by David P. Greisman
Every superhero must have a weakness. Every protagonist needs a nemesis. What little drama there would be otherwise if the hero were always too powerful and invincible, if there were nothing or no one to take him to the limit.
Combat sports differ somewhat from comic books. It can still be compelling viewing to watch one fighter who so far surpasses the rest, who puts forth awe-inspiring demonstrations of power, skill, speed and talent.
Yet many of the best moments in boxing come when a Muhammad Ali meets his Joe Frazier, or when a George Foreman meets his Ali. Ali was the best boxer in the world, and Frazier forced Ali to dig deeper than anyone else had made him and show just how great he truly could be. Foreman’s brute force, meanwhile, was famously used against him thanks to Ali’s guile.
The laziest of boxing observers looked at the nickname of light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson — “Superman” — and wondered aloud about what his Kryptonite might be.
The nerdiest of boxing observers looked toward the other two titleholders at 175 pounds and pondered whether Bernard Hopkins could play Lex Luthor, a bald and brilliant man who lacks superpowers but who uses his intelligence to strategize and then to capitalize on weaknesses; and if Sergey Kovalev would be Doomsday, a relentless creature whose strength proved to be too much for even Superman to handle.
The promise of power vs. power is why so many had been looking forward to Stevenson vs. Kovalev. That fight had been in the works until earlier this year. Kovalev was to face Cedric Agnew in April, while Stevenson would meet Andrzej Fonfara in May, both on HBO, before colliding later in the year on the network.
Then Stevenson signed with powerful boxing adviser Al Haymon. Stevenson sought more money for the Fonfara fight than HBO had bid, and he reportedly did not want to commit to facing Kovalev immediately afterward. Showtime picked up Stevenson-Fonfara, and the build toward a presumed bout with Hopkins began.
Kovalev had little trouble with Agnew. The same was expected for Stevenson’s bout with Fonfara, who was expected to be aggressive but who was otherwise seen as limited and likely to be outclassed. These matches had been made for a reason, after all — to set the table, not to upset the apple cart.
Fonfara indeed pressed forward in the opening moments. Stevenson’s ascent had come through his power. He had scored knockouts or technical knockouts in all but three of his wins. He had won the light heavyweight championship by dropping Chad Dawson with a single left hand in the first round of their fight. He had defended the title twice since then with a pair of stoppage wins. Yet he’d also recently shown an ability to box and set up combinations and counter shots. That would be his approach at the outset.
Fonfara pushed the action for much of the first half of the first round. Toward the midway point, he threw a jab that was blocked, followed with a left hook to Stevenson’s head and then went to the body with two punches that landed. Stevenson responded with a southpaw right jab that was blocked by Fonfara’s high guard and a left cross that split it, putting Fonfara down on the canvas. Fonfara rose quickly, and Stevenson attacked with several left hands to the head and body, driving Fonfara from one end of the ring to the other, and then back again.
With his opponent still standing at the start of the second round, Stevenson returned to a more patient approach, albeit a more confident one. He began to potshot Fonfara, picking his spots and then moving. Stevenson showed little respect; Fonfara wasn’t expected to do well, and he had already gone down early. Stevenson would claim afterward that he had hurt his hand in the round when a punch struck Fonfara’s elbow, and that the injury required him to box and move more.
Boxing and moving was working for him. Later, however, it would work against him.
Stevenson was showing signs of overconfidence. In the third round, he threw a right hook to Fonfara’s body from mid-range that Fonfara easily and wisely countered with a left hook upstairs. Stevenson stood in front of Fonfara with his lead hand at his waist, his left glove at his chest. He believed he could use his speed and power against a slower foe who had yet to hurt him. And for the moment, he was right.
In the fifth round, Stevenson landed a left hand to Fonfara’s right side. Fighters can hear their opponents respond to hard body shots and should take that as an invitation for repetition. Stevenson targeted another left hand in the area of Fonfara’s liver, and Fonfara went down to one knee, his breath momentarily stopped, his body momentarily seized. He rose, only to take more shots to the same spot.
Just when one fighter had cause for confidence, the other would give him cause for caution. Fonfara started the sixth well, including a pair of right hands that landed. But then Stevenson’s left cross returned to Fonfara’s body about halfway through, and Fonfara buckled forward and retreated backward, with Stevenson in pursuit. Fonfara actually jogged away at one point to give himself respite, yet Stevenson wasn’t closing and wasn’t capitalizing. Instead, Fonfara recovered, retaliated and found increasing success. Stevenson’s skills were not as refined as he might have believed them to be. For example, he would duck his head down and away, but he was still in range and got hit by Fonfara’s right hands.
Stevenson came in as the legit light heavyweight champion, the man who beat the man who beat the man. He’d defended against two top 10 opponents who weren’t the best his division had to offer but were still of higher quality than any of Fonfara’s biggest wins.
