Saturday, Nov. 30 (continued): Lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson and WBO counterpart Sergey Kovalev began the night on many experts’ short list for Fighter of the Year honors. And why not: Each began 2013 as a contender seeking to create attention for himself but neither appeared to be an imminent star in the making. By the end, however, they have become so much more.
Twelve months, four fights and four knockouts later, Stevenson and Kovalev not only achieved a lifelong dream by winning a belt, they also established themselves as top-tier stars with lucrative futures. Kovalev’s two-round destruction of Ismayl Sillakh was breathtaking in its brevity while Stevenson’s six-round dismantling of mandatory challenger Tony Bellew provided the perfect exclamation for his life reclamation.
If I had a vote for Fighter of the Year, Stevenson would edge out Gennady Golovkin and Kovalev while outdistancing Timothy Bradley, Danny Garcia, Mikey Garcia, Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather Jr., all of whom had terrific 2013 campaigns. The reason why “Superman” gets my vote is two-fold. First, I prefer my stars to be active and these days four fights for world-class boxers are almost Harry Greb-like. Second, Stevenson makes the cut for the same reason why Glen Johnson won in 2004: When one compares where Johnson and Stevenson were at in terms of career path during the start of their respective years with the stratospheric places they occupied at year’s end – and to do so while in their mid-30s – the incredible surge in good fortune can’t be denied, and neither should the Fighter of the Year award.
Stevenson began 2013 on the heels of a 12th round KO over Donovan George in an IBF title eliminator in October. He was highly ranked and respected, but certainly not a viable marketing force on a major premium cable network. Stevenson commenced his signature campaign by scoring the ultimate revenge over the only man to beat him as a pro, a one-punch sixth round knockout over the deceptively good 19-20-3 Darnell Boone. That result represented an excellent start, but there was more to come – much more.
In June he challenged THE RING’s (and the WBC’s) light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson before an electric Bell Centre Crowd in Montreal. While some experts believed “Bad Chad” still had the goods to defeat the crude Stevenson despite being crushed by Andre Ward in his last outing, this reporter thought differently. But even I couldn’t have foreseen the 76-second annihilation that lifted “Superman” to championship gold and potential star status on HBO.
Stevenson wisely capitalized on the momentum the Dawson KO generated by returning to HBO’s airwaves less than four months later against former titlist Tavoris Cloud, which again was staged at the Bell Centre. Thought to be a one-dimensional slugger, Stevenson surprised many by picking Cloud apart from long range before forcing a corner retirement after round seven. Not only did Stevenson win every round in style, he showed the world he was a far more complete product than previously imagined. Credit should be extended to Javan “Sugar” Hill, who proved beyond doubt he is a worthy successor to his Hall of Fame uncle Emanuel Steward.
Stevenson capped his breakout year by systematically breaking down Bellew, who tried to get into the champion’s head with words and actions during the pre-fight build-up only to meet a focused, powerful force at the top of his game. The 6-foot-3 Bellew had the right idea by staying at long range and attempting to extend the fight into its second half but he didn’t throw enough (29.4 per round to Stevenson’s 44.4), land enough (Stevenson led 81-36 overall, 23-6 jabs and 58-30 power), or connect accurately enough (Stevenson prevaild 33%-22% overall, 16%-10% jabs and 54%-29% power) to ruffle Superman’s cape, much less dent it.
The numbers and Stevenson’s sheer force wore down the Liverpudlian and by the sixth he was ripe for the taking. A knockdown was followed by two flush blows that plunged Bellew to the edge of unconsciousness, a state that moved referee Michael Griffin to wisely intervene at the perfect moment.
One can’t blame Stevenson for saying he wanted a vacation. It had been a long, hard and demanding year that resulted in successes beyond all imagination. But when he was asked who he’d like to meet next, Superman showed his mortal side by bringing up the names of Carl Froch (who had just scored an off-the-floor, highly disputed TKO against George Groves) and Bernard Hopkins, who is six weeks away from turning 49. When HBO’s Max Kellerman brought up Kovalev’s name, Stevenson’s reaction was lukewarm at best. On the other hand, when Kellerman asked Kovalev to name a name after positing the usual I’ll-fight-who-my-promoter-says-to-fight line, he simply said (and without hesitation) “Adonis.”
That difference in attitude is telling. Inside the ring Kovalev projects a Tyson-esque malice that tells everyone he’s eager to meet and beat any S.O.B. that dares to walk up those ring steps. Con versely, Stevenson is thinking like a businessman rather than a warrior. Make no mistake, there’s a time and place for thoughtfulness, caution and honesty in boxing, but Stevenson’s answer to Kellerman revealed that Kovalev may well have won the first round in the psychological war.
Who could blame Stevenson for being reluctant? Just before he entered the ring he watched Kovalev destroy Sillakh in typically violent fashion. But while the final result was bludgeoning and bloody, the route getting there was slyly scientific.
