This will be a screed disguised as a fight preview. But then, the fight that is being “previewed” was itself a preview of a fight we actually cared about, and that will have to take on a new disguise now. Thus, the screed.
There is no one — outside the usual friends and family — who wanted Sergey Kovalev vs. Cedric Agnew this weekend on HBO as anything more than a barely tolerated set-up for Kovalev’s showdown with light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson, a bout that has a strong case as the best fight in the sport. As of Tuesday, that fight, which was reportedly verbally agreed to not long ago, is nearly 100 percent certain not to happen. Stevenson, who signed with Al Haymon recently, probably never wanted the fight, and now that he’s with Haymon and Haymon is with Showtime, his own slightly more marginally tolerated set-up with Andrzej Fonfara will move to that network and the chances of Stevenson returning to HBO for Kovalev are approximately nil.
The full story of why and how this happened has not been told. Reportedly, HBO had a chance to sign a two-fight deal with Stevenson but sat on it for two months. Reportedly, when Haymon entered the picture, he sought a renegotiation of said deal. Reportedly, what Showtime offered to pay for Stevenson-Fonfara, HBO would not match. Some of this boggles the mind. If HBO wasn’t willing to fork over big dollars to set up Stevenson-Kovalev, what IS it spending its money on? Certainly not the slew of canceled bouts and pay-per-views on its calendar. One fears HBO has cut its boxing budget to minute amounts. Otherwise, the current HBO regime, headed by Ken Hershman, is making horrible decisions with moves like this and others that compare poorly to the much-maligned tenure of Ross Greenburg. One way or another, there’s something going on at HBO Boxing of which the public isn’t yet fully aware.
This snafu is emblematic of what has amounted to a horrid start to 2014 for boxing. The fans who remain are spurned and jaded after years of being teased/then burned by all the possibilities/then divides that separate Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. The evident, expected and now likely demise of Stevenson-Kovalev is both salt in the wounds and a continuation of the conditions that gave boxing a temporary jolt of positive competitive energy from late 2012 to late 2013 and that are now thoroughly realizing themselves as corrosive all along.
Every single trend line for boxing in 2014 is negative. Well, maybe there’s one good one: ESPN proper is making a stab at airing world class boxing, beginning with its planned airing of the Bermane Stiverne-Chris Arreola heavyweight rematch, for which it paid a considerable fee. This is reportedly only the beginning. Time will tell if they follow through with their commitment, which would amount to some serious mainstream exposure for a sport largely confined to pay cable.
It is bad in every other way.
That Cold War between HBO/Top Rank and Showtime/Golden Boy/Haymon that spurred intense competition and quality matchmaking in 2013? It rages on, only the quality matchmaking has disappeared. Both stables have worked through the best of what they have to offer, for the most part. Junior welterweight Ruslan Provodnikov, a breakout star of 2013, is looking at Antonio DeMarco for HBO. Ratings giant welterweight Adrien Broner is looking at Carlos Molina for Showtime, the less famous Carlos Molina. Floyd Mayweather could use an opponent like Timothy Bradley; he can’t or won’t fight him because Mayweather is on Showtime and Bradley is on HBO, so we end up with Mayweather-Marcos Maidana. And even these allegiances are getting fractal: Golden Boy is riven with some kind of conflict that nobody with the company will discuss, threatening to dilute what is already weak sauce.
Besides Stevenson-Kovalev, numerous meaningful bouts, either competitively or financially, have fallen off the calendar. The aforementioned more-famous Molina was booked for the Showtime PPV undercard against junior middleweight Jermall Charlo in a significant if little-anticipated bout, but it fell apart when Molina was thrown into jail. Middleweight Gennady Golovkin’s own little-anticipated match-up for Madison Square Garden fell apart when Golovkin’s father passed away. This is almost all bad luck for the fans, of course, but it’s one more cause for grievance whether no one is at fault.
And anyway, a great deal of boxing isn’t even happening on pay cable to start this year, a throwback to a trend that dwindled the fan base. Through the first half of the year, if you buy only the major PPVs of HBO and Showtime, you’ll be out about $250 even if you don’t spring for high definition. The second half of the year could more than double that. Xfinity’s base price for Showtime and HBO per month already starts at $10 each, so throw in the $240 ballpark you already need just to be a basic boxing fan, plus the DVR you’ll need if you are to be able to deal with competing Showtime/HBO cards, and you’re adding another $17 a month to your “cost to just be a basic fan” fee. Short of wholesale theft, the total potential additional cost (non-HD) beyond your basic cable bill to watch just the biggest boxing matches of 2014, setting aside the added possible costs of networks like Azteca or FS1 or AWE, etc.: more than $1,000. And let’s not even get started on the enormous costs of attending a boxing match, especially if you live in, say, North Dakota and need to fly to a fight and rent a hotel room (which makes the “to be a real fan you must buy tickets” arrogance of Steve Kim — who lives in a boxing hotbed and doesn’t have to pay a cent for ringside credentials, hotel rooms or travel — all the more galling).
