By Cliff Rold
So far 2017 has been good for boxing across the scale. From Jr. bantamweight to heavyweight, we’ve seen fierce battles, changing faces, and all with the stage setting for even more big business in the fall.
And then there’s light heavyweight.
The world’s best 175 lb. fighters have been notably absent for much of the year. Oh, sure, there has been a sighting or two. Last month, for instance, Oleksandr Gvozdyk loudly announced his arrival as a contender with a knockout of Yunieski Gonzalez.
For the most part though, it’s been quiet.
That changes this weekend, throughout the month of June, and into July. With everyone else recovering from their own battles, the spotlight turns brightly on the cream of the light heavyweight crop. Can it hold the momentum of the year?
More important, can it figure out what it’s direction will be when the dust settles or will the division continue on two distinct tracks?
Right now, it’s fairly well split with three titles on one side and a single belt, and the division’s arguable championship lineage, on the other with HBO and Showtime settling along the same lines. We see some cross pollination markets below the title level, but at the title level it still remains fairly distinct.
The biggest fight is still a couple weeks away. Debate still rages about who deserved to win the first battle between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KO). On all three scorecards, it came down to a single point. It’s the sort of fight that demands resolution and we’re going to get it.
Or we’re going to get a hell of an argument for a third and final fight between the two. Ward (31-0, 15 KO) will be defending the WBA Super, IBF, and WBO belts this time around. There is, reportedly, no rematch clause this time around so if Kovalev wins there is no guarantee they go straight to chapter three. For the moment, it appears the mandatory picture for all three belts is muddy enough to clear the paths but much could change.
Nathan Cleverly (30-3, 16 KO) holds the regular WBA belt and could be granted a shot at the WBA’s more prestigious belt. Dmitry Bivol (10-0, 8 KO) is the top WBA contender and fights on the Ward-Kovalev II undercard.
Neither is as attractive an opponent today as Ward and Kovalev are for each other. Thinking beyond their June 17th date is pointless until it all plays out. The question of import now is can they meet, or exceed, the first time around?
If the trends of 2017 hold, we might be in for a better fight this time. While Ward-Kovalev I was dramatic, it was often more in tactical terms. Both men are well schooled and it was never an all-out war. It was a violent chess match on the high end of the compliment. If the bad blood between the two, perceivably legitimate, escalates the tensions then fans will win.
If the winner isn’t looking at a Cleverly or Bivol following the rematch, could Joe Smith Jr. (23-1, 19 KO) be a viable future foe? Smith’s next fight, his first since ending the career of the great Bernard Hopkins, comes on July 15th against Sullivan Barrera (19-1, 14 KO). Ward already owns a lopsided win over Barrera; he wouldn’t be a foe anyone wanted to see face Ward if Ward wins next month. Kovalev-Barrera would be a fresh match. Smith would be fresh against either.
The focus on Smith-Barrera is intentional. It will air on HBO, the same network airing Ward-Kovalev II on their pay-per-view arm. There’s no ignoring the significance of network affiliations in wondering how the future unfolds.
All of this takes us to our coming Saturday light heavyweight double on Showtime.
WBC and lineal light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson (28-1, 23 KO) makes his first appearance of the year, and first since last July, in a rematch with Andrzej Fonfara. Attempts to make a fight between Stevenson and Smith didn’t pan out and so we’ve got this, a rematch no one knew they wanted or really asked for.
They might have asked a few years ago. Stevenson-Fonfara I was a good fight. Fonfara got off the floor early to drop Stevenson late only for Stevenson to roar back in the closing rounds to secure his title. Stevenson ahs won four more times since. Fonfara hasn’t. Fonfara won three after the Stevenson fight, stopping Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and winning an excellent battle with Cleverly. Then he met Smith in June of last year and was knocked out in the first round.
Fonfara rebounded in March of this year to stop faded former champion Chad Dawson and that’s been enough to position him for this opportunity. Don’t sleep on his chances. Fonfara is still only 29 while Stevenson is knocking on 40. If Stevenson holds on again, has he finally hit an age where he must insist on his handlers pursuing the Ward-Kovalev II winner? For several years, Stevenson-Kovalev was the biggest fight in the division.
The Kovalev-Ward rivalry has replaced it. When their rivalry is done, Stevenson will be the one man left between the victor and a divisional title clean out. Fonfara could remove that equation this weekend, if it’s even the equation that matters.
Before the Stevenson-Fonfara II rematch winner can look for unification, they likely will have to tackle an overdue WBC mandatory. Stevenson has seemed in no hurry to face Eleider Alvarez (22-0, 11 KO) but Alvarez has a chance on the undercard to move closer to a showdown. Alvarez has already been to scratch once this year, knocking out former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute. Now he has the chance to push another Canadian drawing card over the brink in former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (31-4-1, 18 KO).
Alvarez-Pascal is a chance for the winner to build a buzz, along with a WBC mandatory claim, for a fight with the Stevenson-Fonfara winner.
On each of America’s two biggest premium boxing providers, the light heavyweight division will shine this summer but still in their own separate camps. Can anything happen in the next couple months to push the divided title picture closer together?
Until we find out, let’s just hope we get some more good fights.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org