RIP Alex Stewart 1964 2016 – It is a small nation, relatively speaking, better known for its gold-medal-winning Olympic sprinters than its boxers. But the Caribbean island of Jamaica, with a population of 2.8 million, more or less the same number of residents as the city of Chicago, has produced a wealth of notable heavyweights, either native-born or the sons of Jamaican immigrants who relocated to other countries in search of a better life.
First and foremost of the boxing big men with Jamaican bloodlines is three-time former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, but others whose rise to ring prominence was accompanied by a reggae beat include former champs Frank Bruno, David Haye and Michael Bentt, as well as highly rated contender Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. Standouts in lower weight classes include such former titlists as Mike McCallum, Chris Eubank and Nicholas Walters.
Just where Alex “The Destroyer” Stewart, who was just 52 when he died Tuesday (details of his passing are still sketchy) ranks in the pantheon of Jamaican standouts is less certain. There are those who maintain that his main claim to fame remains his first-round blowout loss to Mike Tyson on Dec. 8, 1990, which by any measure is more a lowlight than a highlight. In a scheduled 10-rounder in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall with no title on the line (Tyson had been dethroned by Buster Douglas in Tokyo 10 months earlier), Stewart was floored by a crushing overhand right only eight seconds after the opening bell, and he went down twice more before referee Frank Cappuccino stepped in and stopped the massacre after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 27 seconds.
Just like that, Stewart’s reputation as a tough customer and imposing hurdle for any top heavyweight to clear was unfairly tarnished. Mike Downey, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that “when (Tyson) punched Alex Stewart in the stomach Saturday night, it was like squeezing a Hostess Twinkie and then watching the filling squirt out.”
Those also verbally assaulting Stewart as savagely as Tyson had done inside the ropes included CBS boxing analyst Gil Clancy, who noted that “he was like the deer that runs across the road and is frozen by the headlights of an onrushing car,” and Art Miles, trainer of Razor Ruddock (who knocked out Mike Rouse in one round on the same card), who said that “he looked scared, and Tyson can smell fear like nobody else.”
For his part, Tyson, hardly the conciliatory type, went out of his way to compliment the always-gentlemanly Stewart, who never engaged in the type of trash-talk that so many elite athletes spout as a means of building themselves up.
“Alex Stewart is a good fighter and a class act,” Tyson said, almost as if he were embarrassed to win the way that he had. “It’s too bad it had to end like that. I like him very much as a person.”
But one very bad day at the office should not define who and what Alex Stewart was as a fighter, or a man. Subtract Mike Tyson from the equation – and really, how many other good fighters and class acts did a prime Tyson reduce to rubble? – and his body of work reflects just how capable he was in an loaded era for heavyweights that was almost as stacked as the 1960s and ’70s golden age when such all-time greats as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Larry Holmes towered above the competition. It can be argued that it was simply Stewart’s misfortune to come along at a time when the Ali/Frazier/Liston/Holmes/Foreman equivalents were Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and an older, wiser and just-as-hard-hitting Foreman. Viewed in that context, Stewart perhaps can be likened to such predecessors as Earnie Shavers and Ron Lyle, who might have been champions today but never could quite break through the bolted gate to the inner sanctum of the palace where Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Holmes took regal turns upon the throne.
It should be noted, however, that Stewart – born in London to Jamaican immigrants, and who had represented his parents’ homeland at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – began his professional career with 24 consecutive knockout victories, matching the blazing start matched in an earlier era by Mac Foster, another good fighter who never quite made it all the way to the heavyweight summit. In the most important bout of his career to that point, Stewart was paired against another undefeated alumnus of those ’84 Olympics, Evander Holyfield, on Nov. 4, 1989, at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Although Holyfield’s WBC Continental Americas heavyweight title was on the line, that trinket was of scant significance; the consensus going in was that the winner would be fast-tracked to legitimate stardom and anointment as a future world champion.
Stewart gave a good account of himself, but he was hindered by two torn tendons in his left hand incurred early in the fight, and eventually done in by a worsening cut above his right eye that led to his being stopped in the eighth round.
He could not have known it then, but the first of his two matchups with Holyfield – he also dropped a 12-round unanimous decision on June 26, 1993, during one of the periods when “The Real Deal” was bereft of a championship belt – was as close as Stewart would ever come to the biggest prize his sport had to offer. He never fought for a world title, although he remained at least on the fringes of contention virtually until he retired, following a second-round TKO loss to Jorge Luis Gonzalez on June 6, 1999. It was Stewart’s fourth loss in his final six bouts, three of the defeats coming inside the distance. His final record shall forever be frozen at 43-10, with 40 wins by knockout, but, beginning with the first setback to Holyfield, he was 18-7 the rest of the way, with 16 KO triumphs and six defeats ending in similarly abbreviated fashion.