After the willowy Sillakh opened the fight with movement and darting long-range punches, Kovalev executed a subtle adjustment by jabbing to the challenger’s body. While Sillakh succeeded in stemming Kovalev’s vaunted volume attack (he threw just 38 punches in round one compared to the 90s he normally averages), the champion’s jab – which he landed nine times in round one – allowed him to find the precise range from which to launch his missiles. The final results emerged quickly and impressively, for within 50 seconds Sillakh was a semi-conscious mess.
At ringside, Kovalev’s punches traveled with stunning speed and landed with sickening impact. The TV pictures only tell part of the story in this regard, for to truly appreciate what Kovalev does one must see it live.
Kovalev’s victory surely will garner him more than a few Fighter of the Year votes, and deservedly so. In January he crushed former light heavyweight titlist Gabriel Campillo, the 21-1 Cornelius White in June, then-WBO titlist Nathan Cleverly in Cleverly’s home country of Wales in August and the 21-1 Sillakh. In all, Kovlev logged a little less than 29 minutes of action. Not a bad year’s work.
Kellerman put it best when he said that while Stevenson is the man who beat the man, Kovalev may well be the best 175-pound boxer walking the earth. Based on what I saw here, Kovalev should be installed as the favorite even if the fight is staged in Canada. He was that impressive.
Financially, it would be wise for Stevenson to next meet the winner of January’s Lucian Bute-Jean Pascal match because it would be a giant attraction in Quebec. If that happens, Kovalev should fit in one more defense to further solidify his skyrocketing brand. If they emerge victorious again, no more marination would be necessary.
The undercard fights proved eventful, for prospects Artur Beterbiev and Mikael Zewski remained undefeated with quick TKOs over out-gunned opponents Billy Bailey and Ryan Davis respectively while heavyweight Didier Bence’s nine-fight undefeated run surprisingly ended at the hands of the 9-3 Eric Martel Bahoeli. David Lemieux continued to rehabilitate his career with a solid seventh-round TKO of Jose Miguel Torres, brother of onetime WBO junior welterweight titlist Ricardo Torres. Lemieux scored seven knockdowns in the fight, which appeared to be a couple too many for my liking.
The final fight before the HBO-televised portion paired undefeated welterweight Kevin Bizier against the hard-luck Jo Jo Dan, who always seems to get involved in tussles that require needle-sharp attention from the judges. Since Aris and I weren’t counting the fight, we decided to test our judging skills.
It was an excellent practice fight because of the constant back-and-forth action and the multiple shifts in momentum, even within rounds. Dan controlled the early sessions with his bustling body punching while Bizier came on in the later rounds. Bizier’s mathematical cause was helped greatly in the 10th when the tiring Dan was penalized a point for excessive wrestling.
Just as Dan appeared fated for another heartbreaking points loss, an accidental butt in the 12th opened a cut over Bizier’s left eye. The crimson seemed to energize Dan, who did enough to capture the round and the upset split decision victory. The official judging reflected the high degree of difficulty as one saw Bizier a 117-110 winner while the second turned in a 116-110 card for Dan. I was particularly gratified that the deciding judge’s card was the same as mine – 114-113 for Dan.
After packing up my stuff I fulfilled a long-held goal by meeting former lightweight champion Jim Watt, who was doing commentary for Sky Sports at a work station approximately 30 feet to my right. But first, I recognized British Olympian Natasha Jonas, who was there to support Bellew, and stopped by to say hello. I told her, truthfully, that her friend had the right idea by fighting Stevenson at long range and she replied, equally as truthfully, that Stevenson was simply too good this night.
Once we said our good-byes, I then approached Watt and caught his attention when it was clear his conversation with a colleague had ended. Those who read my Travelin’ Man stories from London in May will recall I had a chance to meet the Scot and add his autograph to my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing.” However, I missed out because a colleague was in urgent need of the only Sharpie I had and by the time I got it back Watt was long gone. A second chance was thwarted by the lengthy post-fight show on Sky that required his presence. I would have waited around, but I couldn’t afford to because I would have missed my only ride back to the hotel.
I’ve always believed there’s a season for everything, so I trusted I’d get another chance. It took six months, but my faith was ultimately rewarded. But because I didn’t bring the big book with me, that part remains undone. Maybe next time.
I long had admired Watt for going farther than many expected him to go by capturing a belt in his 30s during a time when that was considered aged and I wrote about his off-the-floor KO win over Charlie Nash in “Tales From the Vault.” Even in the midst of his decision defeat to Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello, which was fated to be Watt’s final fight, he showed a champion’s heart by soldiering on long past the point of competitiveness. Watt knew he was outgunned the moment Arguello floored him in round seven but, typically, he hauled himself up and lasted the 15-round distance on professional pride, skill and grit.
As we conversed it was clear he was every bit the gentleman I envisioned him to be. Once we reached a good ending point I asked Aris to snap a picture with his camera phone to preserve the moment.
