“I don’t think there ever will be another Sugar Ray Robinson”-Emanuel Steward
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – With his vast wealth of knowledge, experience, and success, Emanuel Steward is undoubtedly one of the greatest trainers the sport of boxing has ever seen. Steward, who has trained and/or managed 41 World Champions, is best known for training Tommy Hearns and Lennox Lewis. Currently he works with world champions Wladimir Klitschko, Miguel Cotto (pictured with Steward), and Cornelius Bundrage. I was recently afforded the opportunity to speak with Emanuel about various subjects regarding the sport’s history in this, the first of a new series where Steward will provide opinions and insight thereof. The series will explore past champions, historical fights, mythical match-ups, great rivalries, memorable fighters, and Steward’s own personal experiences as a world class trainer.
GEOFFREY CIANI: Emanuel, to kick off this new series the first question I wanted to ask you is about a fighter that you once worked with who is scheduled to be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame this year and he is widely viewed as one of the best Mexican fighters of all time. Of course, I’m referring to Julio Cesar Chavez. What are your thoughts on his legacy as a fighter and do you think there was any question that he was going to find himself in the Boxing Hall of Fame?
EMANUEL STEWARD: Well first of all, I’ll start by answering the last question first. Definitely he belongs in the Hall of Fame because he’s not just one of the all time greats, but as far as his country he may be the greatest sporting hero, not just boxer, ever in Mexican history. I had the pleasure of being with him in Mexico because I trained him in there instead of in the United States, and I never saw anyone be analyzed as much as he was. It even exceeded Muhammad Ali. Just on freeways people would be driving their cars and almost crashing trying to just touch his car. When he got out of the stadium once when we were at a bullfight, people would pass the word that he was coming. There were probably about 1,000 people in the parking lot when the car pulled up and when he walks in the arena they had his picture all up on the big screen. Each one of the guys who was a bullfighter would have to bring his hat up so it would be thrown up in the air so he could catch it before each one of the bullfights, and when he left they showed it on the screen and the whole stadium just went crazy. I just never saw anything like that before.
What was special about him, and I’m speaking about him as a person and not as a boxer, was his star power in Mexico. When we would go to the restaurants to eat, they would want to put him in rooms where he would have a little privacy with his family. He always insisted on being out in the open in public where he can meet the fans and kiss the babies and he really loved it.
I think that as a boxer he gained his notoriety because of his major accomplishments in big fights. You could be good, but you have to have these signature fights in your career that really mark your greatness. When he fought the fight, I’d probably say the first one with Meldrick Taylor, it couldn’t have been more dramatic than that, to come back in a fight that he was trailing in and score a knockout with two seconds left. Then there was also the one, which was not as big, but to beat Rosario which was a very special thing because of the Mexican and Puerto Rican rivalry. He beat him which was a major thing for all of the Mexican people. Then he beat Camacho. He came back and beat Frankie Randall, even though it was controversial where they stopped the fight. Then he knocked out Meldrick Taylor in the return with him. Meldrick was not what he was before, but still, there was a lot of interest and intrigue in that fight. I remember very well. It was at the MGM and they told us that the place was sold out. I had brought a friend of mine and I said you can get a seat usually up in the press area. They said, no. There were no seats anywhere.
He was bigger than anything that I have ever worked with. I trained with him. He spent time teaching me Spanish and he spoke much better English than people realized. He was always trying to be conscientious of not saying the wrong things. He would always have the lady Gladys interpret things for him when he would be asked a question on television, but he understood the questions. It would just give him time to think a little better. He was very smart in that area and also he was very concerned about being perfect.
As a boxer, I was amazed with his boxing talents. When I started training him for the rematch with Randall, I was working and I saw him dancing and moving. I said, “Why don’t you box? I didn’t know you could box so well”.
He said, “Steward, how can I? Look at all the fighters they put me in with. They put me in with Camacho, and Meldrick Taylor” and he was naming all of the fast fighters that he had to fight. He said, “I have to be aggressive, but I really love to box when I get an opportunity”. I think outside of maybe the Greg Haugen fight and maybe one or two other fights, he never really had the chance to show his boxing talents, but he boxed very well.
