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Kings of Combat: Adonis Stevenson, Light Heavyweight Champion

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There are nine lineal champions fighting in boxing today. Connor Ruebusch, Bad Left Hook's technique analyst, celebrates the skills of these divisional kings in this new series, starting with light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

"The Mighty Combatant, the first in Fame,
The lasting Glory of his Native Thame,
Rash, & unthinking Men! at length be Wise,
Consult your Safety, and Resign the Prize,
Nor tempt Superior Force; but Timely Fly
The Vigour of his Arm, the Quickness of his Eye."

--Inscription from John Faber Junior's mezzoprint of James Figg

Boxing is meant to crown champions. Perhaps more than any other sport, boxing is the natural expression of mankind's need to recognize the best of the best. Within the confines of the squared circle, battle is waged to separate the kings from the barons, and when one king falls, another steps up to take his place. Such has been the way of the sport for nearly three centuries.

That is, until recent times. Once boxing was a sport that recognized undisputed world champions. Then, somewhere along the line, sanctioning bodies realized that they could charge men for the honor of calling themselves champ, and the belts--along with the organizations that offered them--multiplied. So, too, did the number of weight classes. The more divisions, the more thrones, and yet more belts. Today there are 17 weight divisions, from 105 pounds to infinity.

Astoundingly, there are 111 different belts with which a boxer can style himself "world champion." Even for the inflated number of weight divisions, that averages out to six and a half champs per division, which begs the question: why not just offer one to everybody in the top ten and be done with it?

Sarcastic digressions aside, there are true champions in this sport still, and there is even a credible organization to crown them. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a committee comprised of 42 boxing analysts and writers from around the world, ranks the top ten boxers in every weight division, and recognizes champions using the time-honored criteria that, until very recently, were used by The Ring magazine for their long-standing rankings--which, sadly, have deteriorated since the change.

To be recognized as champion by the TBRB, a fighter must beat the current champion. Simple as that. In the event of the old champion's retirement, a belt may only be granted to the winner of a bout between the division's first and second best fighters.

To date, the TBRB recognizes nine champions, leaving eight divisions in a state of leaderless anarchy.

As for the kingless classes, there is nothing to be done but wait, and hope for a pair of top contenders brave enough to test their mettle against one another. In the meantime, the true champions of the nine claimed divisions deserve not only to be recognized, but celebrated. To that end, this series will analyze in detail the martial methods of boxing's few remaining champions.

These are the Kings of Combat.

DIVISION NAME SUCCESSION
Heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko W12 Alexander Povetkin,
5 November, 2013
Light Heavyweight Adonis Stevenson TKO1 Chad Dawson,
8 June, 2013
Super Middleweight Andre Ward W12 Carl Froch,
11 December, 2011
Middleweight Miguel Cotto TKO10 Sergio Martinez,
7 June, 2014
Junior Middleweight Floyd Mayweather Jr. W12 Saul Alvarez,
14 September, 2013
Junior Welterweight Danny Garcia W12 Lucas Matthysse,
14 September, 2013
Lightweight Terence Crawford W12 Raymundo Beltran,
29 November, 2014
Junior Featherweight Guillermo Rigondeaux W12 Nonito Donaire,
13 April, 2013
Flyweight Roman Gonzalez TKO9 Akira Yaegashi,
5 September, 2014

This weekend light heavyweight kingpin Adonis Stevenson makes his fourth title defense against dmitry Sukhotsky. Though the world would much rather see Stevenson against Sergey Kovalev--or at the very least someone ranked in the top ten of his division, there is no questioning the validity of his claim to the throne, nor the potency of his deadly southpaw style.

The Champion

Adonis Stevenson
Record: 24-1 (20 KO)
Stance: Southpaw
Trainer: Javan "Sugar" Hill
Country: Canada

Possessing an 83% knockout ratio, there is no doubt that Stevenson's game is built around the idea of overwhelming and then putting his opponents away. Unlike most knockout artists, however, Stevenson does not fight very aggressively, nor does he throw very many punches. While the average light heavyweight throws about 54 punches a round, and lands 17, Stevenson throws nearly 73, landing 20.

Of those 73 punches, however, 40 are jabs, only about five of which land. These statistics (like many fight statistics) don't really tell the story of Stevenson's style. Those jabs, you see, aren't intended to land. They are thrown to give the opponent the impression of activity without requiring any actual effort. The energy reserves are saved for the power shots, of which Stevenson throws 32 per round, landing about half.

