Adonis Stevenson has been a world boxing champion since June of 2013 but during that time, instead of establishing recognition as one of the best belt-holders of recent years, he has become one of the sport’s most unpopular figures, the butt of many jokes, the target of constant criticism. Part of the reason for this is the long series of less-than-challenging title defenses following his one round knockout of Chad Dawson. Perhaps the quintessential “Haymon fighter,” Stevenson finally took on a truly serious challenge in his most recent bout, a grueling 12 round draw against Badou Jack. He faces another difficult outing this Saturday when he at long last makes a “mandatory” title defense against undefeated top contender Oleksandr Gvozdyk.
But perhaps the more significant reason for Stevenson’s unpopularity has to do with the fact that he happens to have, (as do many of us) “a past,” specifically a criminal past. It’s something he’s not proud of and it’s also something for which he’s paid his dues. But for too many people, that’s not enough. For over 18 years Adonis Stevenson has been a model citizen, a contributor to his community, and a devoted father. But some will not let go of the things that happened long before he became a force to be reckoned with in the boxing world. Straight up: it’s an ongoing exercise in sanctimony and hypocrisy that needs to stop, that should have stopped a long time ago.
Here are the basic facts. Stevenson, a native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, moved to Montreal with his family when he was seven-years-old. For whatever reason, by 14 he was out of control, spending far too much time on the streets, and soon enough he was part of a violent gang and headed for disaster. Eventually he became involved in an organized sex-for-hire service operating in Montreal. He and the rest of the crew behind “The Obsession Escorting Agency” were eventually arrested and convicted, Stevenson’s sentencing judge pronouncing that he and his co-conspirators had profited from a “prostitution ring.”
Where I come from that is called pimping, the legal term being “pandering,” under the California Penal Code, and Adonis is fortunate that in Quebec they do not have, as they do south of the border, the harsh, mandatory sentences for such crimes. But ultimately that is beside the point. The bottom line is Adonis Stevenson was arrested, tried, convicted and he then served his jail time. When released from prison in 2001, he made a pact with himself to turn his back on the street gang lifestyle and everyone associated with it, that he would never again break the law. Stevenson has made good on this promise. He has paid his debt to society, turned his life around, and become a success. Outside the ring he works with at-risk youth and by all reports is a doting and loving father. But few give him credit for what is undeniably a story of perseverance and redemption.
So first, let’s get the most obvious aspect of this collective hypocrisy out of the way. Either you believe in the criminal justice system or you do not. Either you believe that those found guilty of a serious crime should serve their time and then be given a second chance, or you’re some kind of sadist who believes people who break the law should all be thrown into a pit and left to rot and die. Fact: Adonis Stevenson broke the law. Fact number two: he went to prison for it and served his sentence.
And here’s something I’m pretty sure all those people out there who like to castigate or dismiss Stevenson don’t ever consider. Every time you condemn the man and publicly shame him, what message are you sending to anyone else who has served jail time and is now trying to better themselves and live a normal life? Are you comfortable telling ex-cons that they can never, ever be forgiven? That they are to be forever condemned and treated as outcasts? Again, either you believe in the possibility of second chances and redemption, or you don’t.
If anybody knows Stevenson intimately and knows his character, it is Stevenson’s promoter, Yvon Michel. Michel believes in his fighter, but he also knows Adonis can never hide from his past. The point is, he can rise above it. And in fact, he has, though some it seems don’t want to see it that way.
“I don’t want to excuse anything that he has done,” says Michel. “But don’t forget he was raised in the street. He did something bad and I know he regrets it. [But] if you believe he should be punished for the rest of his life for something he did as a teenager, look in the mirror and find somebody who’s never made a mistake.”