I learned from him certain things that he did and I was surprised. I saw him block a punch with his left elbow and then he would return a left hook with the same hand that he had blocked the punch with. It was something that I learned and I try to teach that to some of my fighters still, today. When I started working with this guy, I thought to myself that this guy had about 90 fights before he lost his first fight so he must have something going for him. So I taught him a few things, but I learned a lot from him, too. Basically for the most part, even though he had had trainers, he said he pretty much ran his camps on his own.
His hero was the great Salvador Sanchez who we went to his grave site on Sanchez’s birthday to pay respect for him. That’s why he had gotten the same trainer Cristobal (Elmer Rosas) who had worked with Sanchez because that was, I guess a way of him connecting to Sanchez. He had his own training program which he liked. It was, if I’m correct, seven rounds of four minutes each with thirty second rests, and when he finished up I could tell when he was in good shape. He’d say, “Steward, we got to go to Las Vegas. I’m ready”. But he had a great training program in addition to the sparring and the things that he would do. He would also like to train in solitude when he trained in Toluca. Even though Mexico City has a high altitude, Toluca is I think about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City and a higher altitude, and that’s where he liked to train because it was the same gym where Salvador Sanchez had trained. It was like a community gym.
When I started to work with him I was surprised that he never did pad work. So we started working in public and he said let’s wait until we get back to the hotel. We had to go back to the hotel and work in private until he felt comfortable doing that. I don’t think he skipped rope and I don’t remember him even hitting the speed bag. Basically what he did was box and it’s something that I learned from him myself. I had fighters box a lot because he said he felt more comfortable when he boxed more and boxing became instinctive. After we would leave the gym he would always stop on the roadside and he would get watermelon.
I said, “Why do you get watermelon every day?”
He said “Steward, just think, a watermelon goes where you sweat a lot and it keeps my body balanced out so when I eat later on I don’t eat so much and it makes me my energy back”.
So training with Julio Cesar Chavez I learned a lot. I taught him a few things to polish him up but I didn’t try to change him drastically, because my attitude was that he had been a success and he had won 90 fights before he lost his first fight. Something was working so I didn’t come in and try and make him like Tommy Hearns or Evander Holyfield or some other fighters I worked with or whatever. I trained him within the style that was his natural style. I sharpened him up a little bit and I brought in boxers to spar with him and that improved him a little bit, because I explained to him that the rhythm of a lot of the black boxers from America was different than the rhythm of a lot of the Latin sparring partners he had. He was preparing for the rematch with Meldrick Taylor when I brought in Michael Clark, who at the time was a young professional that I was managing and training. Michael came in and he gave Julio problems for the first two or three days. By the time it got to the fourth and fifth days he had mastered controlling the rhythm of Clark and they had some tremendous workouts. He said, “I understand it is a different rhythm”.
So for the rematch with Meldrick Taylor, after the second round I said, “How are you feeling?”
He said, “He’s not so fast. It’s no problem. I’m knocking him out tonight” and I think he knocked Meldrick out in the seventh or eighth round, but what was interesting was he actually stopped him with a counter left hook while pulling back. It was something that he had never done before, because most of his punches were offensive punches, and very seldom counterpunches.
I found him to be extremely dedicated when he was training and very, very focused. He was a wicked body puncher. The punches he lands on you, they penetrate and have a lasting effect. I know just working the pads when it was punches to the body I could feel the impact of the punches and the pads and even later in the evening I could feel the impact because of the way I hold the pads really close to my ribs. It doesn’t look that effective, but when you’re in there in the ring with him you can feel his power. I think he was one of the best body punchers that I have ever worked with and also he was exceptionally intelligent in the ring and he knew how to cut the ring off with right-handers or left-handers.
I think he will definitely be considered one of the all time greats, and not just in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know if there will ever be another fighter to come out of Mexico who accomplished what he has accomplished, because he’s not just a good fighter but he won three or four signature fights that meant so much to his country when the country was on pins and needles for the fights, with Meldrick Taylor in particular and then Roasario and even the rematches the rematches with Frankie Randall and Meldrick Taylor, and I he knocked out Roger Mayweather, also. They fought twice, so all of the key fights that his people related to national pride, he came through in almost all of those. Later on in the fights he lost to Oscar De La Hoya it was primarily for the most part that age had just caught up with him.