In reality, Adonis Stevenson is a fighter who picks his shots very carefully, and lands them at an extremely high rate compared to his peers. Those throwaway punches that so badly screw up his statistics actually provide a clue as to the central tenets of Stevenson's approach to fighting. Namely, rhythm and distance.

Keeping Space

Stevenson needs distance to fight the way he likes. Therefore, securing that distance is his primary goal. In my last Bad Left Hook feature, I wrote about the viability of the jab in southpaw-against-orthodox, or open stance fights. The key theme behind that analysis was the mass ignorance possessed by most orthodox fighters, who are told over and over again not to jab with their southpaw opponents, but rather to relentlessly hunt angles for the right hand. Adonis Stevenson is well aware of this ignorance, and takes full advantage.

Because most of Stevenson's opponents don't throw their jabs with intent, nor even understand how to position themselves to do so, the champ is often able to use footwork alone to prevent the challenger from building any momentum. Above, you can see Stevenson adjusting the position of his right foot in order to check Andrzej Fonfara's left. When Fonfara steps forward, Stevenson pivots to his left, points his toe into the side of Fonfara's foot, and effectively blocks his path. When Fonfara leans past his foot to land a left hook (evidently a staple of his gameplan in this fight), Stevenson picks him off with a smart uppercut counter.

When evasive movement and counters aren't enough, Stevenson will resort to "fencing" with his lead hand, using it as a visible threat and deterrent to opponent's who do try to pressure him with their jabs.

Here, at the start of the first round against Tavoris Cloud, Stevenson found himself faced with an opponent who not only wanted to land his jab, but threw multiple jabs in a row. Cloud's strategy was very smart, and it revolved around the idea of pressing Stevenson's center-line, which theoretically would have allowed him to explore other angles and cut off the champion's escape routes.

Of course, Stevenson is an excellent tactical fighter, and his trainer is a very clever strategist (more on him later). Consequently, the champion came out with the attitude you see in the GIF above, lead hand not only raised but slightly extended.

That might not sound like much, but the presence of threat is integral to good positioning in boxing--in other words, as important as hitting the opponent is, it can be just as vital to look like you can hit him. Often Stevenson likes to give his opponent the impression that it is safe to move in on him, making them susceptible to counters. With Cloud, on the other hand, he needed to preserve his distance and allow himself time to plan and think. Hence, the high, long lead, kept right in front of Cloud's face. If you use your imagination, you can picture a knife in Stevenson's right hand, and indeed the tactic works very much the same way.

And, of course, there are still the counters.

When Stevenson had maintained the distance long enough to suss out Cloud's intentions, he was able to walk him into this crushing counter cross, retreating from Cloud's triple jab only to suddenly change direction and step outside the path of the third punch with a mean straight left.

Breaking Under Pressure

Obviously, pressuring Stevenson and taking away his coveted space is not such an easy task. Stevenson's excellent lateral movement and counters make him a dangerous man to chase. Tough opponents, however, have found success pushing Stevenson back in the past--most notably Andrzej Fonfara, who staged a strong comeback in the final frames of Stevenson's last title defense in May of this year.

In round eight, Fonfara may have caught on to this sequence, and the openings it suggested.

Here, Stevenson makes a number of adjustments. It becomes apparent, however, that Stevenson's defensive movements are shallower than they might at first appear. First, Stevenson tags Fonfara with his right hook and pivots, but Fonfara cuts him off with a deep step to Stevenson's right. Consequently, the champion is forced to pull his head back out of range, but he finds he can't move his planted left foot in time to do so correctly, and finally ends up stepping back with his right foot, completely abandoning his stance, avoiding Fonfara's punches, but leaving himself more and more vulnerable to a potentially longer combination. He is, as Archie Moore would say, "building bridges," but as Fonfara threatens from a number of angles, each successive bridge is made ricketier than the last.

In round nine, Fonfara strung together an attack complex enough to capitalize on Stevenson's flaws.

Fonfara, rather than committing immediately, touches his way into range with a feeler jab, even stepping into southpaw himself to get his body closer to Stevenson's. This time, as Stevenson begins to pivot out, he's in position to disrupt him with a left hook to the jaw. The punch isn't hard, but it's enough to blind Stevenson to Fonfara's positional adjustment--as he lands the hook, the challenger takes one wide side-step, keeping his left foot between Stevenson's right foot and the center of the ring, and lines him up for a right hand. Stevenson, moving backward and struck at the perfect angle, falls to his back.

