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Superman’s Kryptonite

Should light heavyweight champion and convicted ex-pimp Adonis Stevenson’s past be held against him?

Here we go with the main eee-vent of the eee-vening … Fighting out of the red corner, the champion: a boxer who served 20 long months in prison … convicted of crimes against women that will make you cringe … the best pound-for-pound case study of boxing’s ability to rebrand ex-criminals and the media’s grudging acquiescence to same …  La-dies and gentlemen, Adonis “Superman” Stevenson!

OK, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. won’t put it quite like that on Saturday. But he might as well. For when media types tune in to Stevenson’s light heavyweight title defense against Andrzej Fonfara on Showtime, they will be watching, and quite possibly abetting, the further rehabilitation of a guy who did some awful things a long time ago. The question is whether Adonis Stevenson deserves the lift. “Even in the sport where people come from these horrible backgrounds, where fighters have done horrible things outside the ring, Adonis Stevenson really stands out,” said Tim Starks, editor of the boxing blog The Queensberry Rules.

Until 2012, Stevenson’s past was the subject of rumor. Back then, Stevenson was 16-1, with 13 knockouts, and cutting a trail toward a title shot. He was set to fight Jesus Gonzales, a boxer out of Phoenix who calls himself “El Martillo” (“The Hammer”). Then, in a remarkably simple but devastating bit of prefight smack talk, Gonzales said of Stevenson, “I know his past.”

Gonzales then began to reveal what Stevenson had done. Gonzales didn’t get all the particulars right, according to his opponent’s camp, but he got the broad strokes. Violence against women. “Girls,” Gonzales called them. Violence against prostitutes Stevenson had once kept in his employ.

Gonzales understood how boxing, and its press, offers ex-cons a chance to fight their way back into good standing. But he noted that even within the litany of fighters like Sonny Liston (robbery) and Bernard Hopkins (ditto), and Mike Tyson (rape, dozens of juvenile offenses) and Floyd Mayweather Jr. (domestic violence), Stevenson’s crimes seemed … disturbing. “If you’re poor and rob a bank, you can be forgiven,” Gonzales said. “Or even if you kill — if someone has threatened you.” But as for Stevenson: “He’s a piece of shit. You can’t forgive that.”

Even Stevenson’s promoter, Yvon Michel, admitted, “I don’t want to diminish the fact that he was beating girls. That’s very bad.”

So here is a boxer stepping into the ring 16 years after his time in prison. And here are a bunch of media types, with one eye toward honoring the idea of redemption and another eye toward honoring something like honor, wondering whether their stories ought to begin: “Adonis Stevenson, who once beat women, beat another opponent Saturday night … ”

Boxing’s knack for welcoming ex-cons can be unnerving and admirable in equal measure. For every unrepentant soul like Mayweather, there are plenty of boxers who use their ring time to slough off the stigma society attaches to former prisoners. “This sort of thing is a way out of a hole for a lot of people,” said Nigel Collins, a former editor of The Ring magazine who’s now an analyst for ESPN.com. “Whether it’s prison, an economic situation, who knows? … Boxing is a refuge for the outcast and the outlaw in this world.”

At first glance, Stevenson seems like a natural candidate for boxing’s redemptive powers. Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he moved to Quebec as a kid. He rose from the amateur ranks to become SI.com’s 2013 Fighter of the Year. “I’m an example for Quebec,” Stevenson once declared. “I’m the first black person [from Quebec] who had problems and who became a world champion.” And yet: those women.

“I paid my dues to society,” the Montreal Gazette quoted Stevenson as saying in 2012, after Jesus Gonzales first brought up his crimes. “It has been 14 years. That’s a long time. I have never had a criminal record since.”

Jesus Gonzales announced that for his bout against Stevenson, his trunks would include a patch from a women’s shelter. In the second round, he ate a Stevenson left and wound up on his back, arms flopped over his head, as if he were making a snow angel. Stevenson’s backstory seemed to fade away.