The undeniable hypocrisy of the situation becomes even more clear when one compares the situation of Stevenson to other high profile sports figures who have had their confrontations with the law. For example, consider former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Like Stevenson, he too made some very poor choices as a youngster, but few, if any, hold it against him now. By the time Tyson was just 14-years-old he had been arrested 38 times! In 1992 he was convicted of rape and served less than three years of a six year sentence. And lest we forget, this is the same pugilist who bit a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear off in the ring. But look at Tyson now. Is he a pariah? Is he viewed in the same negative light as Stevenson? Is he booed or insulted in public or taunted for what happened decades ago?
Another example: Floyd Mayweather. Since 2002 Mayweather has been accused of violence against women on a number of occasions. He pleaded guilty in two of those incidents, and in another he was convicted only to have the charges dismissed four years later. The most recent incident in 2010, in which he hit his ex-girlfriend in front of two of their children, resulted in a 90-day prison sentence. Now Floyd continues to be in the limelight as a promoter and lately there’s been talk of huge money fights in Japan and a rematch with Manny Pacquiao, but when these stories come up no one mentions Floyd’s criminal record.
When was the last time NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s convictions and prison time for torturing and killing dogs was brought up? After serving out a prison sentence, Vick went back to the NFL in 2009 and played several more seasons, retiring in 2017, with little more ever being said about Vick’s transgressions, perhaps in part because Vick did public service spots against animal cruelty.
Sticking with football, what about Hall of Famer Ray Lewis? He was said to be present at the murders of two young men by friends of his. Lewis worked out a plea deal but refused to “snitch” on his homies on the witness stand, claiming memory failure of something no one could ever possibly forget. That meant nothing to the NFL Hall of Fame committee, who did not hesitate to induct Lewis last summer. Nor did it mean anything to Showtime Television, which made Lewis a principal commentator on its “Inside the NFL” series.
The point here is not to disparage Lewis, Vick, Mayweather, Tyson or anyone else, but to point out that there appears to be an unfair double standard at play. For some athletes who get into trouble, the public turns a blind eye to their transgressions, gives them a pass. But for others, for whatever reason, forgiveness is almost impossible to secure. Even when it’s obvious that the person in question profoundly regrets what they did.
Flash back to last May when Michel and his team were forced on short notice to move Stevenson’s showdown with former super middleweight champion Badou Jack from Montreal to Toronto. One wonders if part of the motivation behind the scenes was to take the fight from a city where Stevenson’s history is common knowledge to one where it is less known. But if that was the motivation, it backfired. If anything it laid the groundwork for renewed interest in the story of Adonis Stevenson, but not in positive terms. Once again tales of Stevenson’s “pimp past” were revisited in the media and Badou Jack fanned the flames in comments to the press clearly intended to take unfair advantage.
It’s part of boxing to try and get under the skin of your opponent, to take them out of their game and intimidate them if you can. In a pre-fight interview, Jack told the media, that he was approached by many Canadians who, he claimed, disliked Stevenson “because he was a former pimp . . . He’s not a likable guy.” Jack said he wasn’t going to judge Stevenson about the pimp thing, remarking, “Only God can judge him.”
This kind of thing from Stevenson opponents isn’t new but if Adonis and his team were hoping that fighting in Toronto meant getting away from negative attention, Jack made sure it wasn’t possible. Stevenson was the Canadian fighter, the one the Toronto crowd should have been behind, but he received a chorus of boos after the Jack fight, a match which saw Stevenson dig down and save his title by the slimmest of margins with a gutsy late round rally. Adonis acknowledged the crowd with a smile but I couldn’t help detecting a certain consternation in his expression, a sense of disappointment. I also couldn’t help wondering why Toronto fight fans would boo a fellow Canadian and a world champion.
There’s no way to know for sure, but it’s entirely possible the negativity was connected to Badou Jack’s resurrecting the now decades-old pimp story, especially after the renewed interest resulted in an article in The Toronto Star with the headline: “Adonis Stevenson Is A World Champion — Does Boxing Care That He Used To Be A Pimp?”
I lost respect for Jack when he brought this subject up, particularly Badou’s personal hypocrisy of attributing the pimp story to things he’d heard only “from fans.” Yeah, right. Come on, Badou, don’t play innocent. You knew about this long before you landed in Toronto and you used it to try and gain an unfair edge, verbally hitting the man below the belt for something he went to jail for.
