he hasn’t had that signature fight yet and he may never get it, so I think the only thing he can do is just continue having a long run and if he runs off about ten or twelve more defenses, I think that will qualify him to be considered when they talk about possibly the top heavyweights in history, but right now he hasn’t arrived at that.
He just is starting to get people to start thinking a little bit about the fact that he may be a little better than we give him credit for, just the fact that he’s still holding onto the title now after about almost two years or three years.
Q: On a somewhat related note Emanuel, a lot of fans claim that the heavyweight division is weak right now. Can you recall any time in history where the division had a similar state and what do you think needs to be done in order for this to recover in the eyes of the fans?
A: I think that the heavyweight division is the weakest that I ever saw it, that I can recall, I would put it this way, but if you look back at history it happens like this. I think it’s worse now because you don’t have anything coming from the amateurs. That’s what troubles me. It used to be weak, but you always had the George Foreman or even Klitschko. He is the last of the amateur program fighters from ’96. He’s the last product that came from the amateur system to the pros and that was what, about fourteen years ago now, and that’s what the problem is. There’s nothing coming from the amateur system, and I don’t see it worldwide, even these Cubans or whatever and the Russians. I don’t see much coming. I don’t see anything else coming up. It’s a weak heavyweight division and I don’t see anything too much coming up that’s going to make it any better in the future.
But if you look back through history, Joe Louis had that era when he went on the “Bum of the Month Club” as they called it and he was fighting with ‘Two Ton’ Tony Galento, the bar tenders, and this and that. Then I remember when Tyson was the same way. Nobody was up there for Mike. He was at the time considered fighting Pinklon Thomas and them, but I still thought those were better fighters but the public thought he was that dominating, but that was still a tough era. They said the same with Lennox. Lennox was having a weak division, but I thought that was better still. You still had guys such as Shannon Briggs and good competitive guys out there.
This is the weakest that I have ever seen it but it’s part of heavyweight history and that’s why we have these “Bum of the Month Clubs” and all that, and all of a sudden out of nowhere—somebody explodes on the scene. Right now, the biggest explosion has been David Haye and it’s nothing he did in the ring. Just verbally running his mouth he’s created a lot of excitement and a big buzz about himself. But it is weak, and I never saw it this weak and I hope that it will change but I just don’t even see it changing for maybe about another five years.
Q: Emanuel, which heavyweight would you have most liked the opportunity to work with, past or present—not including those you’ve already trained?
A: Wow. The ones I always really wanted to work with the most I’ve been able to, was Lennox and Wladimir for the most part. I would say…oh boy. Well, I liked Larry Holmes a lot. I liked Larry and I liked George, so those are the two I would say.
Q: Emanuel, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you tonight. Before I let you go, is there anything else you would like to say to all the fans out at East Side Boxing and the fans who listen to On the Ropes Boxing Radio?
A: Just keep on supporting boxing. It will be coming back and it’s so great to have this great international flavor that’s going on in right boxing now, so even though we were talking about the heavyweights and the most exciting thing about the heavyweights is heavyweight history, not so much about the present, but boxing is going through a change right now and it’s going to be very good in the future so keep supporting us.
Q: Emanuel, thank you so much for the interview. I really appreciate it.
A: My pleasure.
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.
To contact Ciani: