- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Trainer and manager Emanuel Steward has worked with numerous elite fighters, leading several to world championships. The most famous are fellow Hall of Famers Thomas Hearns (who was inducted last week) and Lennox Lewis as well as reigning heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
So it should tell you something about the depth of the bond that Steward has with middleweight contender Andy Lee when he says that if Lee can win a world title, it would mean more to him than any of the big championship bouts his fighters have won since Hearns' 1980s heyday.
"None of the others even come close if Andy can do this," Steward said Thursday from Austria, where he was training Klitschko for his July 7 rematch with Tony Thompson.
So deep is Steward's commitment to Lee that after calling the HBO PPV broadcast of the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley Jr. fight Saturday in Las Vegas and immediately flying to Austria to work with Klitschko during the week, the trainer will be back on a plane Friday headed for El Paso, Texas.
He'll be there for less than 48 hours, just long enough to work the corner for Lee, who will challenge middleweight titleholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET) at the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
Steward wouldn't miss it for anything.
"I've never been this close to any fighter, including Tommy," Steward said. "It's more personal with Andy than any other fighter I've had."
On Sunday, Steward will head back to Austria to be with Klitschko, hoping he'll be smiling all the way, thanks to a Lee victory.
"It's like I've been raising Andy for this moment," Steward said. "This is a big moment for me and for Andy."
Steward and Lee aren't just trainer/manager and fighter. Their bond goes a lot deeper than that.
Lee (28-1, 20 KOs), a 2004 Irish Olympian southpaw, was a 21-year-old fresh out of the amateur ranks when he signed with Steward and turned pro in 2006. They have been virtually inseparable since in what has evolved into a father-son relationship. Since Lee moved to the United States in 2006, he has lived with Steward in his Detroit home, along with Javon "Sugar" Hill, Steward's nephew and Lee's assistant trainer and close friend.
Lee and Steward travel together regularly, including to Steward's HBO fights and Klitschko's training camps -- this one being an exception because of Lee's own fight -- where the fighter spars with Klitschko. Lee and Steward met in 2004 when the trainer was on a speaking tour in England and Ireland. They hit it off immediately.
"Emanuel was very approachable," Lee said. "Then I visited [Steward's Kronk Gym in Detroit] in 2004, 2005 to see him and see the gym and talk about what plans he had for me. I wanted to be trained and managed by him, and he wanted to train and manage me."
Lee had an offer from Ireland's amateur program to stay an amateur and receive money for education and a car, among other perks.
"It was tempting, but Emanuel gave me a signing bonus, so it was easier," Lee said. "But mainly I felt it was time to come to America and fight at a famous gym with a famous trainer. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I could have stayed in Ireland, but it was a new challenge. I trusted in Emanuel."
Upon his arrival in Detroit, Lee moved in with Steward. At first, they figured he would stay for a few weeks while Lee looked for his own place. It never happened.
"I figured I might as well stay here," he said. "Emanuel liked having me there, he never charged me rent, and I liked being there. I think he likes having me at the house. He likes to keep an eye on his fighters. I was going into a home environment at the house. It would have been lonesome if I got an apartment."
Said Steward, who co-manages Lee with Perry Mandera: "He was 21, didn't know anything about America. You don't normally see your fighters until training, but he was living with me. I've been with him all the time, almost like a father. He's always with me. Wherever I go, Andy goes with me. He's been in all of the camps. We talk boxing, we watch the tapes together, but we also go fishing together, we play ball together, we talk boxing 24/7."
Many fighters have stayed with Steward, a generous soul, through the years, including Aaron Pryor Jr. and Michael Moorer. But Lee never left.
"I came to realize fighters were coming and going all the time, but I stayed," Lee said. "I made the bedroom I was staying in into my own."
While Steward talked up his new protégé from the outset of his career, Lee did his part, emerging as a big-time prospect with great size for a middleweight, impeccable skills and good power.
He rolled to a 15-0 record before suffering an upset seventh-round knockout loss to Brian Vera in 2008. Steward didn't give up on Lee, who hasn't lost since. He scored a 10th-round knockout of previously undefeated Craig McEwan in March 2011 for his biggest win and, in October, avenged the defeat to Vera with a lopsided decision.
Now comes Lee's chance to take a title, and Steward has been a nervous wreck about the fight because he was with Klitschko while Lee was in El Paso with the rest of the team, including Hill and Lee's brother Roger.
"He's nervous not being here, but I know what I have to do," Lee said. "He's been calling me every day, twice a day, checking in and making sure things are OK. I'd love him to be here [all week], but he told me weeks ago he would be with Wladimir during the week. I respect that."
Steward and Lee cook for each other, do each other's laundry and help each other out with whatever they need. But boxing is always in the air.
"When I'm not training, I travel with Emanuel," Lee said. "I try to help him in any way. We're friends, and he's a mentor to me. He likes to spend time with his fighters. He's already programming you, talking to you. He has a winning attitude, he preaches a lot. I understand he's drilling it into your mind, the tactics or attitude or approach you have to have for a fight.
"One of his greatest things is he gets his fighters into the right mindset. It's all I've known. If Emanuel Steward tells you to do something, you don't argue. He has the experience and the knowledge."
Lee knows how important the fight is with Mexico's Chavez (45-0-1, 31 KOs), 26, who will be making his third defense of the belt he won in June 2011. Besides having the opportunity to realize his championship dreams, Lee can also repay Steward for his unfailing confidence and careerlong guidance.
"I hold him in reverence," Lee said. "He's given me a great opportunity, and who knows what I would be doing at this stage without him? Manny gave me a chance to make a life for myself and improved me at something I love. Here I am now, hopefully ready to become champion of the world. Emanuel has invested a lot in me -- time, emotion, himself. We are tied in together, me, Emanuel, Kronk. Me winning represents all that."
Whatever happens, Lee believes he and Steward will be a team for his entire career.
"I don't ever see myself with another trainer," Lee said. "Even when I'm done, me and Emanuel and Javon are going to be friends. There's nothing big enough to make us not be friends."