“[Ron Lyle’s] life was a remarkable one and the story of it worth re-telling, which makes the book’s new edition thoroughly welcome. Off The Ropes is absolutely recommended reading.”―Gary Lucken, Boxing Monthly
“Toft adeptly shows this to be the legacy Ron Lyle left behind, one that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a boxing legacy that is nothing short of remarkable.”–Rafael Garcia, The Fight City
THE HIT PARADE
Adonis Stevenson, The Mournful Past
by Carlos Acevedo, Author of Sporting Blood: Tales From The Dark Side Of Boxing
“It could have easily been me, and who’s to say it won’t be me next time?”—Ray Mancini, November 1982
More than two weeks have passed since Adonis Stevenson has laid, ghostly, in an Intensive Care Unit in Quebec City, while his family has spent long, long hours keeping vigil, praying for him to emerge from a medically induced coma.
Of the notable fighters who have recently earned the tragic distinction of being casualties of their pitiless vocations— Magomed Abdusalamov, Prichard Colon, and Daniel Franco—only Stevenson was an established professional. In fact, Stevenson is the most accomplished prizefighter to sustain grievous injuries in the ring since Gerald McClellan in 1995. This was no out-of-shape ham-n-egger looking for pickup change; he was not suspended in one jurisdiction and practicing his trade sub-rosa in another; he was not on the skids, gambling with EKGs or testing the laxity of boxing commissions in hinterland states such as South Carolina or Arkansas.
No, Adonis Stevenson was arguably the best light heavyweight in the world when he arrived at the Videotron Center in Quebec City to face Oleksandr Gyozdyk on December 1. This is where the outcome of Grovdsyk-Stevenson becomes all the more troubling: It was not a particularly savage contest. It was not Eubank-Watson II or Benn-McClellan. Nor was it a prolonged drubbing (Ruelas-Garcia, Chavez-Johnson, Jones-Scottland) under-officiated by a negligent referee. His tragic circumstances are a reminder not only of the risks fighters take when they step into the ring (at any level), but also of the merciless nature of a sport that consumes a majority of its practitioners.
Despite his status as a fair box-office attraction in Quebec, Adonis Stevenson could hardly be considered popular. His reluctance to face top opposition for most of his title reign, along with bold proclamations on Twitter and his donning of a fake crown and a Superman outfit for photo ops and press conferences, fueled resentment among the unforgiving peanut gallery. Somehow, Stevenson even managed to sidestep natural rivals in Montreal: Lucien Bute, Jean Pascal, Artur Beterbiev, and Eleider Alvarez, a remarkable, if perplexing, achievement.
But it was his criminal past that hardened many against him. While still a teenager, Stevenson abandoned his home for a life on the streets. Eventually, he joined a gang—The Black Panthers— which soon morphed into a sex trafficking ring. “Escort agency,” the euphemism used so often to describe this vicious criminal enterprise, is little more than cheap journalese. And while the concept of “pimping” has been risibly co-opted as a cultural trope over the years (think of Iceberg Slim, Willie Dynamite, The Mack, Ice-T, and Snoop Dogg), what The Black Panthers did is unrecognizable to the average pop sensibility. Violence, imprisonment, terror—the dehumanization of sex trafficking is simply beyond the comprehension of even the most forgiving natures. As punishment, Stevenson would force these girls to square off, with gloves, in grotesque parodies of his future livelihood. Although Stevenson was not the ringleader of The Black Panthers, he was an all-too-willing participant. For his role in these crimes, Stevenson spent four years in prison, a sentence compounded by an aggravated assault charge after he had beaten another inmate into a coma.
And yet Stevenson embodied, however raggedly, the redemption story so often held up as the justification for a barbarous occupation otherwise appalling to progressive sensibilities. Over the years, boxing has had two slender threads of defense: libertarian principles based on the concept of free will, and a socio-economic component that is part fantasy and part wish-casting.
For Stevenson, not even a reformed life seems to have counted in his favor, despite the fact that boxing has been overrun by dark figures whose impulses could never be curbed. Tony Ayala, Jr., after years of psychological counseling and heartfelt claims of rehabilitation, found himself back in prison again. His last run at freedom culminated in his suicide. Frank “The Animal” Fletcher was in and out of institutions for years. Clifford Ettienne emerged from Angola only to return less than a decade later. Mike Tyson, of course, went from scandal to scandal for nearly twenty years. Instead of being counted among the success stories of a sport whose sociological impact is often overstated—most professional boxers wind up destitute or physically incapacitated to some degree—Stevenson regularly found himself the subject of internet and newspaper features detailing his crimes.
