Trainer, Teacher, Mentor... Psychologist?
The Atomic Bull and the real life Rocky
By John Lepak
Just about anyone can throw a towel over their shoulders, walk into a boxing gym, give some instructions, and call themselves a "trainer" these days. There is literally no barrier of entry to the sport of boxing. And not many who will put these YouTube trainers in check.
Once upon a time there were gyms across the U.S where old timers like Eddie Futch, Bill "Pops" Miller and Ray Arcell mentored young up and coming trainers where they served a sort of apprenticeship. Today, typically with the microwave society we live in, not many trainers want to serve that long and at times, hard road to glory with serving such an apprenticeship. The problem is, there is no short cut to the top. An even bigger problem is that there are not many true "teachers" left to offer such mentoring.
While there are more trainers than ever arguably, there are far less teachers and even less mentors. While you can gauge a trainer credentials, experience, knowledge, ideologies; the one attribute that is lacking now more than ever is mentoring. And how many really understand that at times you need to be part psychologist?
Just walk in any number of gyms today and you will find some young kid who is an active MMA fighter, boxer, personal trainer, boxing coach, MMA coach - meanwhile does not even know how to properly box to begin with! But he is charging people $65 an hour to "teach" them and passing himself as someone knowledgeable enough to train boxing to fighters who could in fact lose their lives.
There is that old saying you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. But in boxing we have to go all the way back to the beginning when you come out of the womb. We enter this world fighting, fighting just to survive. Nature is not about victories and while there are lessons to be learned the reality is we're fighting for survival not victory. Robert Garcia said on Twitter everyone looks like a world champ hitting the heavy bag. Sadly some people look like complete clowns hitting the heavy bag or the mitts, especially in fitness clubs today. It is been estimated that a person must do something 10,000 times before they truly are able to absorb the lesson and apply it naturally. At Kronk you were not even allowed to hit the heavy bag until you learn how to first stand hold your hands with balance. When you did finally get to hit the heavy bag you started with the jab and throw it so many times your arm felt like it was going to fall off. Never did someone come in the gym go directly to the heavy bag and start off being shown how to throw four punch combinations with slipping and ducking movements. But this is all part of the microwave society we now live in, a perfect example of that is how people can cook something that used to take hours in a matter of just a few minutes but they still are so inpatient they open the microwave door with still a few seconds on the clock.
I started hanging around the Kronk Gym from time to time in the late 1980's during summer vacations from school. Years later Emanuel Steward brought me on board where I handled a variety of tasks from personal assistant of sorts to office manager. After a short time, I had pretty much moved in to Steward's home on Detroit's west side. Our staff was very lean back in those days. Other than myself, there was Ms Lannie, Emanuel's driver and long time property manager "Molly", our cook Ms. Jackie, Emanuel's two go to guys - Big Team and Terry, as well as maybe two maintenance men. That was it! Long gone was the massive Kronk entourage and big-time payroll that carried all that dead weight.
I was fortunate to work with Emanuel in various areas for just a few short years, but with no one really around, I was able to learn so much. It was during those years Emanuel had been given the label of "hired gun" - being brought in as a sort of Mr. Fix It for so many former and current world champions. The Kronk stable had been depleted with recent departures of Oba Carr, Gerald McClellan and Michael Moorer, among others. Holyfield was a one and done as well. The biggest names left were a semi-active Thomas Hearns and heavyweight prospect Danell Nicholson. Despite being sought after by some of the biggest names in boxing, it was obvious to me Emanuel wanted nothing more than to restore glory to the once mighty Kronk Empire. To do so, it was necessary for Emanuel to take these assignments and fund the starving Kronk machine.
There is no question that Emanuel will forever remain one of the greatest trainers/teachers in the history of boxing. Since those early days, I have been around countless trainers in the sport who really did know their craft. But there were a few key areas that I saw Emanuel work better than anyone.
The first thing is that Emanuel knew what he was getting into ahead of time. Emanuel taught me that you had to have an honest and clear picture of where a fighter was at and what he was working with (at the stage of their career and fight they had coming up) before you could figure out how to reach the desired outcome. Emanuel was always a "glass half full" (or gas tank half full) type of trainer and would find the best things to focus on with the fighter he was training.
