By Travis “Novel” Fleming
Light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson, 26-1, 21 KO’s, and secondary welterweight title holder Keith Thurman, 26-0, 22 KO’s, are adding a whole new meaning to term “paper champ”. They have both been “champs” for over two years now, and have yet to face a legitimate threat. In fact, their recent opponents have actually gradually gotten worse. Both men are exciting to watch, have a ton of talent, athleticism, and big time power, but they are wasting their careers in meaningless fights that do nothing for their legacy or development. In this article, I will examine the title reigns of both men to illustrate my point.
Adonis Stevenson’s reign:
Prior to challenging for a world title, Stevenson did the right thing in rematching one of the most underrated fighters in boxing in Darnell Boone, 19-20-3, 8 KO’s, who handed Stevenson his only career loss to date via KO three years earlier. The rematch took place in March of 2013, and Stevenson erased his only career blemish with a sixth round knockout win.
The win over Boone, coupled with his impressive string of seven straight KO wins since the first loss to Boone in 2010, set up a title fight against longtime light heavyweight king Chad Dawson, 31-2, 17 KO’s, who held the WBC world title, the Ring World title, and was the reigning lineal champion at light heavyweight. Dawson was coming off of his first loss by knockout to Andre Ward, but he moved down in weight to face Ward at super middleweight so he kept his light heavyweight championships, despite the loss, and was returning to light heavyweight to defend them for the first time since his ill advised weight cut to fight Ward.
Like many before him such as Roy Jones, JR., cutting significant weight that late in his career permanently damaged Dawson, and he would never be the same fighter again. Regardless, Dawson was the favorite and none of this is Stevenson’s fault. Stevenson scored a devastating first round knockout over Dawson in one of the most impressive upsets of the last decade, and was crowned king of the light heavyweights. It would later be proven that Dawson was no longer the same fighter due to the weight cut against Ward as after the KO by Stevenson, he would go on to lose to gatekeeper Tommy Karpency who wouldn’t have even won a single round against Dawson before the Ward fight.
So, perhaps Ward’s and Stevenson’s KO’s over a weakened Dawson were not as impressive as they seemed, but, nonetheless, Stevenson deserves credit for this as he took the championship from the legitimate champion by spectacular knockout.
Stevenson would then face former IBF champion Tavoris Cloud, 24-1, 19 KO’s, in September of 2013. Cloud was coming off of a demoralizing one sided whooping from 47 year old Bernard Hopkins in his previous fight. Cloud was just inside the top ten rankings at the time of the fight, so the bout was somewhat of a legitimate title defense. Stevenson would force Cloud to quit in round seven. After this fight, Cloud would get destroyed by Russian power puncher Artur Beterbiev in just two rounds in what was only Beterbiev’s sixth pro fight, meaning Cloud was likely finished after having his soul snatched by old man Hopkins. Still, this is one of Stevenson’s better title defenses, and one of the few he deserves credit for.
Next, in November of 2013, Stevenson would defend against England’s Tony Bellew, 20-1-1, 12 KO’s, who was ranked just inside the top ten. Not a spectacular opponent by any means, but respectable enough. Bellew had previously lost to Nathan Cleverly, and had a draw with Isaac Chilemba, which he avenged with a close decision win in a rematch in his last bout before facing Stevenson. Stevenson would force a referee’s stoppage, winning by TKO in round six to make his second successful defense.
2013 was a breakout year for Adonis, he avenged his only defeat, won the title, and made two decent defenses, winning all of these fights by KO, which earned him the prestigious fighter of the year award by Ring Magazine. He was quickly becoming a rising pound for pound talent, and was on top of the boxing world. Unfortunately, this would be the peak for Stevenson and it would all go downhill from there in terms of the quality of opposition, and impressive performances. By the end of 2013, it appeared that Stevenson was on a collision course with rising Russian light heavyweight star Sergey Kovalev, who was also in the midst of wreaking havoc on some of the best in the world at 175 pounds. Both men were destroying everyone put in front of them, but while Kovalev would go on to gradually increase his level of opposition, Stevenson would do the opposite.
