“Fighting Words” — Stevenson Gives Kovalev the Business

by David P. Greisman

Adonis Stevenson is the lineal light heavyweight champion. It is a position he earned with power when he knocked Chad Dawson down with one punch, and it is power that has kept him there since, with stoppage wins over Tavoris Cloud and Tony Bellew.

Sergey Kovalev holds a world title in the light heavyweight division and is vying for Stevenson’s spot. He, too, is a man who believes in and relies on his power. He won his title belt by blowing through Nathan Cleverly and has defended it since with knockouts of Ismayl Sillakh and Cedric Agnew.

Stevenson has scored knockouts or technical knockouts in all but three of his victories. Kovalev has picked up the KO or TKO in all but two of his wins. That is why we wanted to see them face each other. This isn’t a case of unstoppable force vs. immovable object. Rather, it would be unstoppable force vs. unstoppable force.

We now know who has more power, though in this case we speak figuratively instead of literally.

It is Stevenson, who proved it without ever stepping into the ring with Kovalev.

It remains to be seen whether Stevenson ever will step into the ring with him.

A year ago, neither man had fought on HBO or Showtime, the two major networks for boxing in the United States. Stevenson’s 2012 fight with Don George was originally supposed to be on a Showtime card underneath Tavoris Cloud vs. Jean Pascal, but that show was canceled and Stevenson-George ended up on WealthTV, as did Stevenson’s early 2013 rematch win over Darnell Boone. Kovalev, meanwhile, was being featured on NBC Sports Network boxing broadcasts.

But then Stevenson stepped up and shocked Dawson on HBO in June, and that network later showed Kovalev’s demolition of Cleverly in August. Suddenly there was new blood at 175, and soon they were on a collision course. Stevenson-Cloud came in September, and in November, HBO aired a doubleheader from Stevenson’s home province of Quebec, with Stevenson-Bellew in the main event and Kovalev-Sillakh as the co-feature.

HBO’s intent was clear. So was Kovalev’s desire.

“I’m ready for Adonis Stevenson,” he said that night. “I’m ready for any champion in my division.”

Stevenson and his team merely considered Kovalev one of many options.

“I don’t have a problem [with facing Kovalev] if HBO put the money, but the fans of Quebec City want Carl Froch or Bernard Hopkins,” Stevenson said in the ring that night in November. “Kovalev is a good fight, too. I don’t have a problem with Kovalev.”

Shortly afterward, Stevenson’s promoter also mentioned super middleweight champion Andre Ward, as well as fellow Quebec fighters Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute (who would go on to face each other in January).

Stevenson-Kovalev made sense to the network and to fans, but bouts with Froch, Hopkins, Pascal and Bute also made sense from a business standpoint. Froch had beaten Bute, and Hopkins had defeated Pascal. Each was more of an established attraction. Pascal and Bute also were still big stars in the province, even if neither was as good as he once was.

HBO continued to work toward putting the two power-punchers together, though. What happened next is the subject of plenty of disagreement. HBO and Kovalev’s promoter, Main Events, contend that a deal was in place for each fighter to have a keep-busy bout — Kovalev against Agnew in March, Stevenson against Andrzej Fonfara in May — and for the two to then meet in September. Stevenson’s promoter, Yvon Michel, insists that his fighter hadn’t accepted all of the terms of the deal.

This much is certain: Stevenson signed in February with Al Haymon, the powerful boxing adviser who has more than 60 clients, including Floyd Mayweather and numerous other top titleholders, contenders and prospects. Nearly all of Haymon’s boxers work with Golden Boy Promotions, a company whose biggest shows are broadcast on Showtime.

HBO isn’t working with Golden Boy these days, though it did air a pair of Haymon fighters in separate broadcasts last year, when heavyweight Chris Arreola fought Bermane Stiverne and when Edwin Rodriguez challenged Ward. 

It seemed possible that Stevenson-Kovalev could fall by the wayside. Hopkins alluded to as much earlier in March, when speaking at a press conference announcing his April 19 fight against Beibut Shumenov, another Haymon client. Hopkins has spoken of wanting to unify the titles at 175 and once again becoming the division’s undisputed champion, but he had previously acknowledged the difficulty of doing so given his affiliation with Golden Boy and Showtime, and HBO’s relationships with Stevenson and Kovalev.

