Boxing returned to Atlantic City this past Saturday with a doubleheader from the Hard Rock Resort and Hotel intended to bring us closer to establishing an HBO light heavyweight champion. And while we may indeed be closer—provided, of course, the fighters share the network’s agenda and timeline—that course was shockingly and violently rerouted.
The co-main event had an element of surprise about it. Dmitry Bivol, for many the heir apparent to titles both concrete and abstract, won a unanimous decision over Isaac Chilemba. Some will see his victory as proof that Bivol, 14-0 (11), can control a crafty and durable fighter for twelve rounds, and do so without enduring a hint of damage. Others will point to Oleksandr Gvodzyk’s 2016 stoppage of Chilemba, 25-6-2 (10), as reason enough to temper the expectations and enthusiasm for Bivol. Gvozdyk has inspired but a fraction of the enthusiasm the precocious Bivol has, yet, in his twelfth fight, he became the only man to stop Chilemba. Sure, Bivol showed he could control a fight with his feet; you might question, though, the sincerity of anyone who said they tuned in to behold this wrinkle in his game or were particularly entertained by its reveal. Understandably, Bivol has some learning to do; we should permit him it lest we exhaust our cache of compliments before the young Russian reaches the point of deserving them.
As for the elder Russian on the card? He did not fare so well. Fourteen months ago, Andre Ward bullied Sergey Kovalev beyond the threshold of his fitness and resolve and pocketed forever the aura of menace Kovalev had rightfully earned. Lost with that aura was a disproportionate amount of respect for Kovalev’s craft; two fights into the comeback trail Kovalev, 32-3-1 (28), showed enough of the skill and power that distinguished his title reign to suggest that, provided Ward remained beyond the ropes, light heavyweight might be Krushed anew. Could anyone entertain such an idea now?
In his first legitimate test since being stopped by Ward, Kovalev was untethered from his senses by undefeated Colombian Eleider Alvarez. You cannot beat Kovalev with a jab, but what Alvarez, 24-0 (12), showed—particularly in those rounds when Kovalev channeled his best, most destructive self—is you can survive against him with one. And if you can survive, fatigue will join the fight in your favor. So when Kovalev hurt Alvarez in the fourth round, the Colombian fighter committed to the one punch he could land effectively and let fatigue accelerate the process his right hand would finish later. In the seventh, Alvarez baited a wilting Kovalev into throwing a weak counter jab and caved in the side of his head with a right hand. Kovalev fell and would fall twice more in the round before referee David Fields ended the fight. And unlike his two previous defeats (in consecutive fights against Ward) this loss featured no debatable scoring, no borderline low blows, and no salvageable excuses—Kovalev was simply and summarily ended.
It is hard to envision a version of Kovalev that is not elite, and so it is hard to envision his future in boxing. Admittedly, this feels reactionary: he clearly has the talent and skills to fight on, and those attributes will take a fighter some distance. But it is one thing for the best fighters in the division to learn—as Alvarez did—that Kovalev fades markedly in the second half; another thing for Kovalev to know his opponents know this. Do not expect the latter to turn him from the sport, and do not be surprised if it does.
With Kovalev no longer a viable contender for the throne, and Adonis Stevenson, who is forty and recently survived (by draw) a scare against Badou Jack, clearly nearing the end, light heavyweight could cohere in the manner it was supposed to when Kovalev and Stevenson were both with HBO. Sports columnist John Schulian foreshadowed the recent light heavyweight snafu when Leon Spinks was stripped of one of the titles he won from Muhammad Ali. “Now that we have two Champs,” Schulian wrote, “one wonders what the next step in this lunacy will be. Perhaps each major television network will decide that it wants a champion of its own.”
This is indeed what happened when Stevenson bolted for Showtime in 2013, jettisoning a Kovalev fight in the process. It happened again in 2015, when Kovalev’s promoter, Main Events, withdrew from a purse bid that would have secured the Stevenson fight to remain cozy with HBO. Two networks, two champions, for too long. But could that change?
In early July, GYM, Stevenson’s promoter, won a purse bid for Stevenson-Gvozdyk, which means a Showtime fighter will face an ESPN fighter for part of the light heavyweight crown. The newly-belted Alvarez fights for GYM as well but owes HBO a return performance, which, should it be against Bivol, would unify two major titles. Artur Beterbiev, another titleholder, is also with GYM, and could unify with Stevenson (should he defeat Gvozdyk) or Alvarez (should he defeat Bivol). This is not to suggest that there will be an undisputed light heavyweight champion anytime soon: the odds that the titles remain divided along network lines are as good if not better than the chances they finally unify—and really, there are too many wallets and egos and meddlers and futures involved to see such a process expedited swiftly. Nor is there likely enough money available to entice fighters from a more glamorous division into a World Boxing Super Series tournament.
Still, the stalled dialectic that was the division’s title picture could be reinvigorated soon. At the very least, this litany of new matchups is preferable to a long-dead hypothetical one.