CIANI: Now you said he’s one of the biggest sports stars period, not just in boxing. There have been a lot of great Mexican boxers that have followed him, guys like Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, and Juan Manuel Margquez. Why is he loved so much more by the Mexican fans?
STEWARD: There are two things that I think set Julio Chavez apart from all of the other Mexican stars. He won the big signature fights when the Mexican Pride was on the line. He did that more than once. I don’t think any of those either guys had those types of fights, in particular when you had the Mexican and Puerto Rico situations where he came through so well. Also he went out of his way to embrace his fans and the fellow Mexican people. I mean he would stop at all kinds of events. He would go out of his way.
In fact I remember specifically we were working out on a Saturday afternoon one time in Mexico City, and a guy came up to the ring and gave me a little piece of paper to give to him. I gave it to him while I was wrapping his hands and he looked at it and he waved to the guy giving him the sign that he would do whatever it was. After we finished training, he said, “Before we go back we have to go to this event”. So we go outside. Mobs of people were waiting outside and instead of riding in the car which was about four blocks or five blocks, he insisted on walking and it took us about an hour to get there because of the mobs of people. He loved it. He was signing autographs and kissing people. We went into the place and there was a girl who was the daughter of the guy who gave me the piece of paper. She was in like a beauty pageant and when he came in the place just went crazy. He went up and kissed all the girls who were in the pageant and he did different things like that which made people love him so much. He went out of his way going to every kind of event he could supporting the people. I don’t recall any other boxer like that other than Muhammad Ali.
CIANI: The next question I have for you here is a fan question. It’s from Niall Cheema in New Castle, England and his question for you is, “Emanuel, if Don King had offered you the role of Mike Tyson’s head trainer in 1989 instead of Aaron Snowell, would you have accepted the job and if so how well do you think Tyson would have performed under your instruction, particularly against Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, and a come-backing George Foreman with you in his corner?”
STEWARD: Well Mike Tyson definitely deserved to be in the Hall of Fame for more reasons than one. I think it’s not so much that he won any big significant signature fight because he didn’t have that many. He created an aura and a following and had an effect on the sport unlike any fighter that I had known since Muhammad Ali, just the fact that he changed everybody. Everybody wanted to have the white shoes and then they changed this to black with no socks. The effect he had on boxing is still something we’re experiencing today with boxers.
To get to your question I don’t know if I would have at the time because it took a tremendous amount of time to work with Mike. He was a super, super, superstar, and I was very much involved with Gerald McClellan at the time and Michael Moorer. I would have probably passed up working with Mike in that situation. I did it I think for the rematch with Holyfield because at that time I just didn’t want to be bothered with the people that were around him, not so much Mike because I’ve known Mike since he was about fourteen years old. I had a great respect and relationship with him, but it was the people that were involved around him that I could not have dealt with so I would have probably chose not to.
The fight that he had with Buster Douglas, I don’t know if he would have beaten Buster Douglas regardless of who was with him because Douglas was on a mission that night. When you have a fighter just emotionally wired up the way he was that night and how it related to his mother’s death, he fought the greatest fight of his life and as you could see that in his following fight with Evander Holyfield. It was his highest weight and he was out of proportion with his training and everything, but that particular night with Tyson he was at his very best in terms of his skills and mental determination. At the same time Mike was so relaxed and confident I think he was believing the 40:1 odds and that’s what led to it, because of the combination of the two factors.
Holyfield was the same way. Holyfield would have always been a tough fight for Mike. You have to remember Mike was still a small heavyweight. His biggest factor was when he fought guys who were either scared or with some of the guys who were slow, he could get off fast and he compensated for his size by using speed and power. When he fought big guys who were not afraid of him and who had a certain amount of skills he always had problems. Going back to “Quick” Tillis, Mitch Green, Tony Tucker, “Bonecrusher”, and Lennox. So when you look at what he accomplished being such a small guy it’s amazing because even though he was fighting as a heavyweight he was still a very small man. When he didn’t have the advantage of the intimidation factor, he always had problems with those big guys.