One has to wonder if anything might have been different for Stewart had he won that crossroads first meeting with Holyfield, or in subsequent make-or-break confrontations with Michael Moorer and George Foreman. Moorer stopped Stewart in four rounds on July 27, 1991, in Norfolk, Va., further legitimizing the bulked-up former light heavyweight champ’s status as a force to be reckoned with the heavyweight division, and he eventually won the championship when he outpointed Holyfield on April 22, 1994.
So discouraged was Stewart by his loss to Moorer that for a time he took a job as a minimum-wage security guard at a Clearwater, Fla., sporting goods store, not so much because he was in financial straits as because “I got tired of sitting around with nothing to do. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stick with boxing.”
Stewart, of course, did return to the gym, setting the stage for his most heartbreaking outcome against the then-43-year-old Foreman on April 11, 1992, at Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center. If Stewart had only won that 10-round wild ride at the last chance corral, maybe every misstep he had taken along the way would be overlooked and forgiven. Stewart and his manager, Jim Fennell, certainly thought that would be the case.
“It’s an even split — $5 million to George, $250,000 to Alex,” Fennell joked about the disparity in purses. “But that’s OK. This is the fight we need to move back into contention. A win over Foreman and Alex is right there with the top guys again.”
Said a hopeful Stewart: “I think George is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. But let’s be realistic. Fighting and eating hamburgers are two different things. He’s strong and he has experience, but can he stand up against a young (Stewart was then 27), well-conditioned athlete like me? I don’t think so. George is made to order for me. I have everything it takes to beat George Foreman.”
For much of the way, Stewart provided ample evidence that his confidence was well-founded. Although Big George dropped Stewart twice in the second round, and had him in trouble again in the third and eighth rounds, Stewart otherwise had his way with the aging big bopper. When the final bell sounded, both of Foreman’s eyes were nearly swollen shut, his jaw was a grotesque mask of misshapen flesh and blood was flowing from his nose and mouth. Still, when the decision was announced, Foreman, despite being docked a penalty point in the 10th round for a low blow, was awarded a slender majority decision by scores of 94-93 (twice) and 94-94.
So beaten up was Foreman that, at the postfight press conference, several members of his entourage were observed with tears in their eyes. A couple of reporters even deigned to ask him if he would now consider retirement and leave the business of boxing to younger folks.
“No more Alex Stewarts,” a gracious Foreman said. “It felt like his knuckles had rocks in them. Ron Lyle (who Foreman stopped in five rounds on Jan. 24, 1976) hit me so hard I didn’t feel it. He just knocked me down. But this guy hurt me. When he hit me, it was like a brick going up against my bones. Such pain. I never want to go through that again as long as I live.”
Foreman, like Moorer, would go on to bigger and better things. At the improbable age of 45, he would win the heavyweight title a second time, coming from far behind on the scorecards to knock out Moorer in 10 rounds. Big George’s late-in-life ascension to the championship came nearly 22 years after he had won it the first time, on Jan. 22, 1973, with a second-round TKO of Joe Frazier in, ironically, Stewart’s ancestral home of Kingston, Jamaica.
The near-miss against Foreman proved to be the last real grab at the brass ring for Stewart. Maybe that was because his heart had gone out of his Quixotian quest for glory, and maybe it was because he had paid a steep price for even having undertaken the journey. At that postfight press conference when media members were pressing the battered Foreman to step aside, Big George’s younger brother, Roy, turned the question around. He said the more physically damaged party might well have been Stewart, who connected with 281 of 510 punches, according to CompuBox, an astonishing 55.1 percent accuracy rate.
“Stewart got sick,” Roy Foreman said. “He’s all broken up in the body. I bet he’ll be hurting for weeks. Any man George has fought has never been the same. Maybe you guys should be telling Stewart that he should retire.”
It’s funny, the little things you remember about fights and fighters. For me, my definitive memory of Alex Stewart was provided by his then-5-year-old daughter, Tenille, a couple of days before his ill-fated clash with Tyson.
Evander Holyfield, there to scout Tyson as a possible future opponent, was checking into Trump Plaza when he bumped into Madison Square Garden Boxing publicist Patti Dreifuss and Tenille. Alex Stewart was then under contract to MSG Boxing. Holyfield, who had registered that eight-round TKO over Stewart 13 months earlier, attempted to shake hands with the child, but she would have none of it.
“I’m mad at him,” Tenille explained to Dreifuss. “He beat up my daddy.”
After Tyson blew away Stewart as if he were a flimsy shack in a Category 5 hurricane, Tenille had a new grudge to hold.
“I don’t like Tyson anymore,” Tenille told Dreifuss. Replied her chaperone, “Honey, you didn’t like him before the fight.”
Her lower lip trembling, Tenille said, “Well, I don’t like him harder now.”
Tenille is 31 now, mature enough to know that everything didn’t go as favorably as it might have for her father, but lots of positive stuff happened along the way. And that’s more than most who take up the cruelest sport can ever expect.
RIP Alex Stewart 1964 2016 / Check out The Boxcing Channel’s video tribute to Alex Stewart.
Check out this brief video montage remembering some of Stewart’s best in-ring moments at The Boxing Channel.