Negative Man: Adonis Stevenson Returns Against Oleksandr Gvozdyk

Adonis Stevenson celebrates after defeating Thomas Williams, Jr. during their WBC light heavyweight championship fight at the Centre Videotron on July 29, 2016 in Quebec City. (Image Credit: Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images)
Adonis Stevenson celebrates after defeating Thomas Williams, Jr. during their WBC light heavyweight championship fight at the Centre Videotron on July 29, 2016 in Quebec City. (Image Credit: Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images)

Whatever new feats Adonis Stevenson manages to accomplish between now and retirement, they will not likely be enough to rub out the grubby asterisks that cling stubbornly to his name. Unless revisionism becomes completely de jure in boxing (always a risk), the light-heavyweight champion from Canada via Haiti figures to be associated with a certain degree of unscrupulousness for a very long time, and in more ways than one. Carving out a clean-cut public image, however, has never been much of a priority for the brash boxer who goes by “Superman.”

“I don’t pay attention to the negativity,” Stevenson, forty-one, told Hannibal Boxing in a recent phone call. “I’m not going to bring up haters talking this or that. Hating just makes you more famous. So I don’t pay attention to that.”

The widespread disdain for Stevenson, however, did not grow out of an irrational forum board. On the contrary, it is probably well justified.

There is, first, the matter of the fighter’s troubling past, heinous, even by the comparatively lax moral standards in boxing. Nearly twenty years ago, Stevenson patrolled the Judith-Jasmin Avenue in Montreal as a full-blown pimp, lording over his hired hands with sinister impunity. The girls—as young as seventeen and as old as twenty-five—subsisted on McDonald’s, had their wages routinely bilked, and needed permission to step out of the multistory building-brothel for some air. And on the occasions that they crossed certain boundaries, Stevenson and his coterie did not hesitate to respond with their fists. Eventually, a medley of accusations would bring Stevenson and his associates crashing down before a Montreal judge. Stevenson, all things considered, got off easy, with a four-year sentence later reduced to eighteen months. To be sure, under Stevenson, the view that boxing offers a controlled outlet for hoodlums takes on an unsettling meaning.

“Look, I have four children and a fifth coming soon [Adonia was born shortly after this interview took place],” Stevenson offered as evidence of his reformed ways. “That was all a long time ago, almost twenty years ago. I was young; I’ve changed.”

To his credit, Stevenson avoided the fate of recidivism and stayed clear of tabloid headlines. He focused solely on boxing, toiling his way to representing Canada at the 2006 Commonwealth games, where he earned silver. Later that same year, he signed with influential promoter Yvon Michel. In 2013 he became a world champion. He is also a dutiful spouse and a doting father who settled down in the quaint suburban enclave of Blainville, Quebec. A real family man, in other words, who lives according to the tenets and expectations of respectable society. If these are not the marks of a redeemed life, Stevenson argues, what is? “I even got some real estate business, some tech business,” he pointed out. “You know, as a boxer, you gotta have other things, because you never know.”

Blowback of any form in boxing is nearly nonexistent. A history of domestic assault charges never stopped Floyd Mayweather, Jr. from becoming the highest paid boxer in history. Similarly, no number of severe op-ed columns and snarky tweets have changed the fact that Stevenson has been remunerated handsomely by the powers-that-be every step of his career. Such a fact, of course, rankles those who feel that Stevenson has never adequately owned up to his crimes.

For others—call them the purists—any misgivings about Stevenson’s moral track record is ultimately eclipsed by their disdain for his undisguised contempt for competition, unbecoming behavior, to the say the last, for a titleholder. To the critics, Stevenson’s braggadocio, his penchant for draping himself in gaudy mink robes and wearing gold crowns are reminders that he occupies an ersatz throne.

Indeed, despite nine title defenses, a crackerjack left hand, and a roguish ring persona, Stevenson, 29-1-1 (24), has been something of a running punchline for some time now, for handpicking nearly all of his opponents. The evidence is incontestable. Since drygulching a faded Chad Dawson for a piece of the light heavyweight crown in 2013, Stevenson has fought a mandatory challenger exactly once, limited Tony Bellew, whom he knocked out in six rounds. Through his connection to the elusive PBC impresario Al Haymon, the rest of his ledger resembles the used goods at a Salvation Army fire sale, a mashup of over-the-hill former titlists, like Sakio Bika and Tavoris Cloud, and undistinguished, inexperienced pugs, like Andrzej Fonfara (twice) and Tommy Karpency.

“You know, people are always gonna be talking,” Stevenson lamented, when his resume was brought up. “The haters, the haters. I remember my trainer told me that the same thing happened with Muhammad Ali.”