But at the press conference, he said that it was “so realistic to talk about that [unifying all the titles] now, more than ever, because of Al Haymon.” He called Haymon “the smartest man to understand that he will set the pieces up.”

Before the month was out, word got out that Showtime made a bid for Stevenson-Fonfara that was 40 percent more than what HBO had offered. HBO had the right to match Showtime’s bid, but it chose not to, particularly with Stevenson apparently not agreeing just yet to face Kovalev immediately after Fonfara. The belief among HBO executives was that they were chasing Haymon down the rabbit hole, similar to how the network had regularly overpaid years ago for numerous Andre Berto bouts against lesser opposition.

Showtime airing Stevenson-Fonfara is a power move by a network that used to be a clear No. 2 behind HBO, but has since established itself as a top player in the industry. Golden Boy had in recent years been moving more and more of its fighters to Showtime, and Mayweather’s landmark six-fight deal last year with the network wasn’t merely the proverbial cherry on top — rather, it was a rich serving of ice cream on top of a whole batch of cherries.

It used to be that Showtime would feature a fighter until he was on the cusp of stardom, and then HBO, with its larger audience and budget, would acquire him. That’s what happened with Ricky Hatton, Chad Dawson and Andre Ward, among others. Now this Stevenson deal once again sends a message to fighters about what Showtime has since become, and what that can mean for them.

This is a loss for HBO, which spent millions building toward a bout that may no longer happen, and which just paid to air Kovalev-Agnew, a mismatch that at least was somewhat justifiable when something far more meaningful was to come next.

It remains to be seen whether Main Events and/or HBO will pursue any legal remedy, and, if they do, whether they even have a winnable case. They say Michel agreed to the entire deal. Michel says that’s not true.

Putting aside the topic of litigation, it is Stevenson who is in the position of power. As one industry insider said to me, a contract doesn’t step into the ring.

Stevenson’s reticence to agree flat out to facing Kovalev this fall is understandably maddening for those fans who wanted to see the fight, and it’s understandable that some question whether Stevenson wants to face Kovalev.

But we hold boxers to conflicting standards. We want them to face the toughest challenges, but we also want these men who are potentially putting themselves in danger to be greatly rewarded for their time in the ring.

Stevenson would’ve been rewarded for facing Kovalev, but he’s seeking to get the most out of what may be a relatively brief amount of time remaining in the sport. After all, he won the championship at the age of 35 and is now 36. He had never earned big money in the years before. He’s only now beginning to enter the echelon that had been limited in Quebec of late to Pascal and Bute.

And so he’s getting more money for Fonfara from Showtime. And he’s keeping the door open for a Hopkins fight. A bout with Kovalev could still come at some point, but Stevenson’s power move shows that the fight would need to be on his terms and on his timeline.

It’s a business move. He’s taking the position that Kovalev needs him more than he needs Kovalev.

Kovalev subsequently signed a multi-fight deal with HBO. The network and his promoter apparently believe that he can still be a star without facing Stevenson. There are two kinds of ratings draws in boxing. Sometimes fans will tune in for major fights. And sometimes they will tune in just to see an individual fighter.

HBO has built up middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, even if that year and a half wasn’t explicitly building toward a future match with 160-pound champion Sergio Martinez. Indeed, Martinez will headline a pay-per-view in June against Miguel Cotto, and Golovkin will instead make his major pay-per-view debut in a bout with super middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Kovalev pulled in a respectable rating for his win over Sillakh in November, with a number just slightly below what Stevenson got in his victory over Bellew later on in that broadcast.

The rating for this past weekend’s fight between Kovalev and Agnew had not yet been reported, so it’s not yet known whether the diminished possibility of a Stevenson-Kovalev fight had an impact on Kovalev’s audience.

There aren’t really any other opponents out there yet who would help Kovalev pop a rating otherwise. Pascal has some name recognition, at least, and picked up a win in January over Bute. Chad Dawson recently signed with Haymon, and, anyway, he hasn’t returned from the Stevenson knockout loss so as to try to reestablish himself as a contender.

There are some notable names down at 168, including Ward, Froch, Mikkel Kessler and George Groves. None has announced a move up to 175.

This, then, is the situation Kovalev finds himself in. He’s an athlete in a sport, but he’s also in a business. No matter how much he wants to face Stevenson, he now finds himself in a position that he has not had in the ring. In this case, the power is not in his hands.

