Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – This is Part Four of an ongoing series dedicated to the memory and legacy of an extraordinary individual, Emanuel Steward, whose contributions to the world of boxing are simply remarkable. In this installment, reigning IBF junior middleweight champion Cornelius ‘K9’ Bundrage (32-4, 19 KOs) provided his perspective and shared some of his experiences with the legendary Hall of Fame trainer. Here is a complete transcript from my discussion with ‘K9’ Bundrage:
GEOFFREY CIANI: K9, it was a big loss for the boxing world when Emanuel Steward passed away. As a fighter who had the opportunity to work with Emanuel, can you give us your views on his impact on boxing?
CORNELIUS BUNDRAGE: Wow! You know I don’t know if boxing, as far as the knowledge that Emanuel Steward had in boxing, I don’t know if we’re going to run across a guy like that again. I mean how many guys do you know that came across fighters Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and still have world champions to this day, that knew what he was talking about? I mean I believe he helped Jim Lampley and all of them to know more about boxing, because he was actually a boxer himself. I mean he’s going to be missed by not only just the people in Detroit and the people in boxing, but he’s going to be missed by a lot of people. Emanuel Steward was feeding a lot of people. What people don’t realize or know is he was taking care of a lot of fighters. He once had a house where there were like a lot of fighters who stayed there, and it was fighters from all around the world. It wasn’t just the fighters from the city. You even know Andy Lee stayed in one of his houses, and Andy Lee is from Ireland. But he had a training camp house where I was actually in. It was Johnathon Banks, it was me, and it was another local fighter named John Jackson. He had a whole camp or so. You know there are going to be a lot of people that are going to be really affected by Emanuel Steward leaving, because like I said he was looking out for a lot of people. There were guys at the gym who I know personally that used to go to his house and get a check every week. They’re going to be greatly affected. So you know Emanuel was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He was a real cool guy, definitely a cool guy, and he knew the sport of boxing. He didn’t act like he was too good for anybody, and he was out there. You know people knew who he was all over the world, and he always gave you the time if he had it, and he didn’t treat you like you were a nobody. Even if you were nobody, he treated like you were somebody. That was Emanuel Steward right there. He was like the Michael Jackson of boxing. Or should we say the James Brown of boxing, the Godfather.
CIANI: Can you tell us a little bit about the very first time you had the opportunity to work with Emanuel and what that experience was like?
BUNDRAGE: Well you know I stayed right down the street from Kronk Gym. I’m probably like the only Kronk fighter who became a world champion out of Kronk Gym that Kronk Gym was actually in my neighborhood. So I used to go up to Kronk all the time when I was a little kid, and I used to go and play basketball. I’d go downstairs in the boxing gym and be wondering what was going on down there, because I used to see the news stations down there. Like channel 2, channel 4, and channel 7 would be down there. I used to be wondering like what’s all the fuss about? And there was a skinny guy down there with a Jheri curl, which turned out to be Tommy Hearns, and then there was Emanuel Steward and he was down there. Little did I know this guy was making millions of dollars right in my neighborhood. In the broke neighborhood I was at, it was actually a world champion. Millions of dollars were coming up out of the Kronk Gym.
So you know it kind of grew on me. I eventually ended up becoming a world champion. I ended up eventually finding out what it was, or who it was, and what was going on. Whoever knew that I would actually be tutored by Emanuel Steward. He was actually working my corner in his last actual fight ever, ever to be seen on TV. You know? Man! I’m just happy to be able to come across a guy like that. I thank God for a guy like Emanuel Steward. He showed me a whole lot. I know a whole lot, even with the business part. He told me before he actually left, he told me that he wanted to see me with nice things. He wanted me to move out of the hood, and he wanted to see me and my family with something. He was able to see us become world champion.
On my birthday I remember he was taking me and my wife out on my birthday, and he gave me a watch. He bought me a Burberry watch, and I wore that today at his memorial. Even though me and Emanuel went our separate ways because my contract had ended up, I still feel sad that he’s gone and I know deep down inside he had a love for me, and I had a love for him, too. And that’s why at the memorial today man, people don’t know the bond me and Emanuel had. You know I was his last world champion. I was the last guy who was in the corner with him. So it’s real hard to actually watch the fight with Cory Spinks knowing that Emanuel Steward, it was his very last time being in a ring on TV working someone’s corner was mine! And at first I was upset, like, man! He was cussing at me. You know I’m a Christian, and I was offended by all that cursing. You know how am I going to deal with that? But now I know that all he wanted was for me to win and to do good, and he felt that was going to spark me to go out there and stop Cory Spinks—and I went out there and stopped him.
