It was July 4th of 1985 when ESPN ran their light welterweight tournament at Resorts International in Atlantic City, NJ. This writer was an advisor for Philadelphia’s Bruce “Sugar” Williams, 17-1-1 (5), when I entered him into the tournament through Top Rank’s matchmaker Bruce Trampler.
I had promoted a pair of shows in 1982 that I had Williams on. One was the first professional show in the Pocono Mountains of PA at Caesars Paradise Stream at Mt. Pocono and another at Easton H.S. The only loss Williams suffered up until the tournament was to future IBF lightweight champion Harry Arroyo and a draw with future WBA lightweight champ Livingston Bramble.
Williams was put in with the tournament favorite Glenn Smith, 14-2 (8), who had stopped Detroit’s Kronk fighter Rodney “The Rock” Trusel, 17-1-1, (identical record of Williams) in his previous fight.
Williams would stop Smith in the 8th and final round to move into the semi-final of the tournament. In the other bracket Manny Steward had Joe Johnson, 7-0 (5), against Camden, NJ, fighter Ramon Santana, 12-3 (10), who stopped Johnson in the 3rd round. Williams would then meet Santana August 15th.
With Williams in camp with WBC light welterweight champion Billy Costello who was preparing for a title defense I had to get a trainer to work the corner of Williams for the Santana fight and called Prentice Byrd, a spokesman for the Kronk team asking if Steward would be interested in working the corner. To my surprise he agreed to it at his expense. He would later tell me that Williams had fought his fighter Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns in the amateurs and liked Williams. It seemed we were all set.
I had been to the Pocono’s watching Williams. He had a problem with a shoulder and I met a woman whose family owned a greeting card business on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia who did Reflexology and by working on Williams feet gave temporary relief to his shoulder pain.
Costello approached me and said “Bruce is having sex with the girl who works here. I’m now beating the shit out of him.” I approached the soft spoken nice guy Williams who turned on me. I called Byrd up and told him what happened and that Steward didn’t have to come in. Byrd called back and said Steward said he would come in anyway but wouldn’t get there until the day of the fight like he had previously mentioned. I was surprised and very impressed with a man who “kept his word”.
Thursday arrived and Williams was no longer the mobile boxer he was when I had him in the previous three fights. He spent most of the fight on the ropes due to his “lack of legs” and when the final bell sounded and the fight was declared “a draw”. The judges had it 5-4-1 Williams, 5-5 and 6-3-1 Santana. This meant they would have to go to an extra round being it was a tournament. Even though I thought Williams edged Santana over ten rounds I knew he was “spent” and had little chance going another round with Santana.
This was for the Eastern ESPN title with the winner getting Jaime Ollenberger of Canada on October 30th. Santana took the 11th round and the right to meet Ollenberger whom he would defeat for the ESPN title. If Williams hadn’t “screwed” himself out of his normal conditioning for the Santana fight with less than a week before he would have easily defeated Ollenberger in my opinion for the title.
Steward asked both Williams and I to fly back to his house in MI and have Williams be prepared to stay. He would tell us when back there he would bring Williams in to work with his fighter Jimmy Paul the IBF lightweight champion and get Williams some fights. I remember Steward showing me a picture of him shen he was on an amateur team with Hedgemon Lewis a future NYSAC welterweight champion whom when I started writing I did a story on. He was the “ray Leonard” style-wise before Leonard arrived. Steward would get three wins out of Williams before his shoulder finally gave out being stopped in six rounds in May of 1986 to Ozzie O’Neal.
I got away from boxing for years and when I returned I got in touch with Steward and was surprised he still remembered me. “This is Ken Hissner from outside of Philly” I would always say. I remember in Dickson City, PA, in September of 2007 approaching Steward who had fighter’s inn camp at that site. Virgil Hill was also there. We talked about the past ESPN tourney, Lewis and even another great soft spoken Detroit legend Eddie Futch.
In 2007 I started writing and whenever I did something pertaining to Kronk boxing I called Steward. One of those boxers was WBC welterweight champion Milt “Ice Man” McCrory and WBA lightweight champion Hilmer Kenty. “I told Kenty I didn’t want him to go through with the fight because he had a bad cold,” said Steward. I remember Steward saying “that one fight Sean O’Grady had defeating Kenty made his career!” Kenty joined Kronk in his sixth fight. “Manny would be the first one in the gym and the last one to leave,” said Kenty.
In October 2010 I was working on “Was Ray Leonard A Better Amateur or Professional?” I called Steward and was surprised he agreed with me. Only difference was he knew why! “Ray had bad hands by the time he got to the professional ranks. He wasn’t the puncher he was in the amateurs,” said Steward.
I would call Steward over the years and “pick his brain” on boxing. I was always afraid he would get tired of me calling but he was always very polite and full of information. In January of 2011 I contacted Steward and Joe Clough. The latter was in Thailand working with amateurs there. He trained so many famous boxers like “Sugar” Ray Seals, Rocky Lockridge, Johnny Bumphus, Leo Randolph and Davey Armstrong. He also coached the 1983 Pan Am Team. He knew both teams well. I asked both to join me in judging 1976 vs 1984 Olympic teams. Both obliged and I have to say I had a ball talking to both. Steward had Frank Tate and Steve McCrory who were both Olympians in 1984.
In early 2012 I approached Steward when he was off camera working for HBO at a show in Atlantic City, NJ. He would always give me the time. He was one of the greatest trainers of all time. He had the most famous boxing club in Kronk. He was one of the few trainers who was also a great manager. “Tommy Hearns made me a millionaire,” said Steward.
When Steward took the job at HBO he was the one we boxing people could relate to. “I remember when Larry Merchant asked Oscar De La Hoya after his loss to Mayweather “why did you stop throwing your jab after the seventh round?” De La Hoya replied “it sure was working wasn’t it Larry?” Steward remarked “that wasn’t a very good answer for someone who has been around as long as Oscar.” He hit the nail on the head. Up 4-3 and stop throwing your most effective punch? Steward always did it in a low voice but didn’t pull any punches. He was one of the best at ringside since Gil Clancy in my opinion.
When we lost the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato who I knew well it was a great loss to boxing. Then legendary Angel Dundee passed. Now the man who built the “Kronk Gym” has joined them. It’s boxing’s loss and heaven’s gain!