Adonis Stevenson waged a war on two fronts in 2018. Age, dogged in its assault, hounded the forty-one-year-old fighter in both his fights and his preparation; while youth, aspiring and robust, assailed him between the ropes. If you hadn’t noticed, it was because Stevenson, while increasingly battle-wearied, was winning both wars.
In years past, Stevenson would have turned to matchmaking to mitigate that conspiratorial threat. Indeed, his nine-fight reign as WBC light-heavyweight champion is likely to be remembered for the safe run of derelict defenses that allowed him to line his pockets late into his thirties. It was a tactic that vilified Stevenson. Already loathed by many for again turning violence—the dominant and dominating characteristic of his treatment of women in the rough trade of his youth—into profit, and for doing so with a fighter’s conceit, Stevenson’s seeming aversion to danger only turned people against him harder. That he depicted himself almost as a man more sinned against than sinning when pressed about his past did nothing to repair his image. There was a sense that if he had paid a little more in the ring, where violent men sometimes meet violent ends and justice is strangely tethered to entertainment, Stevenson would not have been the persona non grata he was.
That logic is twisted, to be sure, a sort of vindictive Venn diagramming of a man’s personal and professional lives, of his past and of his present. Is it unrealistic to think, though, that had “Superman” been left stiff by Sergey Kovalev instead of caping undesirable opponents into his superhuman left that many would have allowed him to be a prizefighter first and foremost? Is it fair to wonder, too, whether his snatching Kovalev’s daylights would have only hardened people further in their opposition to him? He was a difficult fighter to like, few found him easier to embrace as a person—and each estimation informed the other.
But in 2018, at least, Stevenson conducted himself like a proper prizefighter, and so it is as a prizefighter that he is treated here. In May, Badou Jack fought him to a draw, one that seemed to deplete what remained of Stevenson’s championship reserves. The sight of Stevenson, blinded by exhaustion and at the mercy of an opponent worn just enough by the night’s punishment to let victory elude him, left one wondering whether Jack had not won Stevenson’s next opponent a title. And to a degree, perhaps Jack did: forty-one-year-old fighters do not simply shrug off the residuals of the ring. Still, Stevenson looked fit as he walked to the ring in the Centre Videotron in Quebec City, where undefeated Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk brutally stopped him in the eleventh round.
Stevenson, 29-2-1 (24), fought well that night, at least in the early going, though it is fair to wonder whether Gvozdyk hadn’t somewhat conceded the early action to familiarize himself with the hum and snap of Stevenson’s third-rail power. Because once Gvozdyk employed the strategy he and trainer Teddy Atlas devised for nullifying one of the most frightening punchers in boxing, the fight set as if inexorably on a path to an inevitable end.
Jack too had also found safety in strategy, pinning himself to Stevenson’s right shoulder to deny the Haitian-Canadian southpaw the angles he used to such effect. But the opportunity to work in close carried the penalty of proximity; one that Stevenson exacted enough throughout the fight to preserve his title. Gvozdyk, however, negated Stevenson’s power by pivoting left. Constantly turning Stevenson furnished Gvozdyk two advantages: it provided him an angle to throw his right hand before Stevenson could adjust, and it forced Stevenson to throw across his body if he hoped to counter. There was a time when Stevenson would have pivoted with Gvozdyk, when even if his footwork was a beat behind he still brandished the firepower needed to temper Gvozdyk’s assault. But at forty-one, Stevenson hadn’t the legs to keep in rhythm with Gvozdyk, who, when he wasn’t already out of reach, could either slip the left hand or absorb it with his glove. And, unlike Jack, Gvozdyk boasted the firepower to capitalize fully on the advantages of his strategy.
A lethal application of fundamentals was what made Stevenson elite. Nothing in his arsenal neared the potency of his left hand, but the craft he employed in maximizing that weapon was as remarkable—and dependable—as his power. There was, then, something poetic in watching him undone by fundamentals, by Gvozdyk’s commitment to them, by his willingness to stare down and counter even Stevenson’s left—a punch that for years had produced little but cowering, carnage, and capitulation.
It almost did on this night too, when a Stevenson left momentarily jellied Gvozdyk in the tenth. But Gvozdyk, 16-0 (13), responded like a man prepared to take a title by force (take note, Dmitry Bivol) and in the next round landed a hook-cross combination that cut the power to Stevenson’s legs before shattering him with a right hand.
And with that, another title has changed hands the right way. Gvozdyk traveled to Stevenson’s turf, fought on Stevenson’s network, weathered the still formidable retaliations of a proud but faded champion, and with the scorecards reeking of mischief, rendered their tally utterly inconsequential. Credit to Stevenson too, for doing what champions should: namely, ratify the future with their blood.
Though in this instance that sacrifice seems extreme. Down for several minutes after the fight, Stevenson was later laid on a stretcher and taken to L’Enfant-Jesus de Quebec hospital where he has since been placed in an induced coma to relieve the pressure caused by brain swelling and decrease pain sensations during treatment. There are some (fathers, brothers, of women and girls among them) who see this as the cosmos rectifying its own shortcomings of justice or improving on the flawed and too-lenient hand of the law. However strongly one may disagree with them, and with the notion that the perils of the ring represent anything greater than the dangers of a blood sport, it isn’t difficult to understand why they feel this way, or why anyone targets their anger about abstract evils at specific examples (even twenty years removed). Somehow, that seems to only add to the tragedy of it all.