Holyfield would have always been a problem for him. I know from the amateurs when I was involved with them in 1984 when we were in the Olympic Training Camp. They sparred and Evander always had his number so to say. Evander has always had this special aggressiveness when he fought guys who were like bully type guys like Ricky Womack and Mike Tyson and all of those type of guys. When I was training Evander I think in 1993 for the second fight with Riddick Bowe, even though we were training for Bowe he continuously spoke of fighting Mike because he was obsessed with wanting to fight Mike Tyson. Mike at the time, if I remember, was in prison.
He said, “Emanuel, the fight that I want more than anything is Mike Tyson because everybody is afraid of Mike but when you start putting pressure back on Mike he is not that tough”.
Eventually when they made that fight I told Don King, “Man, that’s the worst fight you could have made!”
He said, “You got to be kidding! We’re just worried about Mike killing him”.
I said, “That’s the one fight that Mike definitely doesn’t need because Evander’s whole legacy and everything in his mind is based on him beating Mike Tyson so that is one fight he will never lose”.
That’s why I always knew it was going to be a tough fight for Mike because Evander had so much almost like hatred for Mike when he fought him for both fights.
CIANI: I want to change things up here and talk about “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. I want to get your views on where you think he stands in the all time middleweight rankings.
STEWARD: I believe that “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler is the best middleweight ever. I know we all look at Ray Robinson. I think Ray Robinson was pound-for-pound the greatest fighter period when covering all divisions, but when you just focus entirely on the middleweight division I would have to say that “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler was the best. I thought that Ray Robinson’s greatest days, which we didn’t have film for, was when he was welterweight. We saw him fight for the middleweight title for the first time when I think he was about 30 or 31 years old then when he fought LaMotta. Even though he had some great wins and was winning fights and losing fights and regaining titles, I think that Marvin Hagler’s consistency as a middleweight champion and as a middleweight coming up where he was fighting all of those tough fights in Philadelphia, and on the road, and Ray Seales and all of those type of Olympic fighters, and winning, winning, winning, winning without any fanfare. Then as a professional champion I thought he was a consistent performer in every way.
The loss to Ray Leonard, which was still controversial, was the only loss during his reign that he experienced. He was just consistent. A lot of times we talk about Carlos Monzon. I think that Marvin’s great chin, his work ethic, and consistent style of fighting would have been a problem for Monzon because I don’t think Monzon fought that many great fighters that were in their prime. I mean I was very impressed with the Nino Benvenuti fight and maybe one or two others, but Hagler fought so many good fighters, young fighters, old fighters. In Philadelphia I saw him put on one of the best boxing clinics ever when I saw him beat Bennie Briscoe. I went over there just personally to see that. It was phenomenal and even though Bennie had slipped a little bit it was still a great display of boxing skills.
I watched Marvin since 1973. That was the first time I saw him in the National Golden Gloves. He lost in the tournament and he came back a few months later in the National AAU and he fought at 165 even though he was really nothing more than a 156 pounder, and he was a small one at that. He won the National AAU Championship and that was the same year that Ray Leonard was in the tournament and Aaron Pryor and all of those fighters. I saw him turn professional without any great fanfare and I followed him very closely and he just amazed me how he was continually winning fights, and especially fighting some of the guys in their home towns. I just think his consistency in his performances in the middleweight division was the same as Ray Robinson was in the welterweight division. That makes Hagler, in my mind. the greatest middleweight champion.
CAINI: Now Emanuel, you touched on his fight with Ray Leonard and I want to know if that fight was anything like you expected it would it would be beforehand, and who did you have winning?
STEWARD: The fight between Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler was pretty much like I thought it would be, but I thought that Marvin would have came out a little bit faster. In his mind he just thought that there was no way that Ray, after being off so many years and never having fought at the top level as a middleweight, would ever be able to go twelve rounds with him. I think that’s why he relaxed in a lot of the earlier rounds. Ray always had great, great finishing power. Going down the stretch Ray won the crowd and he won the judges.
We were in the coffee shop at Cesar’s the next morning and Ray asked me, he said, “Steward! Sit down for a minute. How did you score the fight?”
I said, “I scored the fight for Marvin Hagler”.
He said, “Why?”
