• Wladimir Klitschko v Mariusz Wach

Emotional Klitschko in unusual territory

Dan Rafael | ESPN.com
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Wladimir Klitschko has a height disadvantage against Mariusz Wach © PA Photos
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After heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko polished off Tony Thompson in a sixth-round knockout victory in their July 7 rematch, there was still one more thing for him to do before he left the ring.

Klitschko took the ring microphone and proceeded to lead the crowd of more than 20,000 in Bern, Switzerland, in singing "Happy Birthday" to his trainer and dear friend Emanuel Steward, who was celebrating his 68th birthday that day.

Those were good times. Now, four months later, Steward, a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and one of the sport's most beloved figures, is gone. He died on October 25 in a Chicago hospital from colon cancer.

As happy a time as it was for Klitschko to celebrate with Steward after what turned out to be their final fight together during an exceptional nine-year run, the feeling is now one of profound sadness as Klitschko prepares to make his 13th title defence against Mariusz Wach on Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, at the O2 World Arena.

"The relationship between Emanuel and me was very special - not just a regular relationship between a coach and a boxer," Klitschko said. "He was a great, great friend and one of the geniuses in boxing. 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."

Steward was such a significant part of Klitschko's rise as the dominant heavyweight champion of this era that it is hard to envision him not being part of the corner on fight night. Klitschko went 16-1, won three major belts and became the universally recognised champion under Steward's guidance. Considering Klitschko (58-3, 51 KOs) was stopped in the fifth round by Lamon Brewster in his first fight working with Steward, in 2004, the pairing went a long way.

Three fights earlier, Klitschko had suffered another shocking knockout loss, this one to Corrie Sanders in the second round. He won two fights after that, but his confidence was shaky and he was at the lowest point of his career.

Bernd Boente, Klitschko's manager, thought Steward, who had great success helping Lennox Lewis rebound from a knockout loss to become a dominant heavyweight champion, was just the man for the job and reached out to him.

"Bernd put me on the phone with him and we chatted," Klitschko said, "and I asked him, 'Are you available to train me?' He said, 'Let's give it a try,'"

Klitschko, 36, of Ukraine, flew to the United States to begin training with Steward. Fighter and trainer quickly bonded, and even though Klitschko lost to Brewster (a defeat he later avenged), he had no intention of making another change.

"I remember after the fight, we were both sitting in his room and we actually teared up," Klitschko said. "We got a little emotional because we lost. That was the beginning. Emanuel's strength was to take the fighter who was down and build him back, as he did with Lennox and with me. I fought perfectly in the Brewster fight, other than the outcome.

"Emanuel and me clicked. He never lost confidence in me, and he made me believe in myself."

Over the years, Klitschko said he spent more time with Steward than his own father, who died in July 2011. They trained together and talked about boxing and life. "His spirit was young and he was always learning and he never stopped," Klitschko said.

The last time they spoke was about three weeks ago while Steward was hospitalised.

"The only line that I got to hear from him was, 'Hello, hello, how ya doing?' Unfortunately that was the last words that I heard from Emanuel," Klitschko said. "His voice was very strong. He wasn't able to speak too much, but that was the last line I heard from Emanuel - a strong, happy and clear-sounding voice. ... It was very sad, and it is still sad. I can tell you that the real spirit of Emanuel Steward is with us. I am very happy there is a fight, so we can stay focused and continue to do what he was excited about."

I can tell you that the real spirit of Emanuel Steward is with us. I am very happy there is a fight, so we can stay focused and continue to do what he was excited about
Wladimir Klitschko will fight in Emanuel Steward's honour

Taking on Steward's role as head trainer - nobody can ever truly replace him - is Johnathon Banks, an aspiring heavyweight contender who spent years as one of Klitschko's sparring partners, although not for the past two years. When Banks was a teenager, he met Steward at the trainer's Kronk Gym in Detroit.

Like many of the fighters Steward was close to, Banks spent some time living in his home. He has been part of Klitschko's camp since he and Steward got together in 2004.

"You can't help but be heartbroken by the tragic loss, but Emanuel would want everyone in high spirits and having a good time and being successful, and that's what we are doing," Banks said. "We honour this man by continuing to be in high spirits and be positive about everything, and we continue to do our job because that's what he would want."

When it was clear a few weeks ago that Steward was near death and Klitschko needed to name a new trainer, he picked Banks, who is doing double duty as he is also training for an HBO fight against Seth Mitchell in Atlantic City, on November 17.

Klitschko said he has full confidence in Banks, who is serving as a trainer for the first time, and that they treated the training camp in Austria normally, just thinking of Steward's absence like they would when he might miss a day or two because of his assignments as a TV analyst.

"When Emanuel was out of the camp for an HBO broadcast, I worked with Johnathon," Klitschko said. "We did pad work together, so it is something totally familiar to me. It feels like Emanuel was just out of camp for an HBO broadcast. We're all doing the same job."

Many of the others in camp are people who have been with Steward for years, including assistant James Ali Bashir and Javon "Sugar" Hill, Steward's nephew and Banks' trainer. "Training was a good distraction of what happened," said Klitschko, who said he will travel to Detroit next week for Steward's memorial service.

Banks knows Steward's training program inside and out and said he did not change a thing getting Klitschko ready to fight Wach (27-0, 15 KOs), a 32-year-old from Poland who lives in North Bergen.

"I embrace this and I will be as humble as I can be, but there is no taking his place," Banks said. "His shoes are too huge to fill. But I'm in this position to do a job, and I will do the job how I was taught to do the job by Emanuel. That's the beauty of it. All these years, I was learning. Everything I've learned is coming into play."

Banks' task is to have Klitschko ready for the untested - but giant - Wach (6ft 7, 249 pounds). It is the first time that the 6ft 6, 246-pound Klitschko will be facing a taller opponent. Banks was very close to Steward and is in mourning, too, but said he will stay focused on his job as Klitschko's trainer.

"The change is really difficult," Banks said. "I've been around Emanuel since I was 15, and he truly was a father figure to me. I really loved that man, all that knowledge he possessed and his kind heart. We know he is not going to come in, so it's difficult, and I will cherish his memory. But he doesn't want us to sit around sobbing. So we will tell beautiful stories about him and have a lot of reflection, but we are doing what Emanuel would have wanted us to do.

"He would tell me, 'Johnathon, make sure everything is alright. You know my method.' That was his whole thing. He didn't want the show to stop just because he had to leave. He would want us to continue on."

This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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