Wladimir Klitschko has long been a brilliant talent, and is undeniably one of the most physically gifted heavyweight boxers in history. Every tool a trainer could hope to find in a boxer, Klitschko had in abundance.
And yet, as Klitschko was searching for a new coach in 2004, something was clearly wrong.
He'd been knocked out in the second round by Corrie Sanders on March 8, 2003. That in and of itself was no big thing, as Sanders was one of the great punchers of his era and caught Klitschko clearly on the chin. In the NFL, a mistake might mean an 80-yard touchdown pass. In boxing, a mistake against a crushing puncher like Sanders led to a very short night.
So, that one loss should have been no big thing. It was, though, to Klitschko, who'd lost his WBO heavyweight title to Sanders that night in a monumental upset. He won a couple of tune-up fights after the loss to Sanders, but he wasn't reminding a soul of an all-time great. Klitschko fought uncertainly, without confidence, seemingly unsure of himself.
He'd spent weeks in the U.S., talking to and working out with coaches, looking for someone who could rescue his foundering career.
Finally, his manager, Bernd Boente, reached out to Emanuel Steward. Steward's reputation as an elite trainer had been cinched years previously. He'd built Tommy Hearns into one of the greatest welterweights who ever lived. He'd resurrected Lennox Lewis' career. And he'd made an entire generation of fighters, of disparate styles and backgrounds, better than they had been before they'd worked with him.
It turned out to be one of the great collaborations in heavyweight history. Just as he had done a few years earlier with Lewis, Steward altered the course of Klitschko's career and made him the dominant heavyweight of his era.
The early days, though, weren't so promising.
Steward died in a Chicago hospital on Oct. 25, breaking the collective heart of the boxing world. In a nasty, cutthroat business, Steward was almost universally loved for his sunny disposition, utter lack of ego and eagerness to help.
Klitschko, his close friend and prize pupil, was training in Germany for a fight against Mariusz Wach that will be broadcast live in the U.S. on Epix and streamed on EpixHD.com.
Steward disciple Johnathon Banks, a 30-year-old heavyweight who has a Nov. 17 match against Seth Mitchell in Atlantic City, N.J., had been helping Klitschko prepare.
Banks will now take over as Klitschko's lead trainer, an extraordinary development considering his lack of experience and that he's still an active fighter. But Klitschko is no longer the tentative, unsure big man he was when he first hooked up with Steward.
Almost unbelievably, he lost his first fight under Steward when he seemed to wilt after just four rounds and was stopped in the fifth by Lamon Brewster on April 10, 2004. But Steward never lost hope and ultimately not only got Klitschko untracked, but also turned him into a nearly unbeatable fighting machine.
"He was a great, great friend and one of the geniuses in boxing," Klitschko said of Steward. "He is not here, but we know his spirit is with us and around us. He is laughing and enjoying himself and also looking forward to that fight. I know that for sure."
The similarities between Klitschko and Lewis and Steward's work with each of them is eerie. On Sept. 24, 1994, Steward cornered Oliver McCall, a talented but troubled heavyweight, in a heavyweight title fight against Lewis in London. The bout was for the vacant WBC belt that rival Riddick Bowe had famously dumped in the trash can a few months earlier.
It was to be a coronation of sorts for Lewis, a massive man who, much like Klitschko, had otherworldly skills.
Instead, though, McCall clipped Lewis on the chin and knocked him out. Steward took over as Lewis' trainer after that bout and trained Lewis for the rest of his career, guiding him to a 16-1 record, exactly the same as he did for Klitschko.
Though Steward had a great reputation as a teacher, it was what he said as much as what he did that turned Klitschko's career around.
"We talked a lot," Klitschko said. "We actually talked more than we did pads work, making combinations or anything like that. We talked about boxing and we talked about life, because life is like boxing. There are certain things that are comparable and one of them is life and the sport of boxing."
There were many aspects to the reversal of fortune in Klitschko's career. Steward was meticulous in making sure everything was covered, but he didn't overwhelm him at first.
But as time passed, Steward kept making subtle, but significant improvements in Klitschko's stance, his movements and approach.
"It is very complicated to explain everything," Klitschko said. "It is a lot and it would be impossible to mention it all on this conference call. But I'll tell you one thing, maybe what he has changed in me? What's amazing [is] Emanuel Steward hasn't changed anything in me. He said, 'Wladimir, be yourself.' The thing I learned in the amateurs is about technique and balance, strategy that he has been improving on that.
"We basically write a script in the preparation, and the script was played out in the fight exactly the way we wrote it. We were analyzing everything: the way the opponent talks, the way the opponent walks, what he has done before, what was the most common thing he repeated on the strong side of the opponent and on the weak side of the opponent. And we used it. That is what in general I am telling you."
He'll now trust a guy who is, at least in a broad sense, a competitor. Banks, too, is a heavyweight, though he's not nearly as highly regarded as Klitschko.
But Steward had long been grooming Banks to become a trainer and boxing insiders have raved about Banks' knowledge and approach.
It says a lot about Klitschko's growth that he's willing to put his career in the hands of such an inexperienced trainer. But much like the great Eddie Futch did with Freddie Roach, Steward got Banks prepared. And while he's still fighting himself, he had been prepared enough that Klitschko felt comfortable giving him such a significant job.
And that says a lot about Steward's ability to teach.
"Amazing is what it is," Banks said of the almost surreal circumstances he's in."It is an amazing situation on both sides. I don't feel any added weight. It is the situation at hand. I am in boxing. I love boxing. I love what I do. As far as me training, then turning around and training Wladimir, there is no pressure, because boxing is what I'm into.
"It's not like I'm training a guy for a golf tournament and I've got a fight coming up. I am with a fighter that has a fight and I have a fight coming up, so it is definitely not a problem."
So, with a heavy heart, Klitschko and Banks will move on. Steward left an indelible imprint upon the sport, and he touched the lives of very disparate men in a remarkably similar way.
It was difficult to be around Steward even for a short while and not be enamored by him. He's gone, but for Klitschko, he's hardly forgotten.
"I have spent more time with Emanuel in the last nine years than I have with my own father," Klitschko said. "My father shaped me as a person and Emanuel did a lot for me inside the ring. What shaping Emanuel did for me outside the ring was, he was always flexible and trying to figure out how people acted. … He said one line that, 'You know, Wladimir, fighters are smarter than trainers.' Trainers are not able to listen to their fighters, but they have to actually listen to them. He's right about it.
"You have to be flexible. … I would express my point of view and he would express his point of view and we try to work it out to get to one solution. He was incredibly flexible in his way of understanding things. And in life you have to be flexible also. Every person has certain qualities: See it, use it and don't kill it. That is a description of Emanuel. It's exactly who he was."
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