It has also never helped his image that he showed little interest in ever fighting Eleider Alvarez, his mandatory challenger for more than two years, though Stevenson feels differently. “[Alvarez] always stepped aside, he always took that step-aside fee,” Stevenson claimed, contesting the notion that he ever ducked Alvarez. “Listen, I’m not a matchmaker, this is all my manager. For me, he gives me a fight, and I fight. This is my job. I just focus on what I’m doing.”

Both Stevenson and Alvarez share a manager in Haymon and promoter in Michel, yet that has not made it any easier for the two to come to an agreement. Tired of waiting idly by, Alvarez hightailed it to Atlantic City earlier this summer to face Sergey Kovalev, whom he starched in blistering fashion to earn a world title. Asked if he would entertain a unification fight with Alvarez now, Stevenson demurred, citing, well, money.

“It’s not a big Canada fight. I dunno about that (fight),” said Stevenson. “You know I don’t think so. He’s just champion now, yeah, but it all depends on what they pay, it’s a business. I let Al Haymon negotiate on that.”

But about those asterisks: when does it become too late to salvage a tarnished reputation? If the prospect of expunging a moral stain from his name remains totally out of reach, Stevenson’s recent moves have suggested at least the possibility of improving his standing inside the ring. After drawing with top contender Badou Jack—perhaps his toughest opponent to date—in a seesaw fight back in May, Stevenson returns to the ring on December 1 for the tenth defense of his title. Remarkably, it will not involve dragging out some random schlub, but against Oleksandr Gvozdyk, the dangerous puncher from Ukraine.

Stevenson has no particular animus toward Gvozdyk nor does he know much about him, other than that he can punch and that they share an opponent in Karpency, who Stevenson blitzed in three easy rounds; Gvozdyk, on the other hand, had to get off the canvas before earning a sixth-round stoppage. As for the particulars of a game plan, Stevenson has left that to his trainer, Javan “Sugar” Hill, the nephew of Kronk patriarch Emmanuel Steward. “I just go in my ring and do my job,” Stevenson said, nonchalantly. “I know that once I touch him, it’s gonna be a different game plan (for him). It’s always like that.”

In many ways, the position Stevenson now finds himself in mirrors that of his PBC stablemate, Deontay Wilder. Like Stevenson, Wilder, too, was ridiculed for his padded record. And then in March, Wilder shocked the boxing world by agreeing to face the Cuban lefty Luis Ortiz, the epitome of high-risk/low-reward calculus. After getting nearly knocked out in the seventh round, Wilder would recover to flatten Ortiz in the tenth. Since that night Wilder has since seen his reputation soar.

“He beat Luis Ortiz; Luis Ortiz is a fucking beast!” Stevenson exclaimed. “Dillian Whyte, all those guys, they don’t want to fight Luis Ortiz. They all scared. But they criticize Wilder. Ortiz was undefeated. But [Deontay] knocked him out. Luis is a beast. Can you tell now how many heavyweights want to fight Luis Ortiz? Zero! Nobody wants to fight him! Luis is old, he’s this or that, so why you don’t fight him? For me, Wilder is the pound-for-pound best heavyweight!”

Wilder is now poised, like Stevenson, to end the year in another tough outing, this time in a PPV showdown with Tyson Fury. And as if the parallel were not clear enough, Stevenson’s fight will open as the televised undercard to the Wilder-Fury main event.

But whereas Wilder now has his signature win, Stevenson still lacks one, a withering revelation. Many observers believed that Stevenson actually lost the fight against Jack. “I caught a cold a couple of days before [ the fight],” Stevenson explained. “This was a bad cold. That’s okay. I still beat him. If I have to fight him again, it’s not a problem for me. It’s a draw but I beat him.” Nevertheless, Stevenson has never looked more vulnerable in a ring, aside perhaps from that one time he was knocked out by gatekeeper extraordinaire Darnell Boone. Still, at some point, says Stevenson, credit must be given to whom it is due.

“Look at my age,” Stevenson implored. “I’m forty-one! I’m still the light heavyweight champion. I accomplished a lot of success. And defended my title nine times.”

A victory over a younger, fresher, if still wholly unproven, power puncher in Gzozdyk may not turn back all the “negativity” that Stevenson has accrued throughout his career, but it could go a long way to re-imbuing his merits as a genuine fighter. Who knows? Win impressively on December 1 and perhaps even his staunchest critics will have to offer their begrudging respect.

“I don’t see any other Canadians doing what I’m doing.” Stevenson crowed. “Have you? C’mon, man! I don’t see them. I don’t see them.”