BROOKLYN – It’s been two years since Curtis Stevens has been a full-time professional boxer. Two years since he was knocking on the door of the title shot that many felt he should’ve earned several years earlier. Two years since many wrote the obituary on his once promising career.
In January 2010, Stevens, a heavily-tattooed, heavy-handed boxer-puncher whose glares and combinations elicited comparisons to fellow Brooklyn native Mike Tyson, was facing Jesse Brinkley in an IBF title elimination bout, and was looking to finally fulfill the lofty expectations bestowed upon him when he first turned pro in 2004. He had run through the previously unbeaten Piotr Wilczewski a few months earlier and Brinkley looked to be nothing more than another victim.
Stevens had predicted a first round knockout, but the first round came and went without incident. And as the rounds progressed, Stevens faded before losing a one-sided decision. The loss, which followed earlier losses to Marcos Primera and Andre Dirrell, seemed to reinforce Stevens’ reputation as a talented, but undedicated athlete.
Now 27, Stevens (22-3, 16 knockouts) is looking toward his last opportunity at making something happen in the sport he has practiced since the age of five. He will face Elvin Ayala (26-5-1, 12 KOs) of New Haven, Conn., on Jan. 19 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., in a co-main event televised by NBC Sports Network and promoted by Main Events and Jimmy Burchfield’s Classic Entertainment Sports in association with Peltz Boxing and Sampson Boxing.
The main event will feature unbeaten Russian Sergey Kovalev (19-0-1, 17 KOs) vs. former titleholder Gabriel Campillo (21-4-1, 8 KOs).
At this point, there are no ‘tomorrows’ left.
“If he comes up short against Ayala, it’s pretty much end of the road,” Stevens’ trainer/uncle Andre Rozier told RingTV.com. “If you can’t take care of an Ayala, then how are you gonna defeat the Golovkins, the Geales, the Kid Chocolates, the Martinezes? Curtis has to perform well. Winning is without a doubt a must, but performing well — being explosive and if he’s fortunate enough to achieve a knockout, doing it in grand style — are important.”
Rozier admits that it’s been “a bit frustrating” to see Stevens, who was the National Amateur Light Heavyweight champion in 2002 a year before Andre Ward won in the same division, fall behind the pace of many of his amateur contemporaries.
“It’s been a bit frustrating that he is not at the level of his peers, the family of Andre Ward, Andre Berto, the Dirrells, the Petersons, Timothy Bradley, they all won the US championships in the 2000s and gone on to the Olympics,” said Rozier. “He should’ve arrived, he should’ve been on schedule but due to the fact that he wasn’t pledging full dedication to the sport of boxing, he was left behind by his peers.
Stevens is now stepping down to 160 pounds after competing most of his career as a super middleweight and light heavyweight. The division would seem to fit his 5-feet-7 frame better, and his first round knockout of Romaro Johnson last March in his only fight since the Brinkley bout suggests that his power isn’t compromised by the dip in weight.
Two years has given Stevens a lot of time to think, time to grow. And in that time, he has.
“Two years off there was a lot of thinking, a lot of things I wanted to do in my career before but I was just bullshitting and just out in the streets just doing whatever I wanted,” admitted Stevens. “Two years off, not boxing, not really making money and not really on the sport that I love, that really had me messed up in the mind. But God gave it and he took it away so I’m just ready to go in there and become a champion now.
Since then, Stevens has become a father to one-year-old Amor Curtis Stevens, a responsibility that he says has changed his life for the better.
“He’s bad as hell but I love him,” said Stevens of his son. “It’s not for me anymore. I have a son, I gotta show him the right things to do in life. I gotta lead by great examples, not poor examples.”
Rozier says that he has seen a change in Stevens’ attitude, which in turn has elevated his boxing game.
“I honestly believe that he had to learn how to dedicate himself to the craft of boxing,” said Rozier. “He had to want it. It’s one thing to call yourself a professional fighter, but it’s an entirely different monster to dedicate yourself to your craft, to create the opportunity to be world champion. I think he has finally arrived at that level and we will see a much improved, far more disciplined, far more dedicated Curtis Stevens.”
On the day that this writer stopped by the Starrett City Boxing Gym in Brooklyn’s East New York section to witness Stevens’ training camp, Stevens would spar eight rounds with fellow middleweight and long-time training partner Danny Jacobs. Jacobs, who is training for his own Feb. 9 fight on the undercard of the Danny Garcia vs. Zab Judah junior welterweight title fight at Barclays Center, said afterwards that he was impressed with Stevens’ dedication to camp.
“I think Curtis is in tremendous shape,” said Jacobs. “He came to camp a little bit overweight but he’s lost the weight. He’s looked superb in sparring and he’s sharp. I’d give this guy an ‘A+’ in his training.”
There were moments when the heavy-handed Stevens let his hands ago against the mobile, versatile Jacobs, landing his trademark overhand rights and sweeping left hooks on the elusive Jacobs. There were also moments when Stevens would pause in front, waiting for an opening before Rozier would exhort his pupil to pick up the pace.
“Don’t get lazy!” yelled Rozier, who also works with 2008 Olympian Sadam Ali and 2012 Olympian Marcus Browne. “World champions don’t anticipate, they create.”
Ayala, 31, has also experienced career highs and lows. He began his career at 16-0, but has lost each time he has stepped up. His notable defeats have come against David Lemieux (KO by 1) and — in his lone title opportunity — a twelfth-round knockout defeat to then-IBF middleweight titleholder Arthur Abraham. He has since won six straight since the Lemieux loss in 2010.
Though the build-up to this fight has been relatively quiet, Ayala did manage to get in a barb that touched a nerve. He compared Stevens unfavorably to Abraham, stating that he felt this was a step-down from his prior foe.
“He’s gotta say things to hype himself up,” said Stevens. “I remember the first time I read something, he said I was no Abraham. That pissed me off, but I had to settle my mind down and come back humble and say he gotta say things to boost himself up. It’s all good, I can not be an Abraham in his mindset, but he knows that I’m more devastating than Abraham would ever be. Abraham shells up, I don’t shell up. I come to fight. I come to get you. Abraham caught his ass in the twelfth, I’m not waiting twelve.”
Photo by Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.