I’ll just remember those times. I’ll remember those times. You know nobody has times where, when it’s a relationship whether it’s with your wife or whether it’s a business relationship, it’s never always going to be 100% A-1. You know you’re going to have your ups and you’re going to have your downs. And me and Emanuel had more ups than we had downs, and I will remember the ups and not the downs.
CIANI: One thing I remember that Emanuel told me about you, was prior to your first fight with Cory Spinks, Emanuel was telling me that you looked absolutely phenomenal in your preparations going into that fight, where I know a lot of observers were expecting Spinks to beat you. Can you tell us K9 a little bit about what that particular training camp was like for you, that Emanuel was so stoked and fired-up about the way you looked in preparation?
BUNDRAGE: Oh yeah. One thing about me is I train super hard. I know it’s like I’m against all odds and I never get the credit that I deserve. But having Emanuel Steward in my corner and telling me how I’m looking good definitely gave me a whole lot of confidence, because he had been around some of the best fighters in the world. He had trained some of the best fighters in the world. He had 41 world champions! He was making millions of dollars when I was riding around on a bicycle or a Big Wheel. You know I didn’t even know what money was. Fifty cents was a whole lot to me, and he was making millions. But just with a guy like Emanuel Steward man, I’m just happy to have a guy like that on that kind of level being from my city; being from my city as somebody I could reach out and touch. You know I could call him. While he was on HBO I could call him and he would answer the phone, and he was like Hollywood on TV. People know him all around the world. It was just an honor to have somebody like that working my corner. Like I said, I thank God for a guy like that because he was in my backyard. I didn’t have to go to Florida to go see him or go reach him. He was right here in the city of Detroit, and that meant a whole lot to me. You know he treated my family good, he showed us a whole lot, and that was—man! You know we did good things together, me and Emanuel Steward. I always said it, even when I was on The Contender: the first should be last, and the last should be first. I probably wasn’t the first world champion he had, but I was definitely the last.
CIANI: Speaking on that note, what was it like for you and him together as a fighter/trainer pairing when you captured that world championship in your first Spinks fight?
BUNDRAGE: Man you know what? He was so happy for me! I think he like almost passed out, because you know one thing about Emanuel Steward, even though he had all these champions and he’s such a great trainer, he still gets nervous because his reputation is on the line. He’s known for winning. So even though he felt like I was going to win that fight, he still was nervous. You know what I mean? When I won that fight, man I was so happy! If you looked at the replay, I was happy! I’m jumping around, and I’m grabbing this person, and I’m grabbing that person. I go to grab him, and he’s looking at me like, “Man! I’m Emanuel Steward. You know how many champions I’ve had?” And to me it was like hitting the lottery. So you know it was like I had to realize this was nothing for him, but for me it was everything. It was big, and I was as happy as I don’t know what, and he was as happy as I don’t know what, but his way of being happy was different from my way of being happy. His happy wasn’t like my happy because he had done that, what?—twenty or thirty years ago. So he was happy like I was twenty or thirty years ago.
CIANI: You know you were actually the first Detroit world champion I believe since Tommy Hearns. When you think of the duo of Emanuel and Tommy Hearns, how do you view them together in terms of legacy, the matchup they had there?
BUDNRAGE: Oh, you know what? That might be the best combination of all-time. You know Emanuel Steward, like he always said, he had a lot of time he spent with Tommy Hearns. He showed Tommy Hearns all of his tricks. With me, he didn’t have a long time with me or a lot of time with me, so I wasn’t able to get some of the tricks he already had. So I came up a different kind of way. You know I didn’t have 100,000 amateur fights, you know and all that kind of stuff. I think his thing, him and Tommy Hearns, Tommy Hearns was like a son to him. That was his bread and butter. That was the guy that got him his first millions of dollars. You know what I mean? With me it was different. He was already established when he got to me. It was totally different.
Tommy Hearns, at that time boxing was all of that and then some! All of the football players were trying to be boxers. They weren’t trying to play no football. Boxing was the biggest sport in the world, and they were doing big things when boxing was big. You know that’s when Wide World of Sports was on channel 7. It wasn’t no talking about no NBA. There was no such thing. NBA? But now you know the times have changed, and boxing isn’t as big as it was. So me being a world champion in the city of Detroit, it’s not the same as it was when Tommy Hearns was a world champion, because boxing was all that then. And now it’s just okay. If you’re name ain’t Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao, it’s like, “Who is he?” If your name ain’t Mike Tyson, “Who is he?” So it’s different now, but yeah, him and Tommy Hearns, they were like Batman and Robin.
