Plenty of blame to pass around

Stevenson's Showtime deal brings end to any immediate hope for Kovalev fight

Originally Published: March 26, 2014
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Perhaps the demise of the projected fall showdown between light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson and titleholder Sergey Kovalev, two of the most dynamic and explosive punchers in boxing, isn't as big a deal as the fact that Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao still have not fought.

But it still hurts, and it hurts badly. If you're a fight fan, you should be very disappointed by what transpired Tuesday, when -- depending on who you believe -- Stevenson either reneged on a deal with HBO or simply took a better offer from rival Showtime for his May 24 fight with Andrzej Fonfara, which was supposed to serve as a showcase before the summit meeting with Kovalev for 175-pound supremacy.

Even if Mayweather and Pacquiao do meet someday -- and I am not holding my breath -- the fight will never be what it should have been in 2010, when they were the two best fighters in the world with nobody else close. Everyone was clamoring to see it then and the fight negotiations were nearly done before both sides refused to budge on drug testing.

I'm afraid that is where we are with Stevenson-Kovalev -- a fight that is prime right now and, even if it is someday made, will never be as hot as it is today.

As each man racked up one great knockout after another, fans and media were that much more anxious to see the fight. It was supposed to happen this fall on HBO, provided they each got by nonthreatening opponents.

HBO had it all lined up. Stevenson and Kovalev shared a card in November and both scored spectacular knockouts. Kovalev returns against Cedric Agnew on Saturday night and then Stevenson is supposed to fight Fonfara on May 24. With wins, the showdown would be next.

But no more.

Stevenson took a deal with Showtime, and HBO, which had the right to match, declined on Tuesday, pretty much killing the fight. It's dead for this year and probably forever.

[+] EnlargeAdonis Stevenson
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Graham HughesAdonis Stevenson, who announced his arrival at 175 pounds with a knockout of Chad Dawson last June, agreed to take his May 24 bout to Showtime.

Now the questions are why and who's to blame?

It depends on who you believe.

HBO says it negotiated deals in mid-January with both Yvon Michel, Stevenson's promoter, and Main Events' Kathy Duva, who promotes Kovalev, for multifight agreements with both fighters that included the upcoming bouts and the fall showdown, even though the contracts were not signed.

In mid-February, Stevenson signed with adviser Al Haymon, the ultimate boxing power broker, who once did most of his business with HBO but is now persona non grata at the network for his role in taking star client Floyd Mayweather Jr. away and delivering him to Showtime, which is now the home for all of Haymon's numerous top clients.

HBO said that after Haymon signed Stevenson, he came to the network seeking much more money for the Fonfara fight than had been agreed to and, to make matters worse, was now unwilling to commit to the Kovalev fight this fall.

While seeking more money from HBO, Stevenson's side shopped the Fonfara fight to Showtime, which made an offer that I am told was far greater than what HBO offered. Because HBO had put on Stevenson's three previous bouts, it had certain rights, one of which was the right of first negotiation and a last-look provision, meaning if it matched any other offer it would retain Stevenson's rights.

That deadline was Tuesday, and HBO declined to match. Nobody from the network was willing to go on the record, but HBO feels like Stevenson, Michel and Haymon tried to shake them down for more money after a deal had been reached.

Haymon won't talk to the media and Michel denied that was the case. He told me that while he had agreed to the deal with HBO (before Haymon got involved), he told the network that he needed to get Stevenson to agree, which he had not because the fighter wanted more money.

"My fighter never approved it. I thought he was going to but he didn't," Michel said. "So, we offered the fight to Showtime and they offered us more money, much more money.

"This was a pure business decision for all parties involved, nothing personal or immoral."

HBO spokesman Ray Stallone's comment to me was as terse as could be on the topic: "We had a deal. It changed. It is not the way we do it."

While Stevenson will move to Showtime, fight Fonfara and then likely face the winner of the April 19 Bernard Hopkins-Beibut Shumenov bout in a fall unification fight, that's not the fight the public wants. We want Kovalev. It's not happening and I blame both sides.

Stevenson and Michel knew the deal they had with HBO and went back on the spirit of it. It's Stevenson's career and he can fight whomever he wants, but he shouldn't get a free pass here. Kovalev is the opponent the public mandated for him to fight. He is not daring to be great, which is what we want from our champions.

Since Stevenson never really seemed to embrace the idea of fighting Kovalev in his interviews -- always adding the caveat of "if the money is right," something Kovalev never uttered -- it sure seems like a duck.

[+] EnlargeSergey Kovalev, Nathan Cleverly
Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesSergey Kovalev enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise to that of Adonis Stevenson in 2013, making a fight between the two a can't-miss proposition for fans.

Duva's perspective here is important. She said on Jan. 23 that she and Michel exchanged emails agreeing to the fall fight. On Jan. 24, she said Michel told her that "we have a deal and he told me Stevenson was in. Me and Yvon and Peter [Nelson of HBO] got on the phone on the 24th and agreed on the money and the material terms. We negotiated everything. We confirmed to each other in writing that our fighters were in. We had a deal. It's not even slightly ambiguous. Al Haymon came in and started to try to renegotiate and everything went by the wayside. Somebody at HBO told me Adonis was going to find a way out of the fight with Kovalev one way or another and I think they are right."

But HBO must take blame also. If it had an agreement in January -- and I believe it did -- why dawdle getting it signed? There are people in boxing whose mission in life is to screw things up. HBO knows that and was lazy in not wrapping it up.

HBO Sports president Ken Hershman, who used to run Showtime Sports, took over for Ross Greenburg in January 2012 after Greenburg was forced to resign in mid-2011, largely because he messed things up with Pacquiao, who wound up leaving for Showtime for what turned out to be only one fight.

Hershman, however, already has a long history of questionable moves in just two years on the job. He lost Mayweather to Showtime. Not for one fight, but likely for the rest of his career. He kicked Golden Boy Promotions off the network, even though it has the best and deepest stable in boxing, a move that put Showtime into a more competitive situation with HBO than it has ever been. He also kicked Haymon out with Golden Boy, even though Haymon controls around two dozen of boxing's top stars. And now he has lost Stevenson, another huge blow to the network.

Whichever side you're on, it all adds up to yet another disappointment for boxing fans.

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