The 10 Count

1.  It won’t make up for the likely lack of Adonis Stevenson vs. Sergey Kovalev, but if Stevenson indeed goes on to beat Andrzej Fonfara this May as expected, I’d like to get the losers bracket as a consolation prize.

Put Fonfara, a Polish fighter who now calls Chicago home, in with Cedric Agnew, a native of the Windy City. Host the card at a baseball stadium and pack it with their vocal local and ethnic fan bases. It’d be brawler vs. boxer. While it wouldn’t carry anywhere the import of Stevenson-Kovalev, it’s a match worth considering — and worth watching.

2.  Those watching HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” broadcast live this past Saturday confronted audio and video issues with the network’s live feed.

Jim Lampley noted during the broadcast that the wind was so strong in Atlantic City that it was pushing the satellite truck. It’s wholly possible. I was inside Boardwalk Hall, so I can’t speak to the weather at that time, though it was definitely dreary, rainy and miserable all day. But I believe there’s also another possibility:

Sergey Kovalev punches so hard that even the television transmission got shaken up…

3.  Evander Holyfield’s last fight was in May 2011, when he stopped Brian Nielsen. If Holyfield never fights again, he would be eligible to be on the International Boxing Hall of Fame ballot at the end of 2016, for induction as early as 2017.

If he fights again, as was reported to be possible, the 51-year-old former heavyweight champion won’t be on the ballot until the end of 2019 at the earliest — 35 years after his pro career began.

Holyfield, who won bronze in the 1984 Olympics, turned pro toward the end of that year.

Of all the men he faced in his 57 pro bouts (which included several rematches), only five could still be considered active fighters:

- Frans Botha, who is 45 and last fought in March.
- Vinny Maddalone, who is 40 and last fought in November.
- Fres Oquendo, who is 40 and last fought in June.
- James Toney, who is 45 and last fought in November.
- Sherman “The Tank” Williams, who is 41 and last fought in November.

Everyone else is retired. Five of his former foes have since been enshrined in Canastota: George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis, Dwight Qawi and Mike Tyson.

4.  Holyfield turned pro before 21 of today’s titleholders (not including “interim” belts) were even born:

- junior middleweight Demetrius Andrade
- welterweight Shawn Porter
- junior welterweight Danny Garcia
- lightweights Terence Crawford, Omar Figueroa and Miguel Vazquez
- junior lightweights Mikey Garcia and Argenis Mendez
- featherweights Evgeny Gradovich and Nicholas Walters
- junior featherweights Leo Martinez, Scott Quigg and Leo Santa Cruz
- bantamweights Tomoki Kameda and Anselmo Moreno
- junior bantamweight Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
- flyweight Juan Francisco Estrada
- junior flyweights Johnriel Casimero and Adrian Hernandez
- strawweights Hekkie Budler and Francisco Rodriguez Jr.

5.  The World Boxing Council has a weird rule that says its beltholders cannot simultaneously hold a world title bestowed upon them by another sanctioning body.

That rule hasn’t been followed for 20 months now with junior welterweight Danny Garcia, who has held the WBC and World Boxing Association titles since his July 2012 win over Amir Khan. He has fought four times since then.

It’s a strange rule that I’d rather not exist, and I would be OK with it not being enforced. I bring this up, though, because other boxers have been forced to choose between the WBC belt and those from other sanctioning bodies.

In 2012, Kazuto Ioka defeated Akira Yaegashi, adding Yaegashi’s WBA title in the 105-pound division to his own WBC belt. Ioka and Yaegashi had been told beforehand that the winner would need to relinquish one of the titles. Ioka opted to keep the WBA belt and ditch the WBC.

In 2009, Timothy Bradley was told he’d have to pick between his WBC title at 140 pounds and the WBO belt he’d just won from Kendall Holt. Bradley held onto the WBO belt and vacated the WBC.

Garcia, meanwhile, has been given special treatment.

6.  And it’s not like the WBC doesn’t know about it. It sanctions his bouts. Its officials attend his fights. And I asked the sanctioning body about it from the outset, when Garcia, who had the WBC title first, met then-WBA beltholder Khan in a unification bout.

“It is a real surprise to know … that the WBA title is involved,” the late WBC President Jose Sulaimán told me before Garcia-Khan. Khan had been given the WBA belt again after Lamont Peterson admitted to using synthetic testosterone prior to his win over Khan. “The WBC will accept only the WBC. Whoever doesn’t want it, the title is vacant.”