Stevenson would begin 2014 with a May title defense against unheralded Polish light heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara, 25-2-0, 15 KO’s. Fonfara was not highly ranked at the time, but he was either better than advertised, or Adonis had one of his weakest performances to date. After dropping Fonfara twice, the supposedly overmatched Pole fought back hard and showed a lot of heart, even managing to knockdown Stevenson in round nine. Stevenson rallied in the championship rounds to secure the decision verdict in a fight that was much more difficult than expected. Although Fonfara was not highly ranked, he ended up proving himself to be a solid contender in giving Stevenson a tough fight, then going on to knock out Julio Cesar Chavez, JR., so I would consider this a legitimate opponent for a title defense. This, unfortunately, would be his last legitimate defense, despite there being several excellent options that would have been better than any of his previous challengers.
In December of 2014, Stevenson would face his lowest level of opposition to date in Dmitry Sukhotsky, 22-2, 16 KO’s. Sukhotsky had never notched a significant win, and had wide decision losses to Cornelius White, and Juergen Braemer. He wasn’t even among the top twenty in the division. Needless to say, Stevenson easily dispatched of Sukhotsky by KO in round five, scoring four knockdowns along the way in a terrible mismatch of a championship fight.
2013 was a year that saw Stevenson rise to the top of the division becoming the fighter of the year, while 2014 had him struggle in a B level defense, then engage in a terrible mismatch to build confidence, while avoiding anyone that was a slight threat. Fans were hoping for Stevenson to rebound with a strong 2015, including a highly anticipated fight with Sergey Kovalev who, although not the lineal champion, had taken Stevenson’s place as the best light heavyweight in the world in the eyes of most by winning the other three major titles at light heavyweight, handing the legendary Bernard Hopkins the most lopsided defeat of his career, and beating a higher level of opposition than that which Stevenson was facing, and doing it in more dominant fashion.
In Stevenson’s first fight of 2015, he would somehow be allowed to make a light heavyweight championship defense against a career super middle weight, who was coming off of a loss down at super middleweight, in Sakio Bika, 32-6-3, 21 KO’s. In Bika’s previous two fights, he had a draw then a loss to Anthony Dirrell. He wasn’t even rated at light heavyweight and, as expected, Stevenson easily beat him, but wasn’t able to knock out the iron chinned smaller man, instead settling for a shutout decision. This was an unexplainably weak title defense. Meanwhile, Sergey Kovalev had just notched yet another win that put everything Stevenson has done since becoming a champion to shame in becoming the first man to knockout the notoriously iron chinned Jean Pascal.
Stevenson’s last three fights should all be considered weak tune ups for the supposed king of the division, so it was assumed his next fight would be a big one. Instead, it was recently announced that he will be making yet another unfathomably weak title defense, likely even worse than his last three, against gatekeeper lever Tommy Karpency, 25-4-1, 14 KO’s. Karpency got knocked out by Andrzej Fonfara, lost a shut out decision to Nathan Cleverly, lost a wide decision to Karo Murat, and lost to a 15-10-2 Rayco Saunders. Karpency is nowhere near the top ten of the division, making this an absolutely unacceptable title defense for a champion who has yet to face a threat. They’re going to try to sell the fight on the basis of Karpency beating an absolutely shot Chad Dawson by split decision, but most fans are smart enough to know that Dawson was completely spent as a fighter before the Karpency fight, making it a meaningless win.
To put his reign into perspective, Stevenson won the championship in a legit manner, against a legit champion who was likely on his last legs. He then made five title defenses, three of which were against borderline top ten fighters in the division, one was against a guy not even top twenty, and the other was against a smaller old guy who wasn’t even ranked in his division and was coming off of a loss in the division below. He is now scheduled to face another fighter who might not even be among the twenty best in his division when his division has excellent opposition like Sergey Kovalev, Artur Beterbiev, Jean Pascal, and Bernard Hopkins, while also containing fighters that are much better than what he’s been facing like Eleider Alvarez, and Juergen Braehmer.
