By Cliff Rold
And so we arrive at the annual appearance.
Since September 2015, 40-year old lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson (29-1, 24 KO) has shown up to defend his claim to history’s crown (and the WBC’s) exactly twice. He fought once in 2016, once in 2017, and makes his 2018 debut this Saturday (Showtime, 10 PM EST).
If he survives this, his most challenging title defense on paper since his first fight with Andrzej Fonfara in 2014, recent history tells us not to expect Stevenson back in the ring any sooner than the spring of 2019.
It would be just enough time to earn back some of the antipathy, or apathy, fans have built up for Stevenson in recent years.
Stevenson got off to a promising, a thrilling, start atop the light heavyweight division. In 2013, he avenged the only loss of his career by reversing a knockout loss to Darnell Boone, drilled Chad Dawson in one round for the crown, laid a beating on former titlist Tavoris Cloud, and closed the year with a dominating stoppage of Tony Bellew that has inherited value since.
Ring Magazine named him the fighter of the year and boxing had a new star.
When he moved from HBO to Showtime in 2014 he got a lot of the blame from fans and pundits for the failure to make a unification bout with Sergey Kovalev. The immediate product in the ring didn’t suffer. His first fight with Fonfara was a gem. The challenger entered wildly underrated and came off the floor to drop Stevenson and make a battle of it.
Then came almost everything since. Outside of a slugfest with Thomas Williams, Stevenson hasn’t done much to add to the ledger he’d built by 2014. Kovalev found another rival, and conqueror, in Andre Ward, after winning every major belt in the class Stevenson didn’t have.
Ward retired after finishing with Kovalev.
Stevenson won a rematch with Fonfara last year two fights removed from Fonfara being knocked out in one round by Joe Smith.
All of that changes Saturday. Stevenson has a serious threat across the ring. 34-year old former super middleweight titlist Badou Jack (22-1-2, 13 KO) has, like the man he’ll challenge, rebounded from a potentially career derailing early round knockout loss to prove his championship mettle.
Jack is unbeaten in seven fights since his first round defeat to Derek Edwards and all seven of those fights should have been wins. Jack was stuck with draws in fights against Lucian Bute (later made a DQ win after Bute failed a drug test) and James DeGale that more people than not thought he won. Jack also had solid wins over Anthony Dirrell, George Groves, and Nathan Cleverly. Cleverly marked his debut at light heavyweight; now he gets his shot at another divisional title.
Despite Stevenson’s inactivity in the last few years (and its worth noting Jack hasn’t fought since August), there is genuine excitement about Stevenson-Jack. Stevenson’s age and recent opponents don’t matter this week because everyone knows Jack is a real fight.
And Stevenson has every chance to win.
With long arms, explosive speed, and some of the best single shot power in boxing, Stevenson will remain assumed a dangerous man until he shows for sure that he isn’t anymore.
For observers of the sport, that’s part of what makes the last four years so frustrating to watch.
It’s not just the failure to make the Kovalev fight. There was blame to go both ways there. It’s the entirety of lost time. In the battles that go on between networks, promotional outlets, and the fans that take sides in them, Stevenson evolved to be a fighter all sides could be fairly critical of.
He wasn’t just out of the ring; it’s that he could come across as okay with that.
There are those who, given Stevenson’s past crimes, wouldn’t have cared for him regardless of what went on in the ring. But what hasn’t gone on in the ring has put off plenty more.
No one likes to see genuine talent unfulfilled.
With Stevenson, there is reason to argue that is exactly what has been witnessed. The 2013 campaign and the rally back from the brink against Fonfara was electric stuff. It’s hard not to wonder what more there could have been.
Jack has a chance to make Stevenson ask that this weekend.
Time isn’t something anyone gets back, and its more compressed for athletes. If Stevenson wins this weekend, there are serious threats in a reloaded light heavyweight division, and a still viable grudge match with Kovalev. He can cap off his career in a way that makes the lost years less relevant in retrospect.
If he loses though, it will be Jack continuing his own quietly outstanding run. Jack has shown the sort of professional willingness to keep testing himself that might make bigger fights a more regular option than has been the case for Stevenson.
Then all that will remain will be the questions of what could have been. Maybe that won’t matter to the fighter but for the sport that’s always a shame. Athletically gifted punchers like Stevenson don’t come along every day. Seeing if he could have landed that power against more than he did in the last four years would have been nice.
It didn’t happen.
At least we’ve arrived at the showdown with Jack. If it’s only going to be an annual appearance, this is making the best of it.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]