CIANI: This past weekend Wladimir Klitschko won a decision against Mariusz Wach, and I’m wondering if you can evaluate Wladimir’s performance, especially in light of the fact that this was his first fight without Emanuel Steward in I believe 17 fights in a row?
BUNDRAGE: Yeah well, you know you got to remember that Emanuel Steward, he put a lot of time into Klitschko and he’s not going forget what Emanuel showed him over night. Not taking nothing from Banks, but Emanuel Steward, he polished Wladimir off. One thing about Emanuel, I think with more than any other fighters he was the best when it came to heavyweights. What he would do is make sure their balance was right, change a few things, and the next you think you knew man, you’d be like, “Man! Is that the same fighter?” Look what he did for Lennox Lewis. Look what he did for Oliver McCall who beat Lennox Lewis. I mean you know he was great, I would say super great, when it came to heavyweights. And I don’t think Wladimir missed a beat. I don’t think he missed a beat, and those guys man! The heavyweight to beat them is in the NBA or in the NFL. Nobody in boxing is going to beat them. They are going to retire as champions. I cann’t see anybody beating them. From what Emanuel has put into them, and from the experience that they have now with being with Emanuel and with fighting those good fighters. Like the Lennox Lewis of the world or the Mike Tyson of the world. Those fighters are an endangered species now. That’s how come we’re trying to bring up some new fighters after the Olympics, you know to be the ones to carry the torch.
But we will never have another Emanuel Steward, man. Like I say, this guy came across Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali. Boxing isn’t like it used to be, and hopefully it becomes what it used to be, and I mean gets better than what it is now. But there will only be one Emanuel Steward. You know God did a real good job with this guy.
CIANI: K9, I’m wondering if you can tell the fans a little bit about what the experience was like for you when you were in training? The day-to-day training activities in Kronk, what was the daily life like in that regard when you were preparing for a fight and going to the gym every day?
BUNDRAGE: Let me tell you something. Let me tell you something. You know for God leave the glory, because I don’t want to take nothing from God, man. You know God, he made all of us and if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t breathe, we wouldn’t pray, we wouldn’t be nothing. Kronk, and I’m not just saying that because I’m from Detroit. I went into some of the best gyms in the world. I went into the gym that Manny Pacquiao trains at, Freddie Roach’s gym. I’ve been in some of the best gyms all around the world. I have been in a huge camp there in Germany. But the Kronk Gym, you know I’m from the original Kronk Gym. I was at the new Kronk Gym; I was at the original Kronk Gym. The Kronk Gym, there is never going to ever be a gym like the original Kronk Gym. There were wars down there, man, that will make HBO look like little league. I mean it would make Showtime look like little league. Them wars that were in that basement were unbelievable!
When I was a kid I used to see those guys down there banging. I’m talking about Michael Moorer, I’m talking about Gerald McClellan, I’m talking about Milton McCrory, I’m talking about Tommy Hearns, I’m talking about John David Jackson. I’m talking about the best in there with the best. You will never see this again ever, I’m talking about even on HBO. And I’m not knocking HBO, but it’s just that them fighters don’t exist no more. Kronk had the best fighters in the world. I mean on any given day somebody would be coming down there. Jermain Taylor, he would be down there. The next week you would have Sugar Ray Leonard down there. Maybe a month, two months later you’d have the Prince Naseem. Maybe a couple of months later or a year later you’d have M&M. A year later, I mean just celebrities, celebrities, fighters. I’m talking about that gym wasn’t no joke.
It wasn’t just the best gym, it was the hottest gym. It used to be so hot down there that the walls used to sweat. I used to be down there like, “Man! How am I going to fit in?”
When I was a kid I used to say, “How am I going to fit in? Who can I beat?”
I couldn’t see anybody I could beat. I saw one guy I probably could beat. He was a little guy, and he’s one of my trainers now. But even then, I don’t even know if I probably could have beaten him. I was thinking I could, but the wars down there! Man! Now I see why so many champions came out of there, because with the best fighting the best, once they got in the fight, the guys they were sparring with were better than the guys they were fighting, and that’s because there were so many champions down there.
CIANI: When you think of Emanuel in the capacity of HBO’s Expert Boxing Analyst, what did you think of him as a commentator? I know this past weekend I think you were in the same boat as me switching back and forth from HBO to Showtime, but how much will Emanuel be missed in that role?