For every big-time fighter/fight I was ever fortunate enough to be around with Emanuel, he had a clear game plan for what he wanted to achieve and how he wanted to accomplish it. I never saw another trainer study and dissect fight films like he did. Anyone can watch films, but it was as if he felt things.
The second area that I feel Emanuel dominated was his ability to self market and get people to believe in him. Emanuel literally seized every opportunity to shine when the cameras were on him. Emanuel did not like safety first approaches to his boxing like the old baseball analogy of getting base hits that lead to runs being scored. No, Emanuel preferred the grand slam homerun, and in his sport, that meant the knockout! He never took away from the performance of the fighter, but there were some fights when Steward's performance in the corner produced just as many highlights as those produced by the fighters themselves.
What I found interesting was the way Emanuel got the fighters to not only believe in him, but also find a newfound belief of self in so many. He found a way to make these training camps more memorable and enjoyable for everyone in the camp. There was no doubt he wanted to control the camp, but he made sure everyone was doing their part and everyone bonded almost as a family unit. Days were for the boxing gym, but evenings were spent often playing pool, watching old fight films, or everyone gathered in Emanuel's room where he was busy using his own pots and pans preparing one of his many special homemade meals where the rest of us sometimes shot dice.
Emanuel knew he was there on center stage with the fighter, but he knew everyone in attendance was also playing a key role in having a successful camp. He was not the type of trainer who showed up at the gym, then disappeared until the following day. He was always engaging. He challenged fighters to look at their current patterns, acknowledged what was working and what was not, and at times most importantly; to give them an emotional change up they needed or a much-needed physical rest (no training on Wed or Sundays!).
Emanuel would often bond with his fighters by telling some of the great stories from his years in the sport. He went the extra mile to get to know what made his fighters tick, and it made all the difference in the world. They trusted his advice and they executed the game plan he laid out. He understood that fighters could grow bored and restless in camp, and he was able to both educate and entertain like no other I ever saw. There are a lot of other trainers I was around over the years who had great success and stories to tell, but Emanuel was able to deliver in an entertaining way that made the trainer/fighter experience far more personal than the "hired gun" tag he was branded with (that he did not like very much at the time).
Emanuel kept his fighters eager to learn and coming back to the gym every day by providing valuable lessons and in many ways, he entertained them entertaining as well. He created an experience for everyone in those camps.
Emanuel trained boxing as much mental as he did physical, almost to the point where it became an emotional experience for the fighters I was around. Emanuel knew how to really build up not just physically to peak in camp, but also to peak emotionally. He built momentum throughout camps with his seemingly endless amount of energy and emotion he invested in his fighters.
Steward built a rapport, learned what gave his boxers motivation, figured out a routine that worked best for them, he made them feel different, and the only way you can get them to feel different is to give them time to go inside themselves and ask some tough questions, and get really clear about their desires and intentions. He would train each fighter in a way specifically tailored to their situation. Bottom line, he did his homework! Emanuel often had someone hold a video camera and tape workouts and he would review late on that evening in his room further breaking things down.
Another aspect of Emanuel's approach was to always focus on the positives. He may not have gone as deep as Cus D'Amato, but to me at times, he was the Freud of Fisticuffs. He once explained to me one of the dangers fighters can get caught up in self doubt deep within. As many would agree; boxing is far more mental than physical and fighters despite being strong physically, can be very fragile mentally. Steward kept his boxers focused and praised them for all the great things they were doing. When doing pad work with the smaller guys he would often stagger back after catching a couple of hard punches to exaggerate the power being thrown. Despite it being obvious he was exaggerating; the boxers ate it up.
Last but certainly not least, Emanuel always stuck to the basics. It did not matter how experienced you were, Emanuel would often start out by taking all fighters back through the basics of shadow boxing, stance, leverage, proper form in throwing punches, etc. This may seem a little strange to many reading this, but it is the small stuff that can make or break fighters in the biggest moments I found over the years.
When Don King sent Oliver McCall to Detroit to train with Steward to prepare for a WBC heavyweight title challenge versus Lennox Lewis it was no doubt going to be an interesting camp! Emanuel had to pull out a little of everything from the above I mentioned if he was to get McCall ready to face the young Lewis. It was no secret that McCall liked the night life, had his continuous battles with substance abuse and was not an easy guy to get to cooperate in the gym at times. It would turn out to be one of Emanuel's easier assignments during this period and got what many thought was a near impossible result.