Then, in September 2012, I followed up with Sulaimán.

“We were not aware that Garcia was holding the WBA belt also, as the approval by the WBC was conditioned to the irrevocable decision by the winner to decide which of the two belts he would exclusively keep,” Sulaimán wrote back. “We understood that he had kept only his WBC belt. If he has not done it, he better do it, as we would withdraw recognition of his title if he doesn't. We are contacting him through his exclusive promoter, Golden Boy. If he is keeping his other belt, he will not keep ours.”

7.  Last week, the Association of Ringside Physicians released recommendations regarding fighters making weight, an often-grueling process that experts say further endangers athletes due to them losing weight quickly and dehydrating themselves — and then adding on plenty of pounds both in the day before and the weeks after fight night.

The organization feels fighters should be assessed every year by impartial examiners who would be able to tell what the lowest weight is at which a fighter should be allowed to compete. Also, weigh-ins should be no more than 24 hours before the fight.

And the organization noted that fighters, trainers and other team members need to be better educated about proper nutrition and “about the adverse consequences of prolonged fasting and dehydration on performance and health,” including what it classified as “excessive heat methods (such as rubberized suits, steam rooms, hot boxes, saunas), excessive exercise, induced vomiting, laxatives and diuretics.”

These are important things that fighters should keep in mind. But sadly, there’s a big difference between a national body such as the NCAA and the numerous state, tribal and international commissions we have in boxing. This change would need to start somewhere and then hopefully have a domino effect. It would have to be a requirement, as the mentality in sports remains the same: Far too many will do whatever it takes in the hopes of having an advantage over their opponents and rivals.

8.  Boxing Managers Behaving Badly: Marlon Sullivan, manager of junior welterweight contender Karim Mayfield, was not in Atlantic City to see Mayfield’s loss to Thomas Dulorme this past weekend. That’s because Sullivan was arrested in California as one of 26 people facing federal charges, according to the San Francisco Weekly.

“Sullivan is accused of involvement in a murder-for-hire conspiracy; gun trafficking; a drug-trafficking conspiracy; and the sale of fraudulent credit cards,” the newspaper reported. The 29-year-old is allegedly part of a larger case that also brought about the arrest of a well-known California state senator.

Mayfield, reached on Wednesday by the newspaper, had this reaction: “Oh, what the hell? He was supposed to be meeting me out here today.” Mayfield later told the Weekly that Sullivan wasn’t officially his manager but was about to become so.

The Behind the Gloves boxing website later provided this clarification: “Though Mayfield told another outlet that there was no official paperwork tying the two to each other, Mayfield agreed that Sullivan played a large part in his recent success and was who his promoter Top Rank dealt with when arranging fights.”

9.  That wasn’t the only bizarre story related to Karim Mayfield this weekend. There was also the weigh-in brawl between Mayfield and Dulorme — and the debate afterward over whether Mayfield had, uh, licked Dulorme during their stare-down.

The traditional stare down began with Mayfield literally screaming in Dulorme’s face. Dulorme then took his right hand, grabbed Mayfield’s baseball cap from off his head, and put it back on Mayfield’s head facing the opposite direction. Mayfield nodded and yelled “Yeah!” repeatedly.

He then ducked his head down to Dulorme’s chest and brought his head back up a couple of times. Dulorme put his right thumb and index finger on Mayfield’s neck, and Mayfield put his left hand around Dulorme’s throat. They shoved each other, and a brawl broke out. Both fighters wound up being fined 20 percent of their purses.

Those of us there in-person, those watching the live stream of the weigh-in, and those who caught the video afterwards wondered whether Mayfield had licked Dulorme. It was a bizarre conversation, but I guess nothing’s ever too bizarre for boxing.

For the record, Mayfield apparently didn’t lick Dulorme.

“I leaned in and was sniffing him, and then I said, ‘I smell pussy,’ ” Mayfield told the aforementioned Behind the Gloves website.

10.  Boxing has brought us incidents of biting, kissing and even humping in the ring. Alas, we can’t officially add licking to the pantheon just yet.

