Monday July 27th, 2015

Even before Sergey Kovalev lay waste to Nadjib Mohammedi, a pedestrian opponent who had climbed the IBF ladder, earned the mandatory position and presented himself as cannon fodder for the most ruthless fighter in the sport, questions swirled about who Kovalev would fight next. Names like Andre Ward, Artur Beterbiev and Seanie Monaghan were kicked around. Hours after Kovalev’s third-round annihilation of Mohammedi on Saturday was complete, Yunieski Gonzalez, the hard-hitting Cuban who was robbed of a win over Jean Pascal on the undercard, became a candidate. 

A name rarely mentioned anymore: Adonis Stevenson, the man who holds the lone remaining piece of the light heavyweight crown. It’s a fight many want to see—and one currently being hijacked by HBO. 

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To be clear, this column isn’t a defense of Stevenson. Far from it. Since taking the WBC version of the 175-pound title from Chad Dawson in 2013, Stevenson has placed the belt in protective custody. A banner, Fighter of the Year ’13 was followed by an abysmal ’14, with a pair of title defenses against inferior opponents. His ducking of Kovalev became comical; an HBO fighter throughout all of ’13, Stevenson reneged on a handshake agreement to fight Kovalev in early ’14, signed with Al Haymon and fled to Showtime. He has long claimed he wanted the fight but his actions are those of a man who wants nothing to do with it. 

Still, Stevenson isn’t blocking a light heavyweight unification fight today. Instead, that blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Kovalev, Main Events and HBO. Last March, the WBC, in a rare decision, ordered Stevenson to defend his title against Kovalev. A purse bid was ordered. The fight seemed closer than ever. Then, suddenly, Main Events backed out. Main Events CEO Kathy Duva cited Kovalev’s contract with HBO. If Main Events lost the purse bid, Kovalev would be forced to fight on another network, something, Duva said, that was contractually prohibited.

That HBO would want to broadcast Kovalev-Stevenson is understandable. The network has invested time and resources in building Kovalev into a mainstream star. Yet if the network wanted the fight badly enough it would have offered Duva the financial support to compete with a Haymon-fueled purse bid, a bid that likely would have exceeded $5 million. And if it didn’t, well, there are solid reasons why it would benefit HBO to get out of the way. 

Consider: A Haymon-won purse bid would have led to Kovalev-Stevenson airing on CBS or NBC, two networks that have sold airtime to Haymon for his PBC series. Slap Kovalev-Stevenson on network TV in primetime and it would register a huge rating; conservatively, say, 2.5 million viewers, an audience that vastly exceeds any that Kovalev draws on HBO. The winner—and let’s be real, Kovalev would be a heavy favorite to pound Stevenson into submission—would emerge a far bigger star than he was coming in. 

This is why HBO’s decision to block the purse bid is perplexing. And to be clear, it is HBO. Main Events is the face of this, but Duva is simply marching to HBO’s tune. With Haymon gobbling up most of the television real estate, license fees from HBO have become Main Events’s largest source of income. Think Duva fears a Haymon-won purse bid? Come on. A bigger bid puts more money in her pocket. What she fears is damaging the company’s relationship with HBO. Said Duva, “We were not going to destroy our relationship with HBO over a fight that might not even happen.”

Yet for HBO to stand between a Kovalev-Stevenson fight is remarkably shortsighted. Yes, it would lose a significant show. But it would not lose Kovalev. A mandatory fight does not include a rematch clause. Kovalev recently re-signed a long term deal with Main Events. He is fiercely loyal to his longtime manager, Egis Klimas. He isn’t joining forces with Haymon. A Stevenson fight is a one-off. Kovalev wins, and he returns to HBO a much bigger star. 

Think about what HBO could do with that. The network is building towards an eventual Kovalev showdown with super middleweight kingpin Andre Ward. A rematch with Jean Pascal is appealing; the first fight drew 1.15 million viewers. Exposing Kovalev to a network audience in 2015 would result in a huge ratings boost for HBO in 2016, and beyond. 

Unfortunately, network execs don’t see it that way. Instead of Stevenson, Kovalev will pursue a fight with Beterbiev, in Moscow, an afternoon show that figures to be a ratings disaster. He will hope for a rematch with Pascal, though based on Pascal’s mediocre performance against Gonzalez, it’s fair to wonder just how much Pascal has left. He will pray that Ward, who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in leaving super middleweight, will have a change of heart. 

Kovalev will still be a star; big puncher, big personality, there is no stopping that. Just nowhere near as big of one as he could be. 

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