The question of trying to figure out exactly what Stevenson had done, and whether it ought to follow him from fight to fight, passed through a number of media entities. WealthTV, now AWE, aired his October 2012 victory over Don George. Next, Stevenson graduated to HBO. Before his June 8, 2013, bout against then–light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, the network’s play-by-play man Jim Lampley noted, “Stevenson’s first appearance at this level of the sport commands us to show you the dark side of his background.” Lampley then mentioned Stevenson’s “various abuses against women while working for an escort service.” In a taped interview, Stevenson said he had turned his life around in prison.

It wasn’t until two HBO fights later, when Stevenson faced British contender Tony Bellew, that a fuller account of his record came to light. On November 23, 2013, the Montreal French-language newspaper La Presse ran a story headlined “La Vraie Histoire de Superman” — the real story of Superman. After sifting through court documents, reporter Caroline Touzin portrayed Stevenson and another man, whom she called Fox, as the vicious, violent founders of an escort service that kept women in servitude.

Touzin wrote that Stevenson and his partner employed several women as prostitutes and regularly collected their earnings. One woman said she made $40,000 for Stevenson during a period of several months but was allowed to keep only a meager sum to eat at McDonald’s. “The girls were beaten up when they did not bring in enough money,” Touzin wrote. (I commissioned a translation of the La Presse article; the quotes come from that translation.)

According to Touzin, Stevenson and his partner held the women in captivity. “They did not have the right to leave the apartment without permission,” Touzin wrote. When the women made plans to escape, they were beaten:

It was Isabelle’s turn to go through it. Adonis started off by hitting her in the face.

“After that, he took out a knife, he was pressing it against my fingers with the dull side, there, but he pushed it all the same, I felt the pressure of the knife,” she testified at trial.

Adonis did not go through with his threats and eventually said: “Come and lie down. You know you’re mine and that I love you, right?”

And more:

Fox started off by jumping on top of Roxanne, who was sitting on the living room couch. Adonis and Pascal [another gang member] joined in. Blood was everywhere. Fox pulled out a knife and broke the young woman’s arm. On several occasions, he held the blade a few millimeters from her skin …

She had a broken nose and a fractured jaw. Her limbs were in great pain. The next day she was beaten again.

By this point, Stevenson had begun his amateur boxing career. He and Fox devised a grimly ironic task for the women, Touzin writes. The women would box.

Adonis handed them each a pair of gloves. No holds barred. “If I did not knock out Isabelle, Fox was going to knock me out,” said Roxanne at trial.

Police apprehended Stevenson and Fox. In her story, Touzin raised the idea that Stevenson may have been a lieutenant rather than a general in the operation. One of the women said Stevenson “was just obeying orders.” (Another woman disputed that characterization.) Stevenson further said that he didn’t testify in his own defense because he feared retaliation from his companions. Stevenson was sentenced to four years in prison for managing prostitutes and assault, but was released after 20 months.

Stevenson was enraged by the La Presse story, though I have yet to find a press account in which he actually denied the details. “When I become world champion and do good things, it’s not on the front page,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense. You can call that racist.”

Stevenson’s promoter said the boxer felt like he was the victim of a media “conspiracy.” Yet if the La Presse article unleashed revelations that might hurt Stevenson’s career, few seem to have escaped across the Canadian border. A search of the Nexis database for mentions of the La Presse story brought back only articles from other Canadian newspapers and the website Superluchas.

This February, Stevenson signed with powerful manager Al Haymon. He jumped from HBO to Showtime. The premium-cable rivalry is to boxing what the old Monday Night Wars were to wrestling — a business story that has swallowed what happens in the ring. This week, when a journalist asked Stevenson, “How difficult is it to focus strictly on this fight?” he was asking about Stevenson’s network-hopping, not his crimes.

