Stevenson vs Gvozdyk: Mandatory Mayhem

With WBC light heavyweight belt-holder Adonis “Superman” Stevenson set to face mandatory top contender Oleksander Gvozdyk this Saturday at the Vidéotron Centre in Quebec City, the champion is being lauded for facing a second consecutive challenger who falls in the truly formidable category. Normally, that should be the rule rather than the exception. But Stevenson has failed to live up to his duties as lineal champion, instead opting to face a series of largely middling contenders on the most leisurely of schedules. Indeed, Saturday’s bout will represent just his fourth outing in three full years, such flagrant inactivity rendering him forgotten in the eyes of much of the boxing public. Out of sight, out of mind.

A rare sighting of “Superman”: Adonis blows away Fonfara in June of 2017.

But his, until recently, dreadful choice of opposition is an even greater sin in the eyes of this writer. At least if he was facing the most dangerous and deserving opponent in his annual ring appearance, than one could grant him a certain degree of credit. Instead, he’s chosen to feast on too many undeserving challengers including such no-hopers as Tommy Karpency, Dmitry Sukhotskiy and super middleweight Sakio Bika. No disrespect to Thomas Williams Jr., but if he is the best contender you’ve faced in recent years, you’ve got a problem in terms of legitimacy.

But of course that’s no longer the case. Stevenson has wisely decided to finally test himself against truly skilled opposition. In his last bout in May, he took on Badou Jack, the former super middleweight champion representing the toughest test for Adonis since he poleaxed Chad Dawson for the lineal championship way back in 2013. Jack had the skills and mettle to not only deal with the Haitian-Canadian’s power, but push him like he’d never been pushed before. In a dramatic and hard-fought battle, Stevenson was lucky to escape the Air Canada Centre with his title after the contest was scored a majority draw.

Jack and Stevenson had to settle for a draw.

There are different possible explanations for why Stevenson struggled with Jack. At a recent media session held at Tiger Paul’s gym in Montreal, Adonis said in the weeks leading up to the match he was weakened by a virus, the illness preventing him from performing to his full capability. But I believe Jack deserves much credit for making it such a tough fight. The Mayweather-promoted battler is now unquestionably one of the top contenders in the 175 pound division and he performed valiantly, almost annexing the title. But regardless of the reason for Stevenson’s sub-optimal showing, the fans were treated to a highly competitive and dramatic contest, something that simply cannot be said for most of the champion’s previous nine title defenses.

Adonis and Yvon Michel during a recent media event in Montreal.

And the tough opposition continues on December 1 with Gvozdyk. The Ukranian, nicknamed “The Nail”, had a highly decorated amateur career, winning 220 of his 250 bouts, culminating with a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics as part of the Ukranian Dream Team alongside fellow uber-talents Oleksander Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko. Since turning pro in 2014, Gvozdyk has gone undefeated in 15 fights, including 12 stoppages. Although he has beaten several recognizable names during that stretch, such as Nadjib Mohammedi, Tommy Karpency, Isaac Chilemba and Yunieski Gonzalez, they are all gatekeepers who have lost to the other elite names at 175.

Gvozdyk is ready for his first world title shot.

Gvodyk’s first world title shot represents a big step up in competition and by far his stiffest test to date. Cognizant of that fact, he has made a major change in his preparation by hiring the legendary Teddy Atlas to replace Marco Contreras as his head trainer. According to Gvozdyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, “Oleksandr just felt like it was time for him to step up, and this [was] an opportunity to learn more and have more attention.”

It was by no means an easy feat to coax Atlas out of retirement, who hasn’t been a trainer since his two-fight stint with Timothy Bradley in 2015-2016. Gvozdyk approached Atlas with the opportunity and Teddy spent weeks considering it before finally accepting. He only decided to do so after spending a few days with Gvozdyk and his family at their home in Oxnard, California.

Gvozdyk’s quick hands and solid punching were too much for Yunieski Gonzalez.

“I wanted to meet him and his family,” says Atlas. “So I did. I spent two days with him, we watched film, had lunch and dinner on the first day, and then we spent the second day in the gym working together. I met his family. He has three young children and a wife, and I trust Egis as a person. I told him that the first prerequisite to even entertaining the thought of coming back to training is if I thought they were good people. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t even entertain it.

“That is the first thing — do I want to spend time with this person? And I felt that I would want to be around a person like that. And then the next thing was: can I help him and is he conducive to being trained? Will he allow himself to be coached? The answer was yes from what I could see, and they’re asking for my help. So can I help him? I feel I can help him.”

Teddy Atlas is preparing Gvozdyk for the biggest fight of his career

And Gvozdyk will need that help as he takes on the explosive Stevenson, a fact not lost on Atlas. “You’re fighting the second-hardest puncher in boxing [behind heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder]. You can’t make mistakes with a guy like this. You have to be technically solid, and you have to have a very definite plan on how to go about winning this fight. We will work on that. There’s no real margin for error.”

Some of the key questions of this fight are the following: Does Stevenson have enough left in the tank at this stage in to turn back a highly-skilled and hungry challenger? Can Adonis withstand the younger man’s hand speed and sharp jab? Does Gvozdyk have the mental chops to put it all together on the biggest night of his pro career and snatch the title from the champion in his own backyard? Can he take Stevenson’s power? We will soon find out.

But regardless of the outcome, here’s to hoping that Adonis’ recent willingness to take on the toughest foes isn’t an aberration. If Stevenson is in fact attempting to make up for lost time, there are a number of enticing matchups that could be made, including the likes of Beterbiev, Alvarez, Jack, and Bivol. If those fights take place, they would go a long way in helping Adonis regain all the fan respect he’s lost over the years during a rather underwhelming title run.

In that regard, Stevenson would be wise to take a page from his fellow countryman Jean Pascal. As Zachary Alapi pointed out last week, Pascal deserves the utmost admiration from the boxing public because of his consistent insistence on fighting the absolute best in his weight class. If Adonis can adopt that mentality moving forward, he could reverse much of the self-inflicted harm he’s done to his own legacy.

But first, Stevenson has to get past Gvozdyk, which is by no means an easy task given that the Ukranian is one of the division’s best talents. With such an impressive amateur pedigree, combined with a terrific new voice in his corner in Teddy Atlas, Gvozdyk is fully capable of springing the upset. In what will be Stevenson’s second stiff challenge in a row, the fans are in store for another compelling contest, a trend that will hopefully continue. As they say, better late than never!                — Jamie Rebner 

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