Yeah, all of that is some bullshit.
You can forgive someone if they then look at Kovalev-Agnew and wonder why they bother. Kovalev is an electric performer and a discordantly ebullient personality for someone who is so good at concussing his opponents and making them bleed. He’s precisely the kind of fighter you can get excited about, if boxing can excite you at all. When one’s imagination gets to contemplating him against other top talents, like the similarly electric punching power offered by Stevenson, why, the whole ugly boxing business enterprise almost starts to sound like it’s worth the trouble. Except, not going to happen.
It’s not, by the way, that Stevenson-Bernard Hopkins — the likely outcome of Stevenson’s move to Showtime — is a bad fight. It’s an interesting one, really, because while Hopkins is a pro at dismantling power punchers, he hasn’t in recent years had to dismantle one as pure or in his prime as Stevenson. Hopkins is ranked #1 by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, too. But nobody affiliated with the Board (such as myself) ever said it was a silver bullet for what ails the sport, nor that championship bouts or champion/#1 contender bouts were necessarily better than other kinds of bouts. Stevenson-Hopkins is interesting in part because it’s champion/#1 contender, but Stevenson-Kovalev is interesting because Kovalev at least has an argument for #1 contender AND it’s aesthetically more appealing. It wouldn’t be so bad at all that Stevenson was aiming for Hopkins if we knew he’d also fight Kovalev. But given the choice of just one, I’d take Stevenson-Kovalev over Stevenson-Hopkins. That looks like the choice we’re being given. And if Stevenson beats Hopkins and then indefinitely ducks Kovalev, as feels like the most likely sequence right now, he will not be behaving like a true champion and ought to be called out for it until he corrects that.
What is Kovalev-Agnew without the promise of Kovalev-Stevenson? It’s not even a mammoth onset of blue balls. We now know we won’t get the payoff. It’s more like a terrible hand job from someone you don’t want one from, in the end. (“Snail, back off, because you’re just mashing it now.”) Oh, sure, there’s something good about the fight because Kovalev is involved, or because a hand job is a hand job, if we stick with the metaphor, but that’s the extent of it now.
Agnew is obscure by any standard, let alone by the standard of someone making his HBO debut. You can find a grand total of one fight of his on YouTube. His best win is over Yusaf Mack in his last bout, Mack being a quality trial horse/gatekeeper at one point but no longer, having gone 4-4 in his last eight (with Agnew accounting for the third loss in that series). He has beaten similar types, like Daniel Judah and Otis Griffin. Going from Judah, Griffin and Mack to Kovalev is like moving from the 30 mph slow pitch softball batting cage to the 90 mph slot.
In that one YouTube clip, Agnew appears well-schooled, as though his amateur background paid off well. He keeps his gloves up religiously, and works an educated jab. He knocks out Mikel Williams, the 14th stoppage loss of Williams’ career at that point, but he demonstrates none of the evident thud of a naturally big puncher, something his record also indicates: 13 knockouts in 26 wins against substandard fare, and no KO of Mack despite Mack losing by KO against anyone with claim as elite. In the Williams fight he also throws few punches overall and is mildly robotic. There is no cause to believe he has a bad chin, as Mack and Judah are decent punchers if nothing else.
There is no obvious special quality to Agnew either in his performance against Williams or in his record. His team, and the local media, sing his praises based on his amateur background, work ethic and confidence. Many a reporter has been fooled by up-close observance of a fighter, and confidence and work ethic, while necessary qualities, aren’t enough in and of themselves when one steps up from mediocre opposition to world class. While it’s possible Agnew has “it,” and while it’s true that Kovalev hasn’t faced a pure boxer-type since he became ascendent, believing that Agnew will give Kovalev a test is a leap of faith.
The argument from Agnew is that Kovalev has power, but that Agnew has brains. Kovalev does indeed have power, and Agnew does indeed have brains, at least compared to who he has faced so far. But what has made Kovalev dangerous in his run to the top is not just that he can punch; it’s that he can punch AND he’s got the schooling of an exceptional amateur. Agnew might have an athletic edge over Kovalev, and he might give Kovalev a better look on defense than he has seen of late, and hell, for all we know, he’ll stand up to Kovalev’s power better than most. But I see zero to suggest that he’ll give Kovalev a real challenge — at best, he’ll go more rounds than usual. Crazier things have happened in boxing than the possibility of Agnew upsetting Kovalev, but not by much. Better to hope for Agnew giving Kovalev a stiffer-than-expected fight, optimally.
And then what?
Back to gazing into boxing’s abyss, I guess.