A rematch with Fonfara who gave him his toughest fight since becoming a champion would be much better than his three opponents since, as would fights against rising prospects like Marcus Browne, Sullivan Barrera, or Yunieski Gonzalez. Since he cherry picked a fight with a super middleweight in Sakio Bika, there are also a plethora of better options from super middleweight that would love an opportunity to get a title shot at the light heavyweight title on major network TV. With all of these better options, Stevenson’s title reign has been nothing short of shameful.
In the case of Stevenson he at least won a legit title, Keith Thurman won a vacant secondary title against an inexperienced guy who never fought a significant opponent, and wasn’t even top ten in the division at the time. If you agree Stevenson’s reign was chalked full of weak opposition for a champ, wait until you take an in depth look into Thurman’s. Somehow, Thurman has yet to face even one top ten fighter in his entire career, including throughout five defenses of his title.
In July of 2013, Thurman won the interim WBA welterweight title against undefeated Argentinian warrior Diego Gabriel Chaves, 22-0, 18 KO’s. Adrien Broner was already holding the WBA welterweight title at the time and would lose it to Marcos Maidana, who would lose it to Floyd Mayweather, JR., so its ridiculous that there was even an interim title available at the time. Being the terrible sanctioning body that they are, the WBA has up to three champions per division which makes everyone who carries anything besides their super belt an illegitimate world champion, and makes them instead a secondary title holder, in the same vein as someone who holds the NABF or an intercontinental title.
Because the WBA is greedy for sanctioning fees, they label their secondary titlists “world champions” in divisions where they already have a world champ. So lets get it straight, Keith Thurman isn’t a real world champ. He’s holding a paper belt. Back to the fight, Chaves ended up proving himself to be a pretty good welterweight, but at the time of the fight he had fought exclusively in Argentina against nobody anyone has ever heard of, so it’s unfathomable how he was holding an interim belt. Chaves was ranked just inside the top twenty in the division at the time, hardly anyone worthy of a world title. Chaves gave a good effort and won some rounds, but was eventually stopped by Thurman in the tenth round. This barely top twenty at the time Chaves, would end up being the best opponent of Thurman’s career, even two years later.
Thurman would make his first defense in December against gatekeeper Jesus Soto Karass, 28-8-3, 18 KO’s. Another fighter ranked nowhere near the top ten in the division. Soto Karass would go on to lose to Devon Alexander and Adrian Granados. As expected, Thurman easily dispatched of his overmatched opponent by TKO in round nine after dominating the entire fight.
By the end of 2014, Thurman was gaining a lot of hype and was expected to have a breakout year; instead he signed to face his weakest challenger yet in Julio Diaz, 40-9-1, 29 KO’s. Not only was Diaz barely top twenty in the division, but he is a much smaller man that was way past his prime, having his best days over seven years earlier, all the way down at lightweight. To make matters worse, he was coming off of two straight losses to Amir Khan, and Shawn Porter.
There is no excusing this pathetic defense. How in the world was a former lightweight coming off of two straight losses allowed to challenge for a welterweight title? Proving this mismatch was exactly that, Thurman pounded on his overmatched foe, and after three rounds Diaz decided he had enough and didn’t answer the bell for round four. Proving he was no longer able to compete at the contender level, Diaz announced his retirement shortly after the fight.
Coming off of his weakest title defense to date, it was assumed that Thurman would be looking to end 2014 with an impressive victory; instead it was more of the same. He signed to fight Leonard Bundu, 31-0-2, 11 KO’s, in December, again somehow having another defense against someone who was not even a contender or ranked among the top 15 in the division. Bundu actually fought well, and managed to take Thurman the distance for the first time since Thurman held his paper title. Thurman clearly won a wide decision, but failed to impress.
