Though you wouldn’t know it to look at him every day at the Wild Card Boxing Gym where he has been training a varied clientele for years, Samuel Stewart is unique. He is unqiue as a person, a fighter and ultimately a survivor. A former Liberian National Champion and Olympian who has fought for the world title a total of three times, he isn’t your average boxer turned trainer.
Considering that only a short while ago, he was in Europe playing one of the main bad guys in Fast and Furious 6, you could think that he has lived a charmed life, but that wouldn’t be quite right either. In fact, it’s crazy that in a parallel universe had Mr. Stewart not been by a well placed sewer break, he’d probably be dead. The second near death experience he had was directly attributable to boxing and civil war – but that will all be explained later. In short, little is as it seems with Stewart and it is less luck than outsized drive and talent that has allowed him not only to survive but to thrive. No brooding mass of humanity, but a fairly easygoing guy with a weakness for comedy, it is surprising when Stewart tells you that he was forced out of his mother’s house at eleven years old by civil war to flee alone to Monrovia with little more than a chicken and $200 to get him there. Upon reaching Monrovia via truck from the interior of Liberia, Stewart nearly found out the hard way what the Monrovian curfew meant during wartime:
STEWART:” The president had just gotten overthrown. I didn’t know anything about curfew. I’m on this truck and the man tells me, ‘there’s curfew in Monrovia’ I said, ‘what are you talking about curfew?’ I thought he said crawfish. He said, ‘no – six o’clock pm if you are not indoors the soldiers are ordered to shoot to kill.’ I’m coming with an idea of a place where a cousin or some cousin of the family lives but I don’t know for sure if they still live there. I get to Monrovia and they have moved. And it’s about 30 minutes till 6 o’clock. People are yelling at me, ‘go home! Go home! If they find you they’re going to kill you!’ and no one is letting me go into their house. On the sidewalk, a drain had bust and the water had washed the dirt so there was a hole underneath. I heard gunfire BRRRRRRT! The soldiers were actually in a truck driving down the street. The lady just yelled ‘run! Hide!’ and she shut her window. I jump. Luckily that hole was there. I was curled up in there. The first night in Monrovia I slept in a drainage ditch. The mosquitos had a feast.”
After narrowly missing death, Stewart began to find odd jobs to do for strangers in the big city for the return payment of food and being allowed to sleep safely on enclosed porches, hidden from roaming marauding civil police firing squads.
STEWART: “ I would go and work for somebody and say what you got here to do? You need some help for this and that? Oh yeah – I want to do that. I washed people’s baby clothes. I would talk to them and say, ‘ok I don’t have anywhere to sleep but you can sleep on the porch there.’ Their zinc shack is falling apart, but I would just crawl there and spend the night.”
Stewart did finally find family in Monrovia, but Stewart’s living situation remained tenuous. Ever careful and always watchful, Stewart always made a point to make small strategic improvements whenever possible. Case in point, with the end of curfew the adult schools reopened offering classes in the evenings. Stewart, who arrived in Monrovia with just a third grade education, made sure that any money he earned also paid for evening adult school classes which he attended religiously.
However, the precariousness of his position made a mark upon the young Stewart. As a rule, he was loath to react quickly if at all to any injustice borne upon him. Instead, he routinely coped by avoiding or finding a way around negative situations versus facing them head on. But one day, Stewart decided to treat himself by seeing the movie BODY AND SOUL, starring Liam Isaac Kennedy, Jayne Kennedy and Muhammad Ali. It was a story about the world of professional boxing and the corruption, violence and temptation that befall a young boxer and the woman that he loves. After seeing this film, something came apart inside Stewart. The result of this break was that an otherwise minor injustice suffered immediately after the movie proved to be the fateful straw that broke the camel’s back:
STEWART: “I was like seventeen. On my way back from the movie I bought myself three donuts for 25 cents. I got to my cousin’s house – they allowed me to sleep in the hallway. His brother jumped me and took one of my donuts. For the first time I fought back. I beat the living crap out of him. He was bleeding from the nose, the ears and everything. I got scared and I ran. While I’m running I saw three guys jogging with Liberian Boxing Association written on their jerseys. So I followed them and saw where boxing was being done in Liberia for the first time.”
While most would assume that this happenstance would be enough to start Stewart’s rise in boxing, Stewart was almost denied his moment when the head coach told the 5’3 tall and 110 pound teenager that he was simply too small to fight. But Stewart, seeing something in that club as well as himself, persevered showing up everyday at the same time for no less than three months begging to be trained. Finally he wore them down. It was only another three short months before Mr. Stewart, having dropped to 106 pounds from the rigors of training, was afforded the chance to fight the 112 pound national champion in an exhibition tournament. Stewart, to the surprise of everyone upset the 112 pound champion via knockout. After that, the change in Stewart’s situation was night and day, obscurity to notoriety:
STEWART: “Six months after that I was the national champion at that weight. I went to Ghana and won the first gold medal in the West African tournament. My picture was in the papers. Dr. Stewart they called me. Even kids in Liberia right now not born when I was there - you say Dr. Stewart they know who you are talking about. After all of those things, I went to the Olympics in 88 and represented Liberia.”
While Mr. Stewart did not medal in the Olympics, it was his participation in these games in Los Angeles that finally led Mr. Stewart to his father. Stewart’s father had been living away from Liberia since well before Mr. Stewart was forced to leave his mother and two younger brothers for a different life in Monrovia at the young age of eleven:
STEWART: “I went to Rhode Island and met my father. We talked and everything. From the Olympics he was proud. Asked me to stay but it was something I couldn’t do. I said ‘I have to go and see my baby being born.’”
Immediately following the Olympics, Mr. Stewart was expecting the birth of his own first child, a baby boy. Though his father and other stateside siblings wanted him to stay in the United States, Stewart returned to Liberia believing that he could easily return to the United States once he was settled in with his newborn son and the child’s mother. Mr. Stewart was to be denied on both counts. Upon return to Liberia Mr. Stewart learned that his son had already arrived happy and healthy. Then the country proved to be on the brink of yet another civil war. With the outbreak of another civil war in Stewart’s lifetime, things began to get complicated with his newfound public profile as a Olympian in an unstable economy. Stewart was once again in harms way with no alternative but to sever all ties with family to best insure their safety as well as his own:
STEWART: “He was born before I got there. But I went and everything was fine. Then the war started. December 24th, 1989. The civil war started by Charles Taylor. (I) Went and almost got killed in the village of my grandmother. When you had a little bit of a name, people thought you were rich. I don’t have any money. I’m broke. I started hearing little murmurs in the air that these people were threatening to capture me. My grandmother, she said leave. I left. Went to another part of the country. I fished with the fishermen, made some money - just any way I could survive. I made a bit more money and I decided to go. I walked to Sierra Leone. I was in Sierra Leone for 9 months trying to find a way to come to the States. My father, there was no one in my family who knew where I had ended up in the world. No one knew. They all thought I was dead.”
In Sierra Leone, with the help of a courageous missionary, Stewart was finally able to contact his family in the United States and inform them of his whereabouts and let them know that he was still very much alive and in need of their assistance. Stewart’s father was able to file for Stewart’s green card and his extended family in the United States were able to sponsor Stewart and pay his ticket from Sierra Leone to the United States. After three years of just trying to survive, Stewart was back in a position where he could box. Still an amateur, in his father’s state of Rhode Island he won the New England Title at the Golden Gloves, only to lose in the nationals via a controversial decision at the Chicago Bulls Stadium to an opponent from Texas. To this day Stewart says the crowd in attendance agreed that it was a robbery:
STEWART: “ I won all of New England. I went to the nationals. I lost to a guy from Texas. I think I got robbed. He hit me low seven times. No one warned him. I beat his butt. They give him the fight the whole stadium went BOOOO! This was in Chicago where the Chicago Bulls played. And everyone went BOOOO! So I got robbed.”