I said. “Well I thought that some of the early rounds which they may have given to you, I thought you should have boxed when you were almost like running. I remember quite a few times thinking quit holding Ray, quit doing this Ray. So some of those rounds I just gave to Marvin”. They were close, but I said, “The more important thing is you won the crowd. You won the judges” and in my mind I always called him just “Ray Leonard” because that’s the way I knew him. I said, “You earned the name of ‘Sugar Ray Leonard’ last night because I thought you fought a phenomenal fight after being off that long and coming in with a strong guy who was probably at the time the pound-for-pound #1 boxer. To beat him or even to just have that type of close fight to me was phenomenal”.
In a lot of ways I think it was one Ray’s best performances when it came to everything and the inactivity, but still. I had given the decision to Marvin Hagler. So I still deal with them both sometimes. Whenever the conversation comes up, Marvin is still bitter today. Ray and Tommy get along and Tommy and Marvin get along, but Marvin still does not like Ray Leonard and that decision still just drives him crazy today.
CIANI: Emanuel I have another fan question for you here. This one is from Zachary Q. Daniels in the northeastern United States. His question, “Emanuel, where you rank Floyd Patterson historically in the heavyweight division and do you think he could have been competitive in later eras like the 1980s and 1990s when heavyweights became larger?”
STEWARD: First of all, Patterson was phenomenal to me because of his one-punch punching power earlier in his career and he was a small heavyweight as we all know. Just speaking about him, people loved Patterson. I think being from New York helped a lot, too. He was right in the center of the media and everything and New York was boxing at that time. There wasn’t too much like Las Vegas and all of this other stuff, and Germany. New York was the heart of boxing and being from New York was a great asset for him in terms of notoriety.
I don’t think he would have handled the big fighters that came along later on. I mean I look at just how physically Ali handled him, and even though I think there was a problem with his back and other situations, Ali was just too big for him and Ali fought him that way. He fought him like a big man controlling a little man and I just don’t think he would have held up with the fighters that came along in the 1980s. They would have just physically been too big for him. Sonny Liston beat him the same way. He physically and mentally beat him too, because he was intimidated by the physical size of Sonny Liston and Sonny was only about a 212 pound man who was about around 6’2” or 6’1”. So the guys who had talent and were big guys around 6’3” or 6’4” would have been too much for him.
CIANI: Now Emanuel, since we’re talking about boxing history here, the fighter who is usually considered the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time is Ray Robinson. We talked about him a little earlier. With Ray Robinson, is he going be the #1 pound-for-pound fighter all time for all time? Or can somebody like Manny Pacquiao or someone else down the road make enough noise to stake a claim?
STEWARD: I don’t think we’ll ever see anyone exceed Ray Robinson’s accomplishments in our lifetime. I don’t have the exact statistics handy, but I know he had an unbelievable amateur career to begin with which was documented. He wasn’t fighting in these small towns where nobody can check the records. To accomplish what he did as an amateur and professionally, it wasn’t until after about 100 fights or something before he had suffered his first loss, and then to come back and beat him five times. His accomplishments were just phenomenal.
As a welterweight champion he just dominated for about five years or something like that and then he went up on to middleweight and was able to regain the title as many times as he did. He was still a very good competitive fighter when he retired at 44 even. So I don’t think anyone will ever accomplish what he’s accomplished. He’s the one that created this I guess weird “pound-for-pound” thing because everybody was saying that this guy was just so good that whatever division he would have been in, if he would have been a heavyweight or in any division, he would have been unbeatable. I don’t think there ever will be another Sugar Ray Robinson.
CIANI: The next question I have for you is a Fantasy Matchup. I’m curious what you think the keys to victory for each fighter might be and how you think the fight might go down if it could happen. The first Mythical Matchup I have for you is a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Roberto Duran at the welterweight limit with each at their best at that weight. How do you see that going down?
STEWARD: That’s a real, real tough fight. I think Duran was a tremendous puncher with both hands, but Manny maybe would have had a little slight edge because Manny had footwork. He could move, box, and punch and move, and Duran had problems with movement always his entire career. It was always with boxers and movement. I remember when I saw Kirkland Laing beat him in an upset, and I think Esteban De Jesus beat him once, but boxers were a problem for him always and I think Manny’s ability to move in and out and punch from angles with his better footwork would give him a really slight edge. It’s a really good question.