Away from the spotlight, Stevenson established a quiet and enviable life as a father and a husband. He also mentored at-risk youth and contributed to charitable causes. Here is where the concept of rehabilitation comes into play—by consciously giving back to the community, Stevenson appeared sincere about his debt to society. Even the inversion of his name—he was born Stevenson Adonis—seemed to hint at a conscious break from his previous self. Short of direct restitution to his victims—and it is hard to imagine the trauma these women went through—what more could Stevenson do? The fact remains that Stevenson was not incorrigible; the fact remains that, despite his heinous crimes, he was not a reprobate. This, of course, is of no importance to the righteous rabble.
To say that boxing is a sleazy, marginal, and values-free pursuit is to utter the merest commonplace. An outlaw pastime for most of its early years in America, boxing was considered morally dubious, yes, but it was also viewed as a magnet for riff-raff. Prizefights, often held on barges, sandbars, and beaches, locations accessible only by mystery trains, were moveable feasts of iniquity. During a trial staged in the aftermath of the first recorded ring death in American history (In 1842 Tom McCoy died of injuries, following 120 rounds against Christopher Lilly), presiding Justice Charles R. Ruggles made this fact clear: “A prize fight brings together a vast concourse of people; and I believe it is not speaking improperly of such assemblages, to say that gamblers, and the bullies, and the swearers, and the black legs, and the pickpockets and the thieves, and the burglars are there. It brings together a large assemblage of the idle, disorderly, vicious, dissolute people…”
Not much, it seems, has changed over the years. When a mortally wounded Johnny Owen was carried up the aisle on a stretcher, spectators at the Olympic Auditorium, long notorious for its rowdy aura, threw beer cups filled with urine at him. As Kid Akeem lay twitching on the canvas after having vomited blood in his corner, the crowd in San Antonio erupted in chants of “DOA, DOA,” bringing to mind not an athletic contest held in 1991, but the bloodlust of the Roman Coliseum during the mad reigns of Nero or Caligula. The vengeful Twitter crowd, combined with the cosmic justice HTML oafs, are the 21st-century versions of the vicious and dissolute.
If Stevenson emerges from his coma, and there is no guarantee of that, he will likely spend the rest of his life physically impaired. And that seems almost inevitable, indeed, logical, for a pursuit whose storied lexicon (below the belt, on the ropes, toe the line, come out fighting, etc.) deflects an altogether darker vocabulary: soft tissue damage, radiating fractures, subdural hematoma, blunt force trauma.
Most fighters risk a grim future for the chance at a glittering present. For now, at least, Adonis Stevenson has lost everything—including his mournful past.
When a Magician’s Curse Swung Boxing’s Biggest Bout, Story by Aaron Skirboll, Narratively: Hidden History
In 1939 eccentric Tiger Jack Fox challenged Melio Bettina for the light heavyweight championship of the world under some of the most adverse conditions imaginable. First, he was still recuperating from a serious stab wound suffered less than two months before the fight in a mysterious hotel fracas. Then he crossed paths with an abracadabrant manager known for casting the “Evil Eye” on the opposition. Aaron Skirboll looks back on a strange night at Madison Square Garden for Narratively.
Deontay Wilder, Over Steak and Fries, Relives His Biggest Fight, By Victor Mather, New York Times
The New York Times sat down with Deontay Wilder, who broke down his controversial title defense against Tyson Fury. As usual, Wilder provides some colorful moments along the way, even if they are not always rooted in reality.
Joe Dorsey’s Big Fight: How An Unknown Boxer Knocked Out Segregation In Louisiana, by Steve Knopper, BuzzFeed
Joe Dorsey was a popular light heavyweight fighting out of New Orleans whose legacy was not made in the ring but in a courtroom. In 1955 Dorsey successfully sued the state of Louisiana for its law banning interracial boxing matches. But when is a win not a win? Steve Knopper delved into that question for BuzzFeed.
IN THIS CORNER
“I’m a nice guy when you want to know me outside of the ropes … until you do something bad to me. Then I can be mean out there, too. When it comes to fighting in the ring, I don’t want to know nobody. I don’t want to have nothing to do with nobody. Everything I’ve gone through in life comes back and stands there in the corner with me. I think: Survive! This man is trying to hurt me. I’m not going to ever let him hurt me.”―Iran Barkley
HK13 COMBAT DE BOXE de Charles Dekeukeleire, 1927 (Soundtrack by mr.coon)
An unusual avant-garde boxing short from the 1920s.