Stewart followed up this loss by turning professional. He fought for the World Title a total of three times. For his last fight, his trainer was Freddie Roach. However, by then Stewart had begun to realize that he had lost his love for the game as a fighter:
STEWART: “The punches started to hurt. When you start to feel that, you already don’t want it. So I said nah – I think I had enough of this. The only reason I actually started boxing was to go to the Olympics. And I did that.”
When asked to speculate on what it was inside that kept him going throughout so much difficulty and hardship both professionally and personally, Stewart seems to believe that something inside of him simply didn’t allow for any other option. Indeed quitting was a foreign concept to him. He simply couldn’t not try – something that would seem to be echoed within his world class champion peers:
STEWART: “I saw those guys running (The Liberian Boxing Association) and I saw the 1984 Olympics on the TV and I thought, I can do that. At the time I was not even boxing yet. There are certain things I feel. Most of everything I have done in my life is something that I feel. If I look at something and it’s challenging that’s what I want to do. For me it’s the challenge of trying to do something in life that other people find difficult. And if you can do that, it’s just the feeling that comes over you it pleases you so much that you come to the point where you see the simplicity of it. Like it’s not that difficult - I don’t know why people are afraid of it. Nervousness is there – it’s the fear that you don’t have. Fear is not any part of a boxer – one that will actually make it and actually do good. Nervousness, yeah. The toughest time before a fight was the maybe 3 minutes walk from the dressing room to the ring. That was my biggest fight. Until the curtain open and I see the ring.”
The challenge for Stewart since retiring from the ring has been acting. Once again a mixture of luck, grit and social skills has served Stewart well. Through his ties at The Wild Card Boxing gym, actor James Franco hired Stewart as a personal trainer when he was playing an enlisted boxer in the movie ANAPOLIS. While Stewart was working on that movie, Stewart was noticed and liked by ANAPOLIS director Justin Lim. When Lim went on to do the FAST AND FURIOUS movies, Lim hired Stewart as his own on set personal trainer. During preparations for FAST 6, Stewart thought Lim was pulling his leg when Lim casually informed Stewart that he had found a part for him in FAST 6. If anything, Stewart thought Lim just wanted him to punch somebody in the face for the movie.
STEWART: “ He (Lim) was real busy that day. He said we are not working out today, but by the way, I got you a part in the film. I thought he was busting my balls. So I was like, ok that’s good. If you need me to punch somebody in the face or something like that, that’ll be good. I think I can pull that off. And he didn’t say anything more about the character. I went in the next day and I got people sizing me up and saying what kind of shoes I wear and everything else. And so they wipe the grease off of my face and put a little bit of powder on there and I was before the camera holding a gun and walking around. I didn’t know what the characters name was or anything like that. They told me the name’s Denninger. Denninger sounds like a German name or something. So I’m an African with a German name.”
So once again, Stewart is doing something that is not only good for him, but good for his home country:
STEWART: “Just two days ago I was driving home and I got a call from Ghana. I just got this call and the person, he give his name, which I’ve forgotten, he said, ‘I just saw Fast and Furious 6 and are you a Liberian?’ And I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘because we are so proud of you and we are all praying for you. We are proud that you have put Liberia on the map in Hollywood.’ So, ok – I didn’t know it was that big. But it is to my people.” To hear more about Samuel Stewart and what’s important to him, go to his website dedicated to chronicling all things related to mother Africa and people all over the world of African descent. Named for his mother, Yama,
the site is www.yamaafricatalk.com
Fast & Furious
Story by Kylie Krabbe
Photos by Soren Krabbe
March 7th, 2014
Sammy Stewart outside the Wild Card Boxing club,
Photo by Soren Krabbe
Photo by Soren Krabbe
At age eleven Sammy Stewart had to escape his native country of Liberia.