It was the first time anyone had knocked him down since his 2010 bout with noted prospect-killer Daniel Boone, who went on to knock Adonis out.

Fighting Smart, Fighting Back

This time, however, Stevenson fought through it, and did so smartly. This is in large part thanks to his trainer, Javan "Sugar" Hill, the nephew of the late, great Emanuel Steward. Like Steward, Hill is a supremely gifted strategist, and can always be heard giving Stevenson simple, concise instructions to increase his overall chances of keeping his opponent in trouble, while staying out of it himself. Also like Steward, Hill doesn't mince words in the corner. After Fonfara knocked the champ down, Hill hit him with the following: "Start stepping inside on the man," he said, clearly irritated. "Quit pulling back in that same motion. Slow, lazy shit!"

Instructions don't come more on-the-nose than that, and Stevenson complied. He survived Fonfara's onslaught, and went on to win a unanimous decision.

Even before that, Stevenson was able to keep Fonfara, a fighter with a sound gameplan in mind, from executing to any real degree until the ninth round of the bout, when Stevenson's own fatigue did much of Fonfara's work for him. Prior to that, Stevenson strategically fought against type in order to kill Fonfara's pressure game at the root.

"Get out there first," Hill told Stevenson after round three. Adonis had knocked Fonfara down in round one, but the challenger had already proven his toughness by surviving two more rounds, walking Stevenson toward the ropes for much of that time and throwing more and more volume. "Quit lettin' that man come over here like he own this shit. You hear me? Hey! Quit lettin' him come out there like that, man."

As the referee called Fonfara to center ring to begin round three, Stevenson was already there waiting for him, standing confidently, imposingly, across from him. Less than a minute into the round, Stevenson imposed his will.

We already saw the way that Stevenson likes to start rounds in the earlier examples. Typically he is a range fighter, preferring to use quick explosive movements to cover distance and strike before retreating, or letting his opponent cover the distance for him to set up his counters. Essentially, Stevenson is naturally inclined to pot shot, and he rarely exchanges with his opponent.

But here, at the start of round four, Stevenson stands his ground and punches with Fonfara. The Polish-born Fonfara counters his first left hand, so Stevenson steps in with a combination. Fonfara counters that, but this time Stevenson is ready, and he rolls under a left hook before returning a left uppercut to the body. He slips the next shot, a swinging right hand, and goes beyond trading punches, actually chasing Fonfara down with a double jab followed by a long left hand.

This is the mark of a great fighter. Every boxer has his natural style--the thing he prefers to do above all else, and that on which he falls back under duress. The truly skilled fighters, however, can resist instinct and, even if only for brief moments, sell their opponents a truly terrifying impression: "I can do it all, and I can do it all better than you."

For what it's worth, Stevenson doesn't have to do much posturing at all for that to be the truth.

Final Thoughts

Adonis Stevenson is a tremendously skilled boxer, and the rightful lineal champion of the light heavyweight division. There are still questions, however, about whether or not he is the best 175 pounder in the world, and that remains a problem. At the very least, Stevenson can be said to have fought top fighters in his class in his title defenses. After defeating the champion, Chad Dawson, Stevenson has defended against Tavoris Cloud, Tony Bellew, and Andrzej Fonfara, who were ranked 4th, 7th, and 5th, respectively, at the times he fought them.

Stevenson's upcoming opponent, Dmitry Sukhotsky, marks the first worrying departure from that trend, and only serves to highlight the fact that Stevenson (and his management) seems all too eager to avoid the division's true number one contender, Sergey Kovalev, who recently solidified his claim with a dominant win over Bernard Hopkins.

It's a tough situation. While one can certainly understand Stevenson's reluctance to risk his hard-won achievement against an unstoppable force like Kovalev, it is in the best interests of the sport that the holder of the belt defend that belt against the best possible opponents. No one can begrudge Stevenson for taking a "tune-up" fight against the skilled but almost certainly out-matched Sukhotsky, but if Kovalev is not the next man to be granted a bid, then the division will have a serious problem. One that is not easily solved.

Boxing fans can only wait and see, but until then we can still appreciate the performances of this bondafide champion, who at the very least has proven his ability to dominate some of the best that his division has to offer.