It would have been a phenomenal fight. Both guys are what I would call “born warriors”. They’re both guys who had similar backgrounds and came to fight and really were fighters who didn’t have to be taught so much. They were just born fighters. In Manny’s case he has improved because Freddie has moved him from basically being a guy who had a tremendous straight left hand and not much more. He’s become a more balanced fighter now. His right hand is almost as effective as his left right now. That would have been to me one of those dream fights that fans could put together in their minds. This one tops all of them. I don’t think there is any other fight that could be better than a fight between Pacquiao and Duran in their prime. At their natural weight, I would really go back and say lightweight more so than welterweight, because Duran was at his best at lightweight and I think that Manny Pacquiao even today with winning all of these weight division titles is still nothing more than just a little bit over the limit of 135 pounds, so I’d say them fighting at lightweight would have been the best. I would give a slight edge to Manny because of footwork.
CIANI: You’re a trainer who’s known for teaching good boxing fundamentals and in particular, you’re known to teach your fighters to use good balance and positioning to throw punches. Throughout boxing history fighters you’ve seen both past and present, who are some of fighters with the best combination of balance and positioning?
STEWARD: That’s a great question, man. Naturally one of them was Ray Robinson and another was Joe Louis. Joe Louis had very good balance. That’s why he could generate so much power just by twisting and pivoting his body. He wasn’t that great with moving on his feet but he was able to do other things like cutting off the ring, but footwork was one of his biggest problems to deal with. Fortunately in his era, he didn’t fight too many guys with good foot work. I had the pleasure of knowing one of the guys who was close to him, it was a guy named Freddie Guinyard who was his best friend from Detroit. He told me that went out of their way to keep Joe from fighting guys that could move pretty well. That’s why Billy Conn gave him so much problems and the first fight with Walcott, because of the little tricky moves. I thought his balance and fundamentals were very good.
Another guy to some degree, even though he moved a lot, was Ali. Ali was very good with movement and keeping his balance and stuff and he changed the whole concept of boxing when it comes down to moving and punching, and changing directions, and using upper body movement, and head movement, and feints and everything, and moving in one direction and then back in another. So in his own way he had very good balance even though you don’t think of him as a balance type fighter.
I would still say Ray Robinson boxed very good and did a lot of things and it’s something that’s like a lost art today, keeping your balance and also punching properly, but that’s another subject to go into.
CIANI: As a boxing trainer, what was it like for you when you guided Hilmer Kenty to the title marking him as your first champion?
STEWARD: This is an interesting story of Kronk’s first champion. I got a call telling me that there was a guy named Pepe Cordero who was the guy who controlled the WBA even though he didn’t have any official position. He was from Puerto Rico, but he controlled the WBA. I received the call from Freddy Summers that if I could get on the plane and go to Puerto Rico I maybe could make match with a fighter that I had named Hilmer Kenty. Sean O’Grady’s dad had a meeting with this guy Pepe Cordero. I never heard of Pepe Cordero to even know what the hell was going on, because I was new in professional boxing as a manager. So I get a call from this old guy telling me there had been a meeting that fell apart in Oklahoma with this guy Sean O’Grady’s dad and Pepe Cordero and you got a lightweight kid I’ve seen in Detroit, the kid that Tommy Hearns spars with all of the time and he always fights on Tommy’s cards. At the time Tommy had only just been a pro a couple of years himself.
I said, “Yeah, Kenty!”
He said, “Yeah, well how would you like to get a championship fight for him?”
I said, “Kenty only had one ten round fight in his life!”
He said, “Well if you can get on a plane and go to Puerto Rico”, because this guy Cordero just got back because he just had a falling out with O’Grady’s dad and he just left and flew back to Puerto Rico and had a meeting on a Saturday.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I jumped on a plane and this guy had called and fixed it up for me to be picked up by this guy Pepe. So a guy picks me up at the airport in a van and I get in and I’m looking at a big gun laying next to him right in between the two seats, and he’s about 400 pounds, and he takes me and the lawyer I had with me and we go to the office. He tells us to sit down in the conference room.
This was on a Sunday now, and then this pepe Cordero comes in and puts a gun right on the table and says, “Well what can I do for you?”
I said, “Well Mr. Pepe, I want to try and make a championship fight if I can. I understand you’re the one who controls this guy Ernesto Espana who is the lightweight champion”.
He said yes and so after about ten minutes he said, “I want $100,000”.