Thurman’s next fight, and first of 2015, would be advertised as his toughest to date against veteran, and former three time title holder, Robert Guerrero, 32-2-1, 18 KO’s. Had this fight been two years earlier, Guerrero would have been a formidable opponent and Thurman’s first that was ranked among the top ten welterweights in the world, but at the time of this fight, Guerrero was damaged goods, and on the decline. He was ranked just outside of the top ten, and was coming off of a period of inactivity, fighting only once in the last two years against the unheralded Yoshihiro Kamegai against whom he struggled to win a life and death battle with a foe he would have had little trouble with in his prime. Thurman knocked the faded Guerrero down in round nine, but Guerrero managed to get up and stay on his feet until the final bell, losing a wide decision to the younger Thurman. After this fight, Guerrero would erase almost all thoughts of this being a legitimate title defense for Thurman by signing to fight unknown journeyman Aaron Martinez, and being extremely lucky to walk away with a gift split decision win over an opponent that was supposed to be brought in to make him look good.
Quickly becoming one of the faces of the PBC series, it was hoped that big things were on the way for Thurman. Welterweight is full of top notch talents that would love the platform of major network exposure against one of boxing’s rising stars in Thurman. Instead, the platform was offered to another man who had long since seen his best days pass in former titlist Luis Collazo, 36-6, 19 KO’s, this past July. Collazo was not even a top twenty welterweight, and coming off of a one sided whooping at the hands of Amir Khan where he was knocked down three times.
Despite this being a horrible mismatch, Collazo managed to have some success after hurting Thurman badly in the fifth round with a body shot then battering him for the remainder of the round, and much of the sixth. A cut opened up over Collazo’s eye in the sixth round, and after Thurman turned the tides back in his favor and had a successful seventh round, Collazo said he couldn’t see and didn’t come out for the eighth, awarding Thurman the TKO victory. Thurman got the win, but saw his stock drop a bit as he was unable to knockdown Collazo, and looked very vulnerable at times during the fight.
Had that been a younger Collazo, or a top notch prime welterweight in there with him, Thurman might have had some serious problems. Amir Khan, by no means a power puncher, was able to knock Collazo down three times so does Thurman really hit as hard as advertised, or is it his level of opposition giving that illusion? Either way it was another unimpressive opponent but this time instead of steamrolling him, Thurman was given his toughest defense to date.
After the Collazo fight, Thurman publicly chased a fight with Floyd Mayweather, JR., while hypocritically denying rising welterweight prospect Errol Spence Jr a shot at his title. I agree that Spence should need to notch a couple of wins over top twenty ranked welterweights to earn his shot at Thurman, but if Spence hasn’t earned a shot at Thurman in Thurman’s eyes, then how the hell can Thurman validate earning a shot a Mayweather when he has still not beaten one contender ranked among the top ten in his division? It seems that Thurman is purposely avoiding all top competition at welterweight in hopes that if he doesn’t lose he will land a major payday, without earning it by proving his worth against the division’s top fighters.
Thurman has held his title for over two years now, and made five defenses. Somehow, he won his title over a guy that had yet to fight outside of his native Argentina, had yet to fight anyone heard of, and was ranked nowhere near the top ten in the division. In his five defenses, none were ranked in the top ten, three were coming off of recent losses, four were past their primes, one would retire, and two would go on to struggle or lose against lower level opposition.
This might be one of the most blatant examples of a paper champion in history. All of this, when his division has the likes of Shawn Porter, Timothy Bradley, Kell Brook, Amir Khan, Danny Garcia, and Marcos Maidana. Even the division below has at least five fighters that would be the best opposition Thurman has faced to date. Thurman is a big welterweight who has fought at junior middleweight and could easily move up for better opponents without being undersized, so why not head north to get a noteworthy fight?
Thurman needs to fight one of these aforementioned fighters before he loses all credibility, and stunts his development, if that hasn’t already happened. When fighters feast on opposition that aren’t on their level for too long, they pick up bad habits, and get shocked when they finally face a top tier opponent. Thurman might be on the brink of this right now. He needs to fight another top tier fighter before it’s too late, there are no excuses left.