Among the recent cases of kissing, by the way, were the peck that Victor Ortiz planted on Floyd Mayweather’s cheek in 2011 as a weird way of apologizing for an intentional head butt, and the kiss to the cheek that Chris Arreola gave Joey Abell after stopping him, also back in 2011.

But the moment that stands out the most in my memory is the infamous “Two Points for Kissing” incident involving Trenton Titsworth against Jessie Vargas in October 2008, back when Vargas, who will appear on the Timothy Bradley-Manny Pacquiao rematch pay-per-view undercard, was in just his second pro fight.

HBO’s commentary crew was apparently calling the prelim bout before its broadcast (with Sergio Martinez, Alfredo Angulo and Yuriorkis Gamboa in showcase bouts) began that night. The network later posted the clip online.

Here, for your amusement, is a transcript of their call of the, uh, action:

Jim Lampley: “A sudden awakening for Trenton Titsworth along the ropes. Mostly he’s holding.”

Lennox Lewis: “Titsworth is talking in there. He needs to be throwing some punches in there and not talking.”

Lampley: “Now Titsworth goes down after the punch which Vargas threw on the break, and which the referee is going to rule was an illegal punch. It looks as though Titsworth might think that his jaw has been broken, Lennox, or the orbital bone. One of the two.”

Referee David Denkin: “I got timeout. This fighter [points to Titsworth], unsportsmanlike conduct, kissing that fighter. You do not kiss a fighter. One point. Two points, intentional. Two points. [Points to Vargas] One point for him hitting back. One point. One point. Okay. [Points to Titsworth] Two points.”

Max Kellerman: “Two points for kissing?”

Denkin: “You’re going to get disqualified, got it? Because you’re unsportsmanlike. Now box. This is your last chance, or I’m disqualifying you. Let’s go. Got it? You understand? Box.”

Lampley: “I’m told that our crack production team has the Titsworth kiss. And we will see the curse of the Titsworth kiss.”

Lewis: “Well Vargas definitely did not like being kissed.”

Lampley: “Let’s see what prompted the two-point penalty. The Trenton Titsworth kiss. And there it is. Indeed, he kissed Vargas behind the ear, which prompted Vargas to knock the living shit out of him. A lot of guys will do that when you kiss them.”

Lewis: “Yeah, I think I would act the same way as well.”

Kellerman: “You know, I’ve never seen a referee change his mind in the middle of a point deduction and say, ‘One point, you know what, two points, it was intentional.’ And I thought the ref did a hell of a job.”

Lampley: “He was assertive, that’s for sure. No nonsense.”

Lewis: “How can you say you never meant it?”

Lampley: “Harold, how do you have it scored through three?”

Harold Lederman: “The intentional kiss rule. In round three, David Denkin took a point away from Jesse Vargas so he gets nine. Titsworth lost two points so he gets seven.”

Lampley: “And though kissing has been ruled out, Titsworth shows he can still hug, as he’s been holding Vargas for the early part of this round.”

Kellerman: “With a name like Titsworth, he’s lucky he didn’t feel him up. I wonder how many points come off for that move.”

Lederman: “Three points.”

“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at or internationally at . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]

User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by g-wane on 04-01-2014

[QUOTE=Russian Crushin;14381832]HBO wanted the fight right away, they just did the set up card with both stevenson and Kovalev getting KOs on the same card. They didnt want it to marinate, but stevenson did. Like i said they cant force…

Comment by I Love Jesus! on 03-31-2014

[QUOTE=JDD1;14381625]I agree HBO made the best move for them at the time. That said, this fight should have been held in 2013 and the cost of the Fonfura bout only became an issue because Herschman's failed to lock both fighters…

Comment by I Love Jesus! on 03-31-2014

[QUOTE=JDD1;14381604]There are a few things I take from all of this: -Stevenson clearly doesn't want to fight Kovalev. He desreves any criticism he gets. -Al Haymon was able to get STevenson $1.75 mil (allegedly) for a Fonfura fight. That is…

Comment by uncommon on 03-31-2014

Baby Kong is making himself irrelevant now that he won't fight Kalashnikov who will continue to mow-down everyone in his path and become legendary.

Comment by JDD1 on 03-31-2014

[QUOTE=SUBZER0ED;14382243]I'm sure Ken Hershman is not acting alone. He's the president of HBO Sports, but he has to answer to those above him. Potential decisions are likely run by the bigger brass before they are finalized.[/QUOTE] I can't see him…

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