Fonfara had outpointed former 175-pound champ Glen Johnson back in July 2012, when Johnson was 43 and in the middle of a losing streak against titleholders and prospects. Fonfara had also topped former titleholder Gabriel Campillo in a difficult battle last year. That victory in particular showed that Fonfara could have difficulty with a good boxer but would keep pursuing, calmly stalking and seeking the opportunity to land a fight-changing blow.
He had come a long way since the 2008 loss to Derrick Findley, a tough journeyman who stopped Fonfara in the second round. That fight had been at middleweight. Fonfara had since allowed his lanky frame more leeway, going from 160 up to 175. (He’d also tested positive for steroids following a win in 2009 in a bout contested between the middleweight and super middleweight limits.) Beyond that, he was still young and still learning, only 20 years old when he fought Findley and still just 26 now.
Stevenson was once trained by the late, great Emanuel Steward, and now he was being cornered by Steward’s nephew, Javon “Sugar” Hill. An esteemed trainer sees his fighter as moldable material, but the fighter needs to be pliable and compliant, and he needs to be in good shape in order to be in top form.
It’s possible that Stevenson looked past Fonfara, saw him as a sparring partner-level opponent who was only there to share the ring so that Stevenson could face Hopkins later in the year. It’s possible that the drama of the past few months, including the move to Al Haymon and Showtime and the lawsuit that Kovalev’s promoter, Main Events, had subsequently filed against them, had been a distraction.
It’s also possible that Stevenson didn’t expect that Fonfara would still be standing. Fonfara would soon be coming on strong down the stretch, while Stevenson was fading. Only three times in 24 fights had Stevenson gone past eight rounds: a 10-round decision over David Whittom earlier in his career, a ninth-round stoppage of Aaron Pryor Jr. in late 2011, and a 12th-round technical knockout against Donovan George at the end of 2012.
He’d thrown plenty of heavy punches against Fonfara. He’d moved around between them. He was clearly tiring, getting slower and sloppier. And he’d allowed Fonfara to stick around. Now Fonfara was landing more. Stevenson went toward the ropes in the eighth and was hit with several shots.
It happened again early in the ninth. Stevenson ducked under a right hand and again was near the ropes. Instead of moving away, though, he remained there for a bit, ducking forward and getting hit with a left to the body, then bringing his head back up and getting hit with a left hook there as well. Stevenson circled away and moved backward, positioning himself poorly as Fonfara followed with a right hand that sent Stevenson down to the mat. Stevenson rose before the referee’s count reached five, yet this was no flash knockdown.
Stevenson was losing energy. He was losing momentum. He was losing control. Fonfara landed another right hand, and then a left hook to the body that was soon followed by one to the head. Stevenson wasn’t doing much to stem the attack, though he did shoulder Fonfara, who later went dirty himself with an intentional head butt.
CompuBox’s ringside punch counters had Stevenson throwing just 34 punches in the ninth. That output was half of what he averaged in the other 11 rounds. Fonfara, meanwhile, was credited with landing 30 of his 48 shots in the round, a 62 percent connect rate that was by far his best on the night. That included 21 of 32 power shots, a 66 percent connect rate, or 2 landed for every 3 thrown.
Those watching recalled that Stevenson had suffered a second-round stoppage loss to Darnell Boone back in 2010, getting dropped by the same tough journeyman who’d given others trouble and who had also floored a young Andre Ward back in 2005. There hadn’t been any questions posed about Stevenson’s chin since he’d moved up to light heavyweight, a move that began last year with a rematch knockout of Boone.
Fonfara was posing questions. Unlike earlier in the fight, his shots now couldn’t be shrugged off by Stevenson.
If Fonfara was a challenger who was posing a challenge, then Stevenson was a champion who responded like one. He came out for the 10th and pushed the action himself. Rather than trying to move out of range of the taller Fonfara, Stevenson got on his chest and dug in. Stevenson was credited with throwing about as many punches in the 10th as he had in the first. Fonfara covered up initially and then characteristically returned fire.
The fight that started with a knockdown in the opening minutes ended as a 12-round decision. Stevenson won on the scorecards, two judges seeing him ahead 115-110 — eight rounds to four, with one additional point taken from Stevenson and two from Fonfara for the knockdowns they suffered — and 116-109, or nine rounds to three.
It was a clear victory. It wasn’t an easy one.
Even the best fighters have off nights. And even the best fighters will run into determined opponents who give them tough evenings. “Superman” is but a nickname. Adonis Stevenson is the light heavyweight champion, a powerful puncher and a good fighter, but he is not invincible, not perfectly conditioned nor the most technically proficient.
That’s not meant to be harsh criticism. Rather, that reality makes potential pairings with Hopkins and Kovalev even more interesting. That makes us wonder even more about weaknesses that might be exploited and flaws that may be exposed.
It depends on the fight, and on the night. Frazier gave Ali hell but was bombed away by Foreman. Stevenson had difficult moments against Fonfara but may be in better form against Hopkins or Kovalev. And of course it also depends on how well those foes do or do not perform themselves.
Combat sports, like comic books, are best when they are not predictable. We must wait, then, to see if “Superman” will continue to soar — or whether he’ll come crashing down.
The 10 Count will return next week.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]