BUNDRAGE: You know what? They’re going to miss him; I’m going to miss him! I mean you know who can I text that’s actually doing an HBO commentating that’s going to actually text me back? I remember Emanuel was doing a fight on HBO and I text him something. It was actually the fight, Randall Bailey was fighting, he took the belt from Mike Jones. When he was fighting Mike Jones, I knew Emanuel and them, they were bored because the fight was so boring. I text Emanuel, because it was boring and they didn’t know what to talk about, they didn’t have anything talk about, and they were just falling asleep basically.
I text Emanuel and asked, “Are they actually fighting for a belt?”
You know like about one minute, two minutes later, “Can you believe it? These guys are actually fighting for a belt?”
I said wow! I told my wife, I said, “I just text Emanuel that! Look at what he just said!”
So you know he was one of those guys that would interact with me, whether he was on HBO or whether I’m here. He respected me a whole lot; I respected him a whole lot. I’m going to miss him on HBO man, because he knew what he was talking about! He knew what he was talking about. I mean he helped out Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant. I mean he’s the one that helped them to get to their level. I mean they were good, but they didn’t know more about boxing than him. And I could actually see him actually helping them, because as the years went by they started saying stuff that he would normally say. I’m like, “Wow! He’s actually still in the school with them guys, you know”.
Yeah, he was great. When it came to commentating he was great. He was so good in commentating because he knew all the tricks as a trainer, and as a manager. If he didn’t know diddley, he knew boxing! That’s one thing I can say, he knew some boxing. He was a great commentator. You know, I know when I used to talk to him on the phone he would talk real, real fast. I understood him because I knew Emanuel. We know each other. But then when he got on HBO he would talk slow, and I’d be like, “Man! Is Emanuel playing games with me or what?”
But that’s Emanuel. Emanuel was cool, man. He was cool, he was smooth, and he knew his stuff. That’s one thing I can say: he knew his stuff. He didn’t have to do it like a lot of trainers. A lot of trainers sit there and tell you how good they are. Emanuel proved how good he was. The other trainers and they will try to show you how good they were. Emanuel could tell you a few things that would be better than what somebody would actually show you.
I remember he wrapped my hands one time, and when he wrapped my hands I felt like I had a cast on. I was like, “Oh man! I can’t wait to hit somebody with this!” It was a fight I had over in Phoenix. I remember he called me and he wrapped my hands, and I was happy. I was amazed because it was Emanuel Steward wrapping my hands, but not only was I happy that he gave me the time to wrap my hands, he actually wrapped it so good man. I mean real good.
And another thing too, I thank God for him with my very first time on an airplane. I used to be scared of airplanes. I used to be scared to death of airplanes. That’s how come it took a long time for my career to get going.
Man! One day Emanuel Steward man, he said, “I got a fight for you!”
I said, “Alright. When? Where?”
He said, “You’re going to have to get on an airplane”.
I said, “Aw man!”
And he said, “But it’s going to be on the Mike Tyson undercard”.
I fought on the same card that Mike Tyson fought Lennox Lewis on. That was the first time I ever got an airplane, and I spent the night down at Emanuel Steward’s house.
I said, “Wow!”
This is the same basement he told me Tommy Hearns had slept in. Same basement he said Gerry McClellan stayed. Before I fought Cory Spinks, he said, “I don’t believe in superstitions”, but he said, “Nobody ever slept down here before getting ready for a fight and lost”. And it was true when I fought Cory Spinks because I sure won.
CIANI: What will you remember the most about Emanuel Steward and what he’s done for boxing?
BUNDRAGE: Well he was just, if you knew Emanuel Steward you would say you know him more than just for boxing. You know him and love him more for what he did than just boxing. Think about it. Gerald McClellan was a guy who he trained. Gerald McClellan ended up being with someone else. I know you had to be upset about that when somebody else is training him and managing him. Gerald McClellan goes and ends up in a coma. But guess who was still looking out for Gerald McClellan? Manny Steward.
So he was not just only a manager, a trainer, a commentator. He was a good man. He was a man that would give you the shirt off his back, and that’s what I will remember about Emanuel Steward. You could call Emanuel Steward and you could talk about more than just boxing. If he had it, he would give it to you. Man, he would look out for people, man, and it wasn’t just about boxing. If he had it, he would look out for you, and that’s what I know of Emanuel Steward. He was a giving guy. He was giving. I mean if you wanted it, he would give it to you. He had a good eye. One thing about him is that he was quiet and he was always observant. He was a real smart guy. He knew boxing, but like I said he was a good person inside the ring and outside the ring.
