By Tyson Bruce
The light heavyweight division is boxing’s version of no-man’s land. Despite being one of the original weight classes of boxing it is often considered to be the ugly stepchild between the more glamorous middleweight and heavyweight divisions. An observer would have to go all the way back to the days of Matthew Saad Muhammad, Michael Spinks, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi in the 1980’s to recall the last glory years of the division.
Critics in large part often deride Roy Jones’ accomplishments and legacy because he spent so much of his career in the 175-pound class beating guys like Richard Hall, David Talesco, and Julio Caesar Gonzales. Despite reigning for nearly seven years and making eleven title defenses, Jones is given considerably more credit for winning a version of the heavyweight title and his victories at middleweight and super middleweight. In the last two decades, the light heavyweight division is not where stars are born it’s where they go to die.
However, that paradigm is beginning to change, as the a division which has been dominated the last ten years by older champions like Calzaghe, Hopkins, and Antonio Tarver is being replaced by a duo of vicious punchers, Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev, who are on a collision course to fight one another. It also has in Stevenson a real division kingpin, the man who beat the man.
Adonis Stevenson, probably the most appropriately named fighter in the world, has perhaps the most conventionally unconventional back-story in all of boxing. The man they call ‘Superman’ was born and raised in the war torn nation of Haiti and immigrated to find a new life for himself in the French speaking province of Quebec, Canada. However, life on North American shores didn’t prove any easier, as like many immigrants he struggled to find an identity.
Stevenson, a naturally physical specimen, was sucked into the allure of Montreal’s criminal underworld and would eventually be arrested in connection with pimping and other gang affiliations. And, like so many troubled young men before him he turned to boxing as a means of escaping the hopelessness of poverty and crime. In that sense he is everything that is good about boxing, as it remains one of the only sports available to inner city youth–who don’t happen to be NFL or NBA ‘supersized’—as a means of achieving upward mobility.
The unconventional part is that he wasn’t saved from the streets as a young man like Mike Tyson, but rather as a man in his early twenties. Despite only having around forty amateur bouts, Stevenson still managed to win a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games. He turned pro at the ripe old age of 29 and stylistically he was very reminiscent of a young Manny Pacquiao because he was an extremely physically gifted fighter, who was winning fights and knocking people out with little more than raw aggression and a devastating southpaw left hand.
Stevenson paid the price early, as his over aggression got him knocked out by the journeyman Darnell Boone, a fighter with an atrocious record but a real knack for derailing good prospects. Boone lost a split decision in a fight he really should have won against Sergey Kovalev and came closer to beating Andre Ward than any other professional has. Almost over night Stevenson was considered to be a one-dimensional, chinless failure in the minds of the unforgiving boxing public.
Stevenson gradually rebuilt his reputation and gained the attention of the legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward. Steward was drawn to the pure one punch power of Stevenson and the potential for development that his natural athleticism could allow. Stevenson proved to be an astute pupil, as he began a reign of terror in the 168-pound weight class that included savage knockouts of Jesus Gonzales, Noe Gonzales, and Devon George. It was rumored that Sakio Bika, Carl Froch, and Andre Dirrell all declined to tangle with the Montreal based slugger.
His golden opportunity came in the light heavyweight division against then champion Chad Dawson, who ‘cherry picked’ Stevenson as his comeback opponent after being thrashed by Andre Ward. Big mistake. Stevenson showed his explosive punching power by countering Dawson’s southpaw jab with a monstrous straight left hand. And, in less than two minutes, Stevenson went from being one of boxing’s best-kept secrets to emerging superstar and the lineal light heavyweight champion of the world. What he didn’t get was respect from boxing critics, who labeled his victory a fluke. He was exciting and obviously very powerful, but most pundits believed that the first contender that could handle his power and hit back would likely defeat him.
As if to prove a point, Stevenson went out of his way to put on a master class boxing performance against former champ Tavoris Cloud. In that fight he showed that he was much more than a one-dimensional puncher, displaying fluent counterpunching skills, dynamic hand speed, and deft head movement. Just like that the light heavyweight division had one of boxing’s most exciting new champions. Pretty soon Stevenson would have some company, as a similarly lethal puncher would challenge his supremacy by beating another top contender.
That fighter is of course Russia’s Sergey Kovalev. Kovalev learned how to box in the elite Russian amateur boxing system. Like Gennady Golovkin, he brings with him solid technical fundamentals to go along with awesome punching power harnessed through professional style training in America. In total, Kovalev won something like 193 of 215 contests, capturing two World Military Championships in the process. Unbelievably, when he first came to American and met his current trainer John David Jackson, known as a defensive specialist, Kovalev didn’t consider himself a hard enough puncher to be a successful professional. Boy was he wrong.
Kovalev’s amateur experience and advanced age (he was 26 when he turned professional) allowed him to move rapidly through the pro ranks. He has been utterly destructive as professional, knocking out all but three of his opponents, including the tragic death of knockout victim Roman Simakov. Kovalev has been expertly promoted by Main Events and had the benefit of fighting twice on national television, scoring sensational knockout wins against the highly respected Gabriel Campillo and fringe contender Cornelius White.
This got him his big break on HBO, in what was supposed to be a ‘pick-em’ type matchup against WBO belt holder Nathan Cleverly. As it turned out, Cleverly was just another target in the “Krusher’s” way because as soon as Kovalev touched him he looked like he just did twelve rounds with a Louisville Slugger. Kovalev wiped him out in less than four rounds and the hype for a showdown with Adonis Stevenson began to build.
This weekend, in order to hype their potential match, they fight on an HBO double header in separate bouts, with Stevenson fighting top contender Tony Bellew and Kovalev squaring off against former top prospect Ismayl Sillakh. The real catch is how long their promotional entities let the matchup ‘marinate’. Remember the incredible hype that was building for the proposed Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa showdown? Arum constantly delayed the match stating that he wanted to ‘marinate’ the matchup until the absolute melting point. It turns out that it expired before it ever got put on the grill, as Lopez ended up suffering knockout defeats and Gamboa basically lost his mind, ie: multiple arrests and personal meltdowns.
Hopefully Gym Promotions and Main Events will look at this as a valuable example of how not to do things and make a match that is stylistically one of the very best in the whole sport. Both fighters are such pure punchers that it gives the match a similarity to the Gerald McClellan-Julian Jackson fight, where a brutal knockout is almost a foregone conclusion.