NEW YORK -- A boxer's career is finite. It rarely ages well, and for some it can end in tragedy. Recent stars such as Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Roy Jones have fought deep into their 30's and 40's, but their days at the top of the sport ended years earlier. Oh, sure, there are exceptions. Bernard Hopkins is inching towards 50 with a light heavyweight title belt around his waist. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a few years from 40 and still considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
Time, though, catches up to most. The wear and tear of a brutal sport invariably takes its toll.
That is why it is so rare to see a star rise late in his career. In 2010, Sergio Martinez was tapped to face Kelly Pavlik, the middleweight kingpin, the rising face of American boxing. Back then, Martinez was a fringe junior middleweight contender toiling in relative obscurity. His previous fight had been a narrow decision loss to Paul Williams. Before that, a draw with Kermit Cintron. At 35, Martinez had spent most of his formative years fighting in small venues in Spain and Argentina, a largely anonymous talent.
Beating Pavlik launched Martinez into the mainstream, straight to the top of his weight class.
Adonis Stevenson's past is not a pleasant one. Much of it is murky. As a child, Stevenson moved from Haiti to Quebec. As a teenager he got mixed up with a street gang and ended up serving four years in prison for managing prostitutes, assault and making threats. He was, Stevenson admits, a pimp.
But Stevenson was a fighter, too, and when he was released from prison, he found an outlet for that talent. He took up boxing full time in 2004, and that same year won the Quebec amateur middleweight title. He was named Canada's best amateur boxer in 2005 and 2006 and took home the silver medal from the Commonwealth Games in Australia in '06.
In 2011, Stevenson hooked up with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward and began a journey that has seen Stevenson reach unexpected heights, seen him accomplish more than he ever had dreamed. Including this: At 36, Stevenson is SI.com's 2013 Fighter of the Year.
In a field loaded with worthy candidates, Stevenson stands out. In March, Stevenson avenged the only blemish on his résumé, knocking out Darnell Boone -- who had handed Stevenson his only loss, in 2010 -- in the sixth round. In June, Stevenson demolished light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, landing the left hand heard 'round the world in the first round to knock Dawson out. In September, Stevenson wiped the canvas with Tavoris Cloud, finishing the former 175-pound titleholder in seven rounds. And in November Stevenson capped off a stellar year with a knockout of Tony Bellew, the mandatory challenger for Stevenson's WBC belt.
Every Fighter of the Year voter has different criteria, so here are mine: Win, win often, win against good competition and win spectacularly. Boone is a journeyman, but his fight had a purpose. Dawson was considered the best in the 175-pound division and he didn't make it out of the first round. Cloud was a former champion who was beaten so badly that his corner stopped the fight. And Bellew was a worthy challenger who couldn't survive Stevenson's relentless assault.
In the sweltering heat of Detroit's Kronk Gym, Steward refined him. Steward's nephew, Sugar Hill, polished him. And Stevenson's devastating left hand did the rest. The power is his calling card, carried up with him from 168 pounds into light heavyweight, as big and feared a punch as any man's in the division.
When the careers of most fighters are winding down, Stevenson's is just beginning. In 2014, lucrative fights against Sergey Kovalev, Andre Ward and Bernard Hopkins could be in the offing. The former hustler is now in line to make millions. From the depths of prison to the trials at Kronk, Stevenson has risen to the top of the sport.