You know I really hate with all that he went through and all that he had ever given somebody, for him to leave here the way he had left here, man. I didn’t even know it, but it seemed like it happened overnight. You know what I mean? You would think a guy like that wasn’t going to leave here. You would think that he was going to live. I’m talking about just keep living. He never seemed like he got older. I never saw a man be on an airplane, and go to New York.
You could call him, “Emanuel, did you make it there?”
“Yeah, I did. I’m in the UK now”.
He flew on airplanes like people drove cards. Now you talk to him in and he’s back in Cali. You talk to him again and he’s at home. You talk to him again, and he’s back out in New York again. Man! He flew airplanes like people drive cars. For a guy to be in his 60s, and he had a whole lot. He was training Klitschko the heavyweight champion of the world, and then he’d come home and train Andy, and then after that fight he’d train me, and then after that fight he’s back on HBO. This man had a ball of energy. I will remember him as an energetic person. He was what, 68? But he reminded me so much of me. I’m 39, and I’m like 24; and he was 68, and he was living like 32. We were like the same age.
CIANI: I have one final question for you K9, and I was just wondering if you had any final thoughts on Emanuel Steward, whether it was an experience you guys shared together or anything at all you wanted to say about his impact on the world of boxing? Do you have any final thoughts?
BUNDRAGE: Man! I don’t know what boxing is going to be like without a guy like Emanuel Steward. We already as it is, we don’t have the greatest trainers in the world right now, and that’s the reason why we don’t see great fights. You got good fighters, and you got fighters that could be great, but you don’t have enough great trainers, and for us to lose the greatest trainer of all-time, possibly the greatest trainer of all-time, that’s really going to put a dent into boxing. He was actually having seminars and going to have more seminars to teach trainers how to properly train fighters, because a lot of people call themselves trainers but actually don’t know how to train. It’s definitely going to be hurtful for boxing. Boxing is going to be like man to man because we don’t have enough good trainers out there. So you’re going to have fighters just fight, and people might like that, but it’s the sweet science. Emanuel Steward, he specialized in the sweet science of boxing. If you wanted to see something sweet, like you wanted to see chess, you call Emanuel Steward. If you wanted chess, you would call Emanuel Steward to train your fighter. Boxing is going to be more like checkers without Emanuel Steward.
CIANI: K9, I want to thank you very much for giving me such an outstanding interview here today. For my part, Emanuel was the one guy in boxing who I considered a friend, who always made me feel like I was doing something special whenever I had the privilege of interviewing him, and I can honestly say I miss him very much. I thank you for taking part in this and giving me your time and insight. I really do appreciate it.
BUNDRAGE: Oh yeah, man, anytime man, anytime man. My thing about it is he definitely deserved to leave out of here like he did, man. And with all the people that came there, I was at the memorial today. They showed up for him and I feel good, and his family feels good, and you know him. You know in spirit I’m quite sure he feels good, too, to actually see the way people came together. There wasn’t any violence, you know what I mean? The fight was in the ring where it was supposed to have been, and it just was a good homecoming for Emanuel Steward. I’m talking about Sugary Ray Leonard showed up, Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis, Holyfield, everybody was there, man. It was just a good sight to see. Aretha Franklin, she sang, and I just was happy with everybody that was there the way it went. It wasn’t like sad. Like you go to a funeral or memorial and it’s sad, and everybody’s crying, and you know you got tissues. I couldn’t even see myself crying. There were like no tears there to be found. I mean it was just a homecoming, man. It was a real homecoming, definitely a homecoming, and I just hope that people don’t forget Emanuel Steward. I don’t think they’ll be able to anyway.
As long as we got guys like Tommy Hearns, and all that great commentating and some of the things he said. He will always be around, man. You’ll always be able to see Emanuel Steward somehow, some way, with all of the stuff that he did. I just hope that he actually give him a gym, man. I hope they give him a gym here in the city of Detroit. You know Emanuel Steward, they should give him a trophy or statue, like they got downtown, they got the Joe Louis thing. They should have something with Emanuel Steward, in truth, because he did a lot for the city. The original Kronk Gym, that’s a landmark. That’s a landmark! When you think of Motown you should think of Kronk, too. I mean Kronk should be right there with Motown, because it produced millionaires. Motown produced millionaires, and I’m just happy to be a part of that, and I’m happy to be on the phone talking to you about the great Emanuel Steward.
I would like to thank Cornelius ‘K9’ Bundrage for providing his time and insight for this installment
This article was also published at East Side Boxing