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Stevenson-Kovalev: The best laid schemes often go awry

By Tyson Bruce

The breaking news that Adonis Stevenson, newly signed client of infamous powerbroker Al Haymon, has abandoned HBO and opted for a new contract with Showtime is the eye of the storm this week in the never-ending monsoon that is boxing.

Speculation of blame has reached a fever pitch on all sides. Some have accused Stevenson of being a coward for not wanting to fight his number one rival Sergie Kovalev, while some others blame HBO for not locking the deal in place while they had the chance. However, a lot of the blame is being placed on Stevenson’s new business relationship with boxing powerbroker Al Haymon—who has a tenuous if not hostile relationship with HBO.

I don’t pretend to know or understand exactly how the murky waters of the boxing business world work. Deciding who bears the brunt of blame is a battle that will insure publicists on all sides earn their salary but isn’t likely to yield a definitive answer. Most boxing fans could care less about all the rumors and innuendo, what matters to them is the fights. The truth that matters is that a fight between Stevenson and Kovalev, one of the very best in boxing, is not happening and may never happen. In other words, it’s just another giant leap backward for boxing.

The best way to understand this ordeal is to trace its origins. Before 2013 Adonis Stevenson was one of the most avoided, if not well-known, fighters in all of boxing. As a Super Middleweight it is speculated that everyone from Carl Froch, Andre Dirrell, Sakio Bika, and Lucian Bute all turned down bouts with the Québécois knockout artist. Then, literally out of the blue, he was selected by HBO as Light Heavyweight champion Chad Dawson’s comeback opponent. He made the most of his opportunity by flattening Dawson inside a round. In just one fight at 175 he was now the undisputed champion of the world.

Stevenson because of his thrilling style and Montreal origins (one of boxing’s most lucrative markets) instantly became a marketable product. Two more devastating title defenses against top contenders Tavoris Cloud and Toney Bellew transformed him into a household name. However, at the exact time when Stevenson was carving out the division, a fearsome Russian, Sergie Kovalev, was right on his heels. Kovalev also had a breakout year in 2013—albeit against much weaker oppositions—blasting out WBO Champion Nathan Cleverly and former amateur standout Ismail Sillakh inside three rounds on HBO. This set up a potential super-fight but also unleashed a cascade of greed and hubris on both sides.

Stevenson, being in a position with more to lose, justifiably seemed like the more reluctant one to make the fight happen. He was the champion and was going to demand A-side terms. However, through November-January HBO proposed a two-fight deal (on very good terms by all accounts) that would lock in place a showcase fight against Andrzej Fonfara in the spring, followed by a big money summer unification match with Kovalev in Quebec. The deal was widely reported as being all but finalized, as in boxing contracts for fights are agreed upon months in advance but very often go unsigned until much closer to the fight date.

Then in the midst of negotiations for his fight with Fonfara, Stevenson suddenly signed a contract with manager Al Haymon. Speculation about Stevenson’s future with HBO immediately began to surface because Haymon primarily does business with Golden Boy and rival network Showtime. Since Mayweather’s Haymon-led departure from HBO to Showtime, Haymon has become something of a pariah at HBO. That said, Haymon and HBO managed to do business with the Arreola-Stivern and Ward-Rodriguez fights last year, so it wasn’t a forgone conclusion.

However, today we learned that the worst-case scenario was in fact true. Stevenson took a more lucrative deal with Showtime and HBO, which had the right to match, declined on Tuesday to do so. Once Stevenson had signed with Al Haymon he demanded far more money and reportedly refused to guarantee a fight with Kovalev. HBO spokesman Ray Stallone, not mincing any words, stated, “We had a deal. It changed. It is not the way we do it.”

So, whom should we blame then?

It’s easy to blame Adonis Stevenson but fighters must look after their own financial interests and are usually not the ones guiding their own business decisions. However, an honest observer would have to surmise that Stevenson simply does not want to fight Kovalev at this moment. Perhaps he felt slighted by HBO for not getting preferential treatment over Kovalev or perhaps a little birdie got in his ear and made him feel this way. I strongly suspect the latter.

Some have accused HBO of getting lazy and leaving the door open for opportunists like Al Haymon and company to jump in. Many boxing pundits have been highly critical over HBO president Ken Hershman’s business decisions and strategies—not the least of which was losing Floyd Mayweather to Showtime.
However, nobody wanted the Stevenson-Kovalev fight more than HBO—so it’s difficult to imagine they’d drop the ball on this one. By all accounts they were blind-sided and without a guarantee for a Kovalev fight they couldn’t justify matching such a massive financial increase.

In the end, if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Stevenson and his team picked Showtime because they offered more money and a proposed super-fight with a nearly fifty-year-old Hopkins. Obviously this decision isn’t as risky as fighting a knockout artist like Kovalev. It’s hard to hold it against a fighter, as they have a very small window of time to secure their financial futures, but we certainly have the right to critique his management. Boxing will only continue to grow if the best fight the best and yet again we have a situation where the fans—who are the reason why these guys make millions—get the short end of the stick.

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