On March 11 at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, former IBF middleweight champion David Lemieux and one-time title challenger Curtis Stevens will lock horns in a battle that’s been brewing for several years. Despite the harsh reality that they’ve each been bludgeoned and outclassed by Gennady Golovkin, both Lemieux and Stevens are undisputed top 10 contenders at middleweight; more significantly, they are hellacious punchers and willing warriors.
With Lemieux vs Stevens headlining a non-Pay-Per-View HBO card, it was reasonable to expect that it would be unanimously heralded as a can’t-miss slugfest, not to mention a crucial bout to further clarify the middleweight pecking order. And yet, one particularly prominent boxing scribe was underwhelmed by the prospect of a fight which promises not only unrelenting action but also an entertaining and acrimonious promotion (not in the idiotic Angel Garcia sense, mind you), and, basically, a virtually guaranteed knockout ending.
David Lemieux vs Curtis Stevens to top HBO card March 11 at Turning Stone. Announced today. Solid fight but not main event worthy. #boxing
— Dan Rafael (@danrafaelespn) January 16, 2017
We wait months for HBO to do a non PPV fight and the reward is a card with Lemieux-Stevens as the main event? Get outta here with that.
— Dan Rafael (@danrafaelespn) January 16, 2017
Unsurprisingly, Bleacher Report’s Kevin McRae offered a sound rebuttal to any Lemieux-Stevens grumbling:
Big-time writers trashing Lemieux-Stevens now will be slobbering over themselves in March when it’s a war.
— Kevin McRae (@McRaeWrites) January 16, 2017
What’s noteworthy about these diametrically opposed viewpoints beyond the simple fact that McRae is correct and Rafael, in this instance, is being picky and petulant, is that they shed light on a lingering problem that has dogged HBO Boxing in recent years: the investment in fighters and their brands at the expense of compelling match-ups.
Now, this obviously isn’t always the case (see: Francisco Vargas-Orlando Salido). However, two particularly egregious examples are Canelo Alvarez and Andre Ward. Canelo, of course, categorically refuses to fight Gennady Golovkin, claiming he needed to gradually evolve into a full-fledged 160-pounder, a plan Canelo has made an absolute mockery of with his decision to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. at a contracted catchweight of 164.5 pounds. But what can HBO do? They’ve sold their souls to the Canelo brand, which means they are forced to bend to his every whim or risk losing a highly valuable commodity.
As for Andre Ward, the former super middleweight champion did indeed follow through on his promise to challenge Sergey Kovalev, but it came after a trio of agonizing comeback fights against Paul Smith, Sullivan Barrera (which, to be fair, was somewhat palatable), and Alexander Brand. The Brand fight, in particular, was a grotesque act of mass deception by Ward and the HBO brass. It also earned unofficial distinction as perhaps the most absurd match-up to ever air on the network that’s supposed to be boxing’s standard bearer. But again, what could HBO do? By kowtowing to Ward’s peculiar demands, they surrendered leverage to someone with an ego large enough to unironically use the moniker “Son of God.”
Showtime’s late 2016 blockbuster announcement of a handful of compelling fights has made HBO’s recent stumbles all the more glaring. With James DeGale vs Badou Jack kicking off Showtime’s 2017 campaign in ideal fashion, the Carl Frampton vs Leo Santa Cruz rematch at the end of the month, and the blockbuster unification clash between welterweight champions Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia in March, Showtime has HBO scrambling yet again. Which brings us back to Lemieux vs Stevens.
Lemieux vs Stevens does represent HBO prioritizing a match-up, which could, especially if the 28-year-old Lemieux wins impressively, lead to a long term investment in a fighter. Given that Lemieux vs Stevens is a crossroads bout, it’s the type of “loser goes home (at least for a while)” contest that has always been crucial in propping up boxing’s now shaky foundation. It has gotten far too easy for promoters to maneuver fighters into title shots with Machiavellian shrewdness, so if anything, Lemieux vs Stevens should be celebrated as an ideal example of top contenders willing to prove they’re truly worthy of another championship opportunity.
This latter fact is particularly important given the consolidated championship picture at middleweight. Golovkin holds the IBF, WBC, and WBA titles, and is set to “unify” belts against secondary titlist Daniel Jacobs 0n March 18. The delusional Billy Joe Saunders holds the WBO strap for now, and it stands to reason that he’ll eventually have to fight a live opponent. While Lemieux and Stevens have a ways to go before they can justify a second crack at GGG, an impressive win from either man puts important pressure on someone like Saunders to defend his belt against the winner.
Stakes and potential championship implications aside, Lemieux vs Stevens promises to be an old fashioned brawl. Lemieux, of course, is one of the hardest punchers in the sport, and this fact, combined with his relentless pressure, punishing body blows, and head-rattling left hook guarantees action. Stevens, who is built more like a Hamilton Safe than a human being, throws a similarly devastating left hook and compact, explosive power punches in general. And recently, Stevens has exhibited flashes of more controlled, nuanced boxing. While Stevens and Lemieux will never be considered master stylists, they box well enough to complement their greatest attributes: power and killer instinct.
This bum doesn’t know what’s coming his way all i ask is u give me 5rounds before u go night night @AssassinStevens
— David Lemieux (@lemieuxboxing) January 16, 2017
I really don’t like u @lemieuxboxing I’m gonna be ready to go nose to nose like a pit bull. Just kno when I latch on to that ass it’s over
— Curtis stevens (@AssassinStevens) January 16, 2017
Both Lemieux and Stevens are also charismatic, and there’s some genuine animosity that imbues their match-up with that extra bit of pizzazz. And based on their heated twitter exchange following the fight’s formal announcement, the promotional “action” over the next month-and-a-half promises to be an intriguing prelude to the brutality that will commence at the opening bell and only intensify until someone gets put to sleep.
It’s hard to fathom what Dan Rafael would see as a worthy non pay-per-view HBO main event if Lemieux vs Stevens doesn’t fit the bill. Frankly, Rafael’s argument comes off as lazy and complacent, especially for someone who has always valued primal action over nuanced ring craft. But Lemieux vs Stevens in fact offers much more than that. It’s an important match between compelling boxers who could be viable factors at the championship level for years to come. Seriously, what’s not to like?
— Zachary Alapi
Photo and videos by Manny Montreal