I saw Steward work daily down in the Kronk basement on just a few simple moves that he believed would allow Oliver to catch Lewis and knock him out. Steward was very high on Lewis and Lennox was one of the few fighters Emanuel really wanted to work with back then, but McCall was his man now. I have to admit, back then I had no idea what Steward saw in Lewis that made him believe he would be one of the greatest of all times, but it just goes to show the boxing IQ of Steward. As Steward explained to me one night, bouncing on his feet imitating The Atomic Bull, in his living room - McCall he said was a brawler, not necessarily a big puncher, but with the right timing he could deliver a knockout punch all based on rhythm that would get to Lewis.
McCall was durable in the gym. He did everything Emanuel asked of him. He trained very hard and Emanuel made sure he had the right sparring partners that allowed McCall to also build his confidence. On the mitts Steward would work on McCall's rhythm and a left hook - over hand right combo. And in the evenings, he knew how to keep McCall occupied, in good spirits and out of trouble! What did Steward do? Rather than keep McCall locked up in the house, he took him out into the night life! Emanuel got McCall a custom fitted tuxedo, brought him to his own nightclub and let Oliver sing and entertain guests all night long often staying until long after closing. Oliver had a great time and so did Emanuel for that matter.
By allowing McCall to hang out late into the night in a controlled atmosphere it allowed Steward to keep a close eye on Oliver, but also more importantly allowed McCall to substitute his need for "late night action" with a safe substitute than those he had abused in recent times. McCall was a hit in the motor city! He sang, danced and talked with customers and if you saw him, he always had a huge smile on his face. He was also well rested by the time his 2pm workouts were scheduled the following day.
And when it was time to head to Mexico and train Chavez, McCall came along and Steward split his time equally with both fighters. Emanuel brought along his hot plates, pots & pans and his own special seasonings and often spent the evenings there cooking roast beef and mashed potatoes deep in the heart of Mexico! McCall went on to score a huge upset and dethrone Lennox Lewis to win the WBC crown, but for those of us who were around during that training camp, honestly it came as no surprise.
Another time when Steward took a unique approach to training a fighter was in the summer of 1996 when Germany's Gracciano Rocchigianni. Rocky showed up to Emanuel's house in Detroit with his wife and he did not speak a word of English. One thing we did not need a translator for was to see he clearly did not like the man he was training to fight, Dariusz Michalczewski. Every single night Rocky would sit in Emanuel's dining room and watch VHS tapes of Dariusz on a tiny European TV/VCR combo, drink warm beer and usually eat sausages. It was the only time I ever saw Emanuel have no concern for a fighter drinking beer or his diet every night.
Rocky was written off by so many and given little to no chance to upset his fellow countryman in this fight, and you could tell this was very personal to him. I have seen fighters have some beefs over the years but it was clear he really did not like Michalczewski! Emanuel knew this and he stoked that fire inside Rocky until it became a roaring blaze. Rocky trained VERY hard! He sparred everyone at Kronk, often in 14 oz gloves. Steward had the German Rocky moving more like Appolo Creed than Rocky Balboa in the gym. He worked with him on his balance and footwork, getting leverage from his punches. He worked with Rocky on his short and compact punches on the inside as well. But the one thing Emanuel zeroed in on was the jab of Dariusz. He got Rocky in the habit of picking off the jab and returning fire. Now I saw a lot of fighters get into "fight mode" if want to call it that, but Rocky took it to another level. You could just sense how bad he wanted this fight.
When the fight arrived it almost paid off as Rocky was putting a beating on Dariusz that night in Germany. All of a sudden when the English speaking ref ordered the two to break, Rocky hit him and Dariusz put on a performance worthy of an Oscar. The ref was confused, we were all confused, but eventually after counting Dariusz out, the ref disqualified Rocky. Rocky was the underdog and not with the powerhouse German promoter and it was clear he was not getting any favors that night. He was PISSED! Rocky may have been robbed that night in the ring, but he won over the fans and they cheered him as he left the arena. It was a bittersweet night.