At that time no lightweight champion had gotten that kind of money. We didn’t have any TV. I didn’t even know what I was doing, really. I was so anxious to make the fight I told him, “Yeah, I can get you $100,000”.
He said, “Well also, I got another one of my fighters who needs some money. His name is Angel Espada”. I didn’t even know who he was. He said, “He must fight for $50,000”.
So basically I made the deal. I didn’t know what I was doing and I left and came back on the plane to Detroit and we had to start hustling in the streets to try and come up with this money. My buddy at the time Prentiss Byrd was with me, and him and I and another guy John Yott, we were just hustling all over with numbers guys and everybody to try and get some money to try and get this fight that had no TV. Then I remembered that Kenty wasn’t even rated. So I had to call him up and he said, “That’s no problem, just send me another $20,000” and I had to send $20,000 in like ten days or something like that and then Kenty was rated in the WBA.
Nobody expected Kenty to win the fight. So we drew a big crowd here in Detroit because everybody was coming out to see Tommy Hearns who was the star fighter. So Tommy was really the attraction. Kenty, who nobody even knew, had never even fought on a main event I don’t think. He had about 16 fights and at the last minute ABC called and said they had another fight canceled and they wanted to televise the fight. I said, “Oh my God!” So we gave them permission to televise and Howard Cosell came and Tommy won his fight against Espada and then the last fight of the night was Kenty. So everybody in Detroit was celebrating because Tommy had won and they expected Kenty to lose, but it didn’t matter because the main star was always Tommy.
Kenty was so wired up for the fight and when we were training and I had all of the WBA officials and everyone there, when I brought them over to my house and had a big Latin type dinner set out and they wanted to see tapes of Kenty. I told them I didn’t have any tapes of Kenty. I said that Kenty wasn’t that important anyway, and I was just talking about Tommy Hearns, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. What happened was I was going to the gym at night when everyone had left at 8:00, and I was training Kenty. He and I were by ourselves and nobody could really see us. When Kenty came into the ring we put on some music “Sexy Dancer” by Prince. He was going to play a slow song called “This is It” I said, “No, I don’t want to hear any of this slow drab depressing stuff”.
So he said okay and I put on this “Sexy Dancer” and he came in with that fast tempo music all wired up and he fought the fight of his life. He was so excited in the first round when he went down that he jumped up and went right back to fighting before the referee could even start the count. Harold Lederman was one of the judges and at the end of the ninth round they stopped the fight and we just went crazy. He was our first champion and nobody even knew who he was really. The headline in the Detroit paper the next day was “Who is Hilmer Kenty?” He actually was the first Detroit champion since Joe Louis. We had never had any other champions in Detroit since Joe Louis. People may not realize that, but that’s what started the whole next legacy of the Detroit champions.
In fact when we leaped in the ring they brought Joe Louis in. That was the opening of the Joe Louis Arena, also! It was March 2, 1980. They brought Joe Louis in so he could see this arena named after him and he was sitting there and you could see the smile on his face. When Kenty came out there and fought like a man obsessed, when a guy is so wired up emotionally it’s hard to beat him. It was amazing. At the end of the ninth round when they finally stopped the fight we were going crazy. Everyone was. The ring was just overflowing with people.
Right after that Pepe told me, “Well you tricked me and you beat me and you took my title, but we’re going to do a rematch because that’s what I have in my contract. After Kenty has one fight he belongs to me”.
They made us do the rematch in Puerto Rico, and that was the first time that I met a little kid that was at the gym everyday watching us train named Tito Trinidad. He was a little ten year old kid. I gave him a Kronk jacket. He was watching because he had boxed a lot like Kenty. Everyday him and his father watched us train and when Kenty fought the rematch we knew there was no way he was going to win a decision in Puerto Rico.
He put us right in a ring where there was all in and CBS televised it and this was his way of taking the title back. He went out and stopped him again but we fought the type of fight where we just made it an all out Hagler-Hearns type of fight, because one way or another we knew we couldn’t win a decision. Kenty beat him again, and after that Pepe Cordero and I got to be great friends. He helped me bring Pipino Cuevas to Detroit to fight Tommy Hearns for $1,000,000. He was a great negotiator with no TV at the time for the fights. That’s how we got our first championship and the people went crazy and they were still trying to figure out who Hilmer Kenty was.