But here’s the thing to take away from this: Jack and other opponents wouldn’t bring this up if they didn’t think it bothered Stevenson. And the only reason it can bother him is if he feels genuine remorse, if he is in fact ashamed of what happened in his life years ago. Which brings up a key question: what exactly do the sanctimonious critics who attack Stevenson want from him? He went to prison; he’s turned his life around; he tries to be a good role model; he feels genuine regret for the past. Has he not covered all the bases?
And yet as I researched material for this article I repeatedly encountered comments on blog posts labeling Stevenson a “pimp,” and referring to him as if were, even now, an active criminal, a member of the underworld. Am I the only one who sees the wholly unfair double standard applied here?
To his credit, Stevenson does not appear to be embittered. While he clearly does not relish answering questions about his past, at the same time he wants to use it in a positive way to help others. His longtime girlfriend, Simone God, who is also the mother of one of his daughters, stated in the aforementioned Toronto Star piece that Stevenson’s example should serve as an inspiration.
“[People can think to themselves] ‘I messed up, I went to prison, but that’s not the end for me. If I want to change my life, I have Adonis Stevenson [who’s] done it [so] I know I can do it …” According to Ms. God, “He’s a great example to those who are 18, 19, Black immigrants, minorities, [people] who have made mistakes but are willing to change …”
Stevenson shared a similar perspective: “For sure, I feel remorse … A lot of people think that when you go to jail, [life] is over … it’s been 20 years, but some people still try to put me in a bad light. But you can change. I’ve changed. I’ve worked [at it] a lot.”
But what he hasn’t worked on so much is being more upfront and open about this whole issue for the public. In my opinion, Stevenson and his people should take a page from the Michael Vick PR playbook. After his release from prison for involvement in a dog-fighting ring, Vick spoke out in support of legislation that would penalize people who bankrolled such activity. Vick also partnered with the Humane Society to release public service videos aimed at preventing animal cruelty. In addition, Vick urged the Alabama Legislature to pass a measure imposing stricter penalties for illegal cockfighting.
It might have been a good idea if, years ago, Stevenson and his people had decided to get in front of the story, to take control of the narrative, and confront it openly. Adonis might have been able to take a leadership role and speak out in favour of legislation to combat exploitation or to support sex workers. Charity work and talking publicly about these issues would likely go a long way to silence some of Stevenson’s critics and to counter the negative judgments out there. It might also be helpful if he permanently shelved the Superman shtick, or the garish “King of the Ring” routine he sometimes flaunts, complete with a crown and cape, and avoided any taunting of opponents.
But what takes place this Saturday should also help as, at long last, the champion so many boxing fans love to hate for supposedly ducking the most dangerous rivals, finally faces an official “mandatory” contender. The fight against Badou Jack, a genuine elite-level contender, subdued much of the talk of Stevenson being “a chicken,” so to follow that up with a showdown against the dangerous Oleksandr Gvozdyk may very well — assuming he prevails — help change Stevenson’s image. Indeed, if Adonis wins on Saturday, that will mark eleven straight title fights without a defeat, an impressive run that includes victories over Dawson, Tony Bellew, Sakio Bika, Thomas Williams Jr., and Andrzej Fonfara.
But beyond all that, no matter what happens on Saturday, and no matter what Adonis Stevenson says or does publicly or privately, the question remains: why isn’t the story of Adonis Stevenson one of redemption and hope, of someone hitting rock bottom, and then having the guts and determination to pick up the pieces and redeem himself?
The man should be praised for how he has turned his life around; for how he came out of prison with nothing and through hard work and determination became a success; for how he has put his criminal career firmly behind him; for how he has become a committed father and family man, a positive example for at-risk youth. Others who have been to prison and then redeemed themselves are given the chance to re-shape their public image and so should Adonis. The double standard needs to stop.
— Ralph M. Semien