Stevenson, one of the most powerful one-punch knockout artists in boxing, is another jewel in Showtime’s crown. He will fill the niche of the non-pay-per-view headliner, the face on the totem pole between an undercard fighter like Daniel Ponce De Leon and a cash cow like Floyd Mayweather. If Stevenson wins on Saturday, he could figure in a high-profile unification bout, this one against Bernard Hopkins and, of course, on Showtime. (That is, if Sergey Kovalev’s promoter, Main Events, doesn’t win its breach-of-contract lawsuit against Stevenson’s promoter; copromoter Golden Boy Productions; Haymon; and Showtime. This is boxing, remember.) As Stephen Espinoza, the head of Showtime Sports, told reporters on a conference call, “We’ve been waiting for Adonis — or waiting for Superman, if you will — for quite some time.”

I’m a bleeding-heart sportswriter. I think an athlete who has committed a crime and paid a reasonable penalty (reasonable as defined by me, of course) doesn’t need a scarlet letter affixed to his trunks. Michael Vick shouldn’t be reduced to a mere dogfighter, or Mike Tyson to a mere rapist, even if dogfighting and rape remain critical and inviolable parts of their respective CVs.

The difference between Vick and Tyson on one hand, and Stevenson on the other, is that Vick and Tyson’s convictions were public spectacles. There, the proper task for a bleeding heart seemed to be to remind fans and knucklehead writers that the athletes were more than the sum of their well-documented crimes. In Stevenson’s case, few people except for hard-core boxing geeks even know what crimes he committed. Thus, I find my heart drifting the other way — not to the besmirched boxer, but to the women whose tormentor has never quite gotten the scorn he deserved.

This is the trickiness of attaching past bad acts to an athlete. We sportswriters like to think we’re manning the scales of justice. In fact, by the time we reach the scales, they’re usually loaded for one side. We’re compensators. “Whether it’s newsworthy on a regular basis every time an athlete performs, I would say no,” ESPN’s Nigel Collins said. “As long as the truth is out there and people have a way of making their own decisions.” Consumers control boxing, Collins said, and anyone who thinks Stevenson is appalling can vote by not watching the fight.

Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza said his announcers would ask Stevenson about his past in prefight interviews, but probably wouldn’t mention it on air unless they found it relevant to his work in the ring. “It’s not something that we’re going to shy away from or intentionally avoid,” Espinoza said. “But at the same time, it’s not something we’re going to go intentionally out of our way to mention.”

Queensberry Rules’s Tim Starks nodded at Stevenson’s crimes in a blog post when Stevenson got his first call-up to HBO. It seemed like an appropriate time. Then Starks didn’t mention it in write-ups of Stevenson’s next two fights. He had no plans to bring up the fighter’s past again before Saturday’s Fonfara fight, but then Starks saw a Showtime promo scored to lyrics like “So let me be your hero / I want to be your hero.”

The word “hero” nagged. “Maybe if Showtime hadn’t put that song in the background, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to mention it,” Starks said. “But now I feel like I have to.

“I would rather like Adonis Stevenson,” he continued. “I would rather not have a bad guy to root against. I would rather he be a redemption story. … But now when he wins, I’ll be torn.”

Whether he wants to or not, a sportswriter inevitably becomes an athlete’s parole officer. He tends to the athlete’s rap sheet, makes notes on his “progress,” and scrutinizes the results of his piss tests. It’s a responsibility that is both ludicrous and important. In the case of Adonis Stevenson, it is both at the same time.

If there’s one more round to go here, it’s this: Boxing doesn’t just treat a fighter’s criminal history as an indiscretion to be overcome. It can also become part of the frisson of the fight — a real selling point. Fans buy pay-per-views to see the bad guy lose. So although a sportswriter may believe he’s dredging up a boxer’s past in the name of justice, he may also be unwittingly dashing off poster copy the promoter was too shy to write himself. The writer may be conjuring the ultimate, remorseless heel — the guy who made his prostitutes box each other, for chrissakes — whom the viewer can’t help but watch.

The bleeding heart swings hard, and he’s surprised to find that he — not Adonis Stevenson — is the one on the mat. 

Filed Under: Boxing, Sports Media, Adonis Stevenson, Showtime, HBO, Bernard Hopkins, Sergey Kovalev

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast