October 6, 2015
October 6, 2015
Wladimir Klitschko

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IF Manny Steward left a legacy in boxing it is felt more through the existence of Johnathon Banks than any of the famous fighters he once trained.

It may often be reflected that Thomas Hearns was his greatest success, that with Wladimir Klitschko he rescued and rebuilt the career of a fighter considered in decline and that in Detroit’s iconic Kronk Gym he provided the ideal environment in which to nurture raw, promising talent, but in Banks there is another who represents so many – if not all – of the values Steward encouraged and which so many hold dear.

From the outside the American was a surprise choice, in the aftermath of Steward’s October 2012 death, to succeed him as both Klitschko’s trainer and, perhaps more relevantly given the reach of Steward’s influence, as the figurehead of the Kronk Gym.

He was just 10 days away from the finest win of his career – a second-round stoppage of the once-promising Seth Mitchell at heavyweight – and, aged 30, was six years Klitschko’s junior. Not only did that victory make him a potential challenger to the WBO, IBF and WBA Super champion: with no previous experience he had been given the intimidating task of replacing a trainer widely considered the very best.

Since then – and understandably, regardless of his two subsequent fights ending in defeat – Banks has barely been active. He has instead been consumed by attempting to replace his mentor, one he describes as a “father figure, a teacher”, who he lived with for 15 years and whose teachings went beyond those needed to succeed in a boxing ring, also parenting both children, and his fighters, and conditioning them for life.

“I’m forever grateful to Emanuel Steward for teaching me, and for letting me be around him since I was a young boy, until I became a grown man,” Banks told Boxing News. “He was like a father to me. He’s the one who put me in the mirror and taught me how to shave.

“One-on-one conversations with him: he’d knock on my door at 11.30pm at night. He just wanna talk, he don’t have many people he could openly talk to. He said I’m like a son and a best friend to him. They’re priceless.

“Late at night, even when I moved out the house, he’d call me at two o’clock in the morning. ‘You sleeping?’ I said ‘No, no, Emanuel what’s up? What’s going on?’

“Yeah, I was sleeping, but I’m not gonna let him know that, he just wanted to talk and he have a lot of things always going on, and Emanuel had extremely, extremely, little friends. A lot of people that he could consider friends, but not ones he could open up and talk to.

“I’m grateful that I was able to have those one-on-ones with him, and that just further let me know the value of having a teacher, instead of just a regular trainer, in your corner. It was amazing.”

To listen to Banks describe bonding with Steward is to recall descriptions of the man who loved the training camps in the Poconos mountains of Pennsylvania, where he would enjoy seeing deer in the wild, where Lennox Lewis – who under Steward preceded Klitschko as the world’s preeminent heavyweight – benefited from his counselling and where Steward, aware that the benefits of a positive morale can surpass the need for physical discipline, would barbecue food for his fighters as often as he’d challenge them at chess.

If there was a constant between there and the Kronk Gym – the small, atmospheric community centre surrounded by burnt-out houses in an area struggling with both gang warfare and social deprivation – it came from Steward himself. The Kronk may have been where Hearns evolved from an unremarkable puncher into one of the most devastating of his vastly-competitive era and where the great Mike McCallum had countless wars as skills and strategies were honed for the biggest of fights, but among them, numerous others were growing under Steward’s wisdom.

“I was part of his amateur programme, that’s why he was so important to me,” said Banks, now 33, who recently began training promising British heavyweight Dillian Whyte and who can also play the piano. “He would give children a chance to get out the city, and he’d take you somewhere else to fight.

“It was great, are you kidding? Like Santa Claus, every day. When he goes out of town and we hear ‘Emanuel’s coming tomorrow’, that was like Santa Claus coming.

“I’m 16 years old; Emanuel Steward’s just left Lennox Lewis’ training camp. Come on, this is crazy. He was training other world champions, seeing him on TV, he was a commentator, and he wanted to check on us, and see how we’re doing: it was amazing.

“Emanuel was a father figure to me. My mother had eight children, there’s nothing that she wouldn’t do for us, to this day I love her to death. I knew my father, but we wasn’t ever close, that’s no secret. He was always in and out.”

A measure of the values Steward instilled in Banks – and the latter equally deserves credit given it unquestionably takes a rare character to truly share that desire to help others without the promise of personal gain – comes in him assuming responsibility for the trainer’s old role as the head of the recently-reopened Kronk.

Training the world heavyweight champion is a privilege that few would dismiss but Banks’ passion for boxing, and giving his time to others in the same way Steward once did for he, is abundantly clear.