A van took Aris, me and three others back to the hotel where a lively post-fight party was already in full swing. It was almost 2 a.m. and I figured it would be better to print out my boarding pass and get to bed because I needed to arise early to catch the taxi to the airport.
To my chagrin, the door to the business center was bolted shut. I was told it was because previous guests had actually stolen computers during the night so I was required to have an employee unlock the door. Ultimately it didn’t matter, for despite assurances on the Air Canada web site that I could print a boarding pass if I were traveling within Canada my reservation code wouldn’t register. The subsequent screen instructed me to take care of business at the check-in counter. Hmph. I trudged back to the room and turned in a little before 3 a.m. with an eye of arising at 8.
Sunday, Dec. 1: The mattress’ sorcery nearly did me in, for I didn’t wake up until 8:25. I had told Aris to meet me in the lobby at 8:45 with the intent of leaving the hotel by cab by 9 so I shifted into instant overdrive and somehow managed to finish my morning routines and my packing in just 20 minutes. I even managed to find room for the three boxes of maple syrup cookies: Two inside my clothes bag, one inside the laptop carrying case.
As I neared the registration desk to check out and secure a taxi I spotted Rob, one of the audio guys with whom I had flown into town three days earlier, waiting for his own cab to arrive. Because we all were scheduled to be on the same flight to Toronto, I asked Rob if Aris and I could hitch a ride with him and he said we could. Because Rob expected his cab to arrive shortly, I called Aris’ room on the hotel phone and told him to meet us as soon as he could. We ended up having plenty of time because the taxi didn’t arrive for another 15 minutes.
Just like three days earlier in Pittsburgh, I couldn’t get a boarding pass from the kiosk because it wouldn’t accept my reservation code. As a result I stood in line – thankfully it was a short one – and an agent took care of everything.
I was concerned the cookies wouldn’t make it through security without being confiscated but they emerged untouched. The flight to Toronto departed and arrived on time but the landing was unusually hard. After feeling the “bang” of the wheels hitting the runway I turned to my seatmate and said “woo!” At that, she replied “oui!”
The more complex screening process took place in Toronto and here the procedure was even more involved than during my previous trips to Canada. First, passengers are asked to self-scan their boarding pass. Second, they stand in line and have their boarding pass scans confirmed and their passports examined. Third, they proceed to booths to have their passports stamped. Finally, luggage is screened a final time (and in my case for the second time in less than three hours).
The first step went flawlessly. While standing in line for Step Two, a young woman at the head of the line was sent away because she inadvertently skipped Step One. Later, a rather burly and aggressive man jumped the line by stepping over and ducking underneath the partitions, all while the rest of us looked at each other in disbelief. No “pardon me” or “excuse me,” just dodging and nudging.
“Well, that fellow is quite the entitled soul, isn’t he?” I asked Aris. “He’d better be trying to make a quick connection because otherwise there’s no excuse.” Aris and I could only guess how he would have been treated in other, more aggressive parts of the world.
I got through Step Two without any issues but Step Three took a bit longer than expected. First, the agent asked why I checked “yes” on the question of bringing food into the U.S.
“I have three boxes of maple syrup cookies in my luggage,” I answered honestly.
“Ooh, I heard those were good,” he replied.
Then he asked why I was in Canada and I told him that I had worked the boxing matches in Quebec City the previous night. That’s all he needed to hear and for the next five minutes we chatted about Pacquiao-Rios and several other recent matches, especially since there wasn’t anyone behind me in line at the station. It was clear he was a boxing fan and the fact that this has happened fairly often tells me boxing isn’t anywhere near dead. As I left the booth we both gave each other smiles and friendly waves.
Another long walk awaited me, so I took off my toboggan and somehow stuffed it into my already overstuffed clothes bag. Just before approaching the cluster of gates that included my connecting point for the Pittsburgh flight, I spotted a outlet called “The Great Canadian Bagel.” I grabbed a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Coke off the shelf and ordered a chicken breast sandwich topped by mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. I’ve never been much of a bagel aficionado but after taking the first bite I became a fan of this sandwich. I made sure to thank the ladies at the counter for their good work and I made a mental note to stop again should I ever get another opportunity.
The Toronto-to-Pittsburgh leg – which probably used the same 40-seat prop plane as was the case on Thursday – proceeded like clockwork and when I stepped outside the 39-degree air temperature felt positively balmy.
I pulled into the driveway at 9:30 p.m. and after settling down I opened up one of the cookie boxes and dug in. I’m no Cookie Monster (a fellow with my waistline can’t afford to be one) but I know good when I taste it – and these were good!
The fourth leg of my five-week Stretch Drive will begin in four days’ time when I start the first of back-to-back trips to Atlantic City. HBO’s final live broadcast of 2013 will feature a triple-header pitting Guillermo Rigondeaux-Joseph Agbeko, James Kirkland-Glen Tapia and Matthew Macklin-Lamar Russ.
Until then, happy trails.
Photo / Richard Wolowicz-Getty Images (Stevenson)
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.