This past Saturday during the Pascal vs Kovalev event at the Bell Centre in Montreal, a strange thing happened. On the huge screen above the ring, an elegantly tailored Adonis Stevenson was shown speaking with members of one of the attending broadcast teams. The lineal light heavyweight champion was loudly booed. The immediacy and forcefulness of the fans’ reaction was surprising.
This week, speaking to The Ring about Sergey Kovalev’s future prospects in Canada, Main Events promoter Kathy Duva said boxing fans in Quebec don’t like Adonis Stevenson. “To tell the truth, if that fight happened now in Canada, Sergey would have more fans than Stevenson,” stated Duva. “The fans don’t like Stevenson; they come to watch him lose.”
This is a strong declaration, seemingly reinforced by the booing in the Bell Centre, but it’s not entirely accurate. Stevenson has detractors but Quebec fans are not uniformly against him. When Pascal was getting thumped in the third and fourth rounds on Saturday, sporadic ‘Superman’ chants sprung up in the stands. Many don’t like Stevenson, but others still believe in him.
Now that Mayweather vs Pacquiao has finally been made, Stevenson vs Kovalev stands as the most drawn-out and frustrating courtship in boxing. A deal was in place last year to make the match happen, but according to Duva, Stevenson’s team reneged on the agreement, prompting her to sue Stevenson’s advisor, Al Haymon, for breach of contract (before dropping the suit in August). Kovalev himself called Stevenson a “piece of shit” on live television last year.
Whether founded or not, the perception Stevenson is ducking Kovalev is crucial to the non-fight’s narrative and has been propagated by the Russian’s team. During Stevenson’s title defense against Dmitry Sukhotsky in December, Main Events tweeted this in response to the champion’s yellow trunks:
Whether Stevenson is truly ducking Kovalev is not the focus here. Without any insight into the fight’s negotiations or what advice Stevenson received from Al Haymon, any commentary would be conjecture. He might be afraid or he might be waiting for the match to be more lucrative. Maybe it’s a mixture of both.
He will, however, have to fight Kovalev eventually, lest he lose out on a career-making opportunity and completely turn the fans against him. But for Stevenson, who’s set to fight the unruly Sakio Bika in April in Quebec City, now is not that time. Part of the reason why is Jean Pascal, who fought bravely last Saturday while receiving an awful beating. (And, make no mistake about last week’s result: Pascal was thoroughly pounded and any talk of a rematch with Kovalev is either delusional or prompted by callous financial motivation.)
Given the insensibility of making Pascal-Kovalev II, beyond mere profiteering, there is another way for Pascal to figure positively in the light heavyweight picture. There has been talk of he and Stevenson fighting for some time (replete with the obligatory Twitter beef), and it would be a hugely popular bout in Montreal. Since Pascal was competitive against Kovalev he remains a marketable talent; despite losing, the sheer bravery of his performance only gained him esteem among boxing fans. And, though Stevenson’s a power puncher, it’s unlikely Pascal will receive the same degree of damage he did on Saturday. He will still absorb heavy shots, just fewer of them.
For Stevenson, beating Pascal will give his career a needed uptick in popularity. Some fans are still uncomfortable with “Superman”, whether because of his past, his strange post-victory celebrations, a training pedigree that occurred outside of Quebec, or his recent opponents who have been uninspiring when not overmatched. More to the point, Montreal fans simply don’t know Stevenson the way they do Pascal or Lucian Bute, though he’s more gifted than either. In the absence of familiarity, suspicions and negativity flourish. This is why Stevenson gets denigrated for his past rather than celebrated for his success. For him to claim Quebec for his own, he needs to vanquish his biggest domestic rival.
If Pascal and Stevenson meet, each will be well-compensated and both will benefit. Pascal will get another bout at the top of the division, a lucrative payday, and one more round of widespread media exposure. Stevenson will receive his chance to unambiguously prove he’s the best light heavyweight in Montreal, and equally important, enhance his reputation as a bankable star in one of boxing’s most bankable cities.
To get from A to C, Stevenson must pass B, which comes on April 4 in the form of Sakio Bika, an inhumanly tough and often dirty fighter whose record includes difficult fights against Joe Calzaghe and Andre Ward. A victory over Bika, who cannot be overlooked despite his deficiencies in technique, will provide Stevenson with the experience of dealing with an ornery opponent like Pascal. This is not a stylistic analogy, as Bika and Pascal are vastly different boxers, but they both fight with indomitable passion and—Andrzej Fonfara, perhaps, notwithstanding—Stevenson hasn’t faced anyone with equal mettle recently. He should beat Bika and Pascal because he’s a superior boxer to either man, but ‘should’ and ‘will’ are entirely different things.
This idealized trajectory ends with a date between Stevenson and Kovalev at a sold-out Bell Centre with hundreds of thousands more watching on pay-per-view. Stevenson, buoyed by a hard-won win over Sakio Bika and a career defining triumph over Pascal, will have finally become the biggest draw in Canada’s greatest fight town. And at nearly 40 years old it will be the optimal time for him to cash out.
Kathy Duva will certainly want it. In the same interview she forecasted Kovalev’s future in Montreal: “He’s going to become a big fan-favorite up there. We want to keep going back to Quebec because it’s such a wonderful market, they’re crazy for fights.” Duva realizes, and revels in, the appetite for this match in Quebec. But she will have to wait. First Bika, then Pascal. Only after beating his municipal rival, and when interest in Adonis Stevenson reaches its apex, will it be optimal to make Stevenson vs Kovalev. This requires Stevenson winning, which isn’t guaranteed, but if Kathy Duva accepts the gamble, the pay off for all could be huge. — Eliott McCormick