“I train a lot of kids, keeping ‘em off the streets, giving them something they can learn about,” said the relaxed American, often speaking to BN through a disarming, contagious smile. “But it’s not no typical ‘one-two-one-two-one-two’. We do boxing workouts but, at the end of these workouts I talk to ‘em. I explain to them, ‘You’re doing this because of this’. I’m so happy to help people. When I take someone in the gym, even back in Detroit I got four, five, up to 10 children that write to me every day on Twitter, or send something on Instagram: ‘When
am I coming back?’ Because when I’m there, it’s amazing the energy they have just to learn something, and I can’t explain in words what it does for me.

“At the same time, they could be in the street, on the corners. Some of them I took from the corners, and I told them, ‘Look, I’m not telling you you’re not going back to the corners, I’m telling you you have a choice other than being on the corners. This is not your final destination: you have more choices than that’. And they’ve been coming to the gym ever since and leaving the streets alone.

“Emanuel told me he really, really enjoyed listening to me talk to Wladimir because I have a great boxing mind and I know how to explain something so anybody can understand it. I just said ‘I never thought nothing of it. Emanuel, I got it from you because I’ve been listening to you since I was young’.

“People say, ‘You’re the only person I see that teaches like Emanuel Steward, and I always wanted to be under Emanuel Steward’. [But] I don’t feel under pressure. I have a method that nobody else teaches. Only one person would teach it, and that was Emanuel, so I feel good about that.”

It is little wonder that Banks is so familiar with Steward’s methods. Living with someone – not the normal circumstances between a trainer and fighter but as Banks once did with Steward, and as the WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee did from 2005 until near the American’s death (at the age of 68 from complications following surgery to treat the stomach disorder diverticulosis) – provides a long-term insight like no other.

Banks, like Klitschko, rightly has confidence in his training, or teaching, abilities, his devotion to it such that his ambitions as a fighter – he still wants to win a world heavyweight title – have at the very least been postponed. Most recently, the Ukrainian has excelled against Kubrat Pulev before, by his exceptional standards, labouring against Bryant Jennings, and there was no shortage of speculation about why that was the case.

Some observers have questioned if the accumulating-yet-subtle consequences of Steward’s long-term absence are gradually eroding the champion, others if, at 39, he is reaching the age of an inevitable physical decline, while others still question Klitschko’s confidence in fighting outside of Europe. Any may eventually prove the case though it should not be overlooked that even the finest of fighters, simply owing to the human condition, are entitled to even occasional lapses in consistency. Banks, however, convincingly dismisses each.

“Do you remember how aggressive Pulev was?” asks Banks, a one-time world cruiserweight title challenger who when active was trained by both Steward and the trainer’s nephew, Sugar Hill.

“Pulev came to win that night. He said, ‘You gotta knock me out because I’m trying to win’, and I just don’t think Bryant Jennings had the same attitude. And the style Jennings had – boom, boom, boom – he rushed in, diving in and under. So the referee tells Wladimir, ‘Don’t get on top of him’, and never told Jennings, ‘Stop rushing under him’. It was terrible, man, it was counter-productive. I honestly don’t think there’s nothing to it.

“Me and Wladimir always have long talks because he knows how close I was to Emanuel and I know how close he was to him, and we can talk about anything, especially boxing, so that’s not a problem. I can’t do the things Emanuel did the way he did it, because that’s coming from someone so much older. These fighters are older than me. But I can do some of the things he did on different levels.

“Tyson Fury [Klitschko’s next challenger, on October 24] is a good fighter. You don’t know what character you gonna get on what particular day.

“I think of Tony Thompson and Mariusz Wach [when observers question if Klitschko can handle the combination of Fury’s height and ability to switch to southpaw]. I think, ‘How much shorter they than Tyson Fury?’ He knocked them out, he can knock Tyson out. The southpaw thing doesn’t matter at all.”

Speaking shortly after Steward’s death, Klitschko said: “I have spent more time with Emanuel in the last nine years than I have my own father. The relationship between me and Emanuel was very special: not just a regular relationship between a coach and a boxer”, and it later transpired that the trainer advised him, from his hospital bed, to turn to Banks next. He had long been shaping his protégé; a succession plan was in place.

“When I met Wlad, he was picking himself up off the canvas,” says Banks. “He was at the bottom of the earth. You know every sports analyst wrote him completely off, and said ‘This guy would never become anything else again’.

“That’s when I met him. That’s not the person I got to know, the one they wrote about. I got to know somebody different. And if I’d met him at any other time, before when I met him, I don’t know if we’d be as close as we are now.

“I thought I wouldn’t know my way around training at all but, he did, he believed in me. It all worked out.”

This article was originally published in the August 20 issue of Boxing News magazine