Light heavyweight world champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk is a thoughtful man. Trainer Teddy Atlas, who has spent a lifetime in the sport, calls him the smartest and most mentally strong boxer he has ever worked with.
So as Gvozdyk heads into his first title defense, it comes as no surprise that he is handling the assignment with a seemingly appropriate dose of introspection and professionalism. He knows what has happened in the past but also knows what he must do in the future.
Gvozdyk will defend his 175-pound crown against Doudou Ngumbu in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card on Saturday (10 p.m. ET with preliminary bouts streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 6 p.m. ET) at the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia. It’s a bout that comes almost four months to the day since Gvozdyk won the title in a fight that ended with Adonis Stevenson nearly dying after suffering a catastrophic brain injury and spending weeks in a coma.
“This is part of the sport,” Gvozdyk told ESPN. “We are supposed to be professionals. It’s a sad situation, but (Stevenson is) getting better. I’m not feeling any burden because he is doing good. Still recovering, but as far as I know he is doing good.”
Boxing history is replete with examples of fighters who are never the same following the death or severe injury of an opponent. They carry mental anguish over what they did, even though they did not mean to inflict such serious harm, and even though such harm is an assumed risk of every prizefighter. Gvozdyk is confident he will be able to handle it.
“I feel he will handle this. I am almost awed by how mentally together he is. He can separate the emotion from the act.” Teddy Atlas on Oleksandr Gvozdyk
“Definitely I followed all the news (about Stevenson). I am glad he is doing better and recovering. And I wish him all the best,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant thing. I didn’t mean to hurt him but this is just a rough sport and it can happen to anyone. It wasn’t pleasant, I can tell you that for sure. I don’t want to hurt anyone. This is just a sport. It’s supposed to be a sport.”
Atlas said Gvozdyk is certainly concerned about Stevenson and his recovery, but the trainer does not believe there will be any carry-over or guilt from what happened that will keep Gvozdyk from performing at a high level against Ngumbu.
“I know his concern, his care, his humanity. He’s a good person. He’s not selfish. I know what he cares about,” Atlas said of Gvozdyk. “I also know he is the most intelligent fighter I’ve ever trained. His greatest quality is what he showed that night — that he is probably the strongest mentally of any fighter I’ve ever been around. I feel he will handle this. I am almost awed by how mentally together he is. He can separate the emotion from the act.
“I think that ability, that quality I’ve seen in two camps now as a person, I think that with that kind of mental strength he can shut down anything. He has the ability to be android-like, to shut down what he has to shut down. When he’s in that ring he will be the epitome of a professional. When he knows he’s in his workplace he can shut everything down and focus on the task at hand.”
The Oxnard, California-based Gvozdyk (16-0, 13 KOs), 31, a 2012 Ukrainian Olympian, and Stevenson met on Dec. 1 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City, not far from Stevenson’s hometown of Montreal, with Gvozdyk challenging the long-reigning world champion. Although Stevenson, long one of boxing’s most fearsome punchers, was 41, he had held the title for five and a half years, was in supreme condition, was making his 10th defense and was the heavy favorite.
But Gvozdyk, in his first fight under Atlas’ tutelage, boxed well, shook off some big shots and, trailing on two scorecards while even on the third going into the 11th round, stormed back. He landed eight unanswered punches, including a left hand and two crushing rights that badly hurt Stevenson, who went down and slumped against one of the corner posts.
“It was the toughest fight of my career for sure,” Gvozdyk said. “It was tough physically and mentally. Adonis is a great fighter. Really smart and also he is one of the greatest punchers. In Teddy’s opinion, he is one of the greatest punchers for all time and I kind of agree with him because when he hit me in the second round I felt the punch.
“I realized this is a guy when he hits you, he hurts you. This is a really tough puncher. And now I understand why Stevenson stayed there (as champion) for so long. Stevenson would be trouble for everyone because this guy can hit hard and each of his punches can knock you out.”
Stevenson attempted to get to all fours, but he fell partially onto the ring apron between the bottom two ropes as referee Michael Griffin waved off the fight with 11 seconds remaining in the round.
It was a hard knockout and Gvozdyk, Atlas and their team celebrated. Stevenson eventually got to his feet and sat down on his stool so he could be examined by the ringside doctor. He appeared alert, but his condition would eventually deteriorate.
“I had no idea. I knocked him out, we started celebrating and I was happy and then the next morning somebody told me he got in trouble. It’s a sad situation when that happens in boxing, but this is why boxers get paid.” Oleksandr Gvozdyk
A few minutes later, Stevenson was in his dressing room discussing the fight with his promoter, Yvon Michel, and then went to shower. When he came out, Stevenson said he felt dizzy and he had trouble standing, prompting the doctor to be called in to examine him again.
The doctor sent Stevenson to the hospital. He lost consciousness in the ambulance on the way there. Soon after his arrival, he was in emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his swelling and bleeding brain. He was placed into a medically induced coma, in which he stayed for three weeks and nearly died. His career was over and it remained to be seen if he would be able to have any semblance of a normal life with his fiancé, Simone “Sisi” God, and their baby daughter, if he survived at all.
But by late January, Stevenson, who had been brought out of the coma, began walking with assistance and speaking. He recognized his fiancé and daughter. According to Stevenson’s spokesperson, he was eventually moved from the hospital in Quebec City to one closer to his home in Montreal to continue what will be a long recovery and one that may never be complete.
On the night of the fight, Gvozdyk and Atlas had no idea of the severity of Stevenson’s injury. They knew it was a solid knockout but were told that Stevenson was OK and able to return to his dressing room.
“I had no idea,” Gvozdyk said. “I knocked him out, we started celebrating and I was happy and then the next morning somebody told me he got in trouble. It’s a sad situation when that happens in boxing, but this is why boxers get paid.”
Atlas said he heard later on fight night that Stevenson had been taken to the hospital.
“At that point we started saying prayers. We didn’t know the severity of it,” Atlas said. “The next morning it all hit us how serious it was. At that point it’s the worst thing you can hear.”
But Atlas also added that Gvozdyk was “doing his job” when he knocked Stevenson out.
Gvozdyk posted a video to social media sending his good wishes to Stevenson but did not contact his family because, he said, “I’m not really familiar with them. I posted my video to support him. I didn’t want to be intrusive to his family. I’m probably not a person they want to hear from.”
Gvozdyk moved on, but the fight remained on the mind of others in boxing, including his trainer.
Even though Atlas believes in Gvozdyk’s mental strength, he was still not entirely sure if there would be any issues returning to camp to train for the fight with Ngumbu (38-8, 14 KOs), 37, a Congo native based in France, with Gvozdyk knowing that he had ended Stevenson’s career and permanently injured him.
So the first thing Atlas said he did when he arrived in Oxnard to begin training camp two months ago was watch the fight video with Gvozdyk.
“As a teacher, I wanted to show him what he did right and wrong,” Atlas said. “Two, I wanted to see what we could add. We have the template of success but what can we add? No. 3, I was peeking at him. I wanted to see him all the way to the end of the fight. I wanted to see whatever it is I might have seen.”
Atlas said he did not see any noticeable negative reaction from Gvozdyk as they watched the fight, including the brutal knockout.
“We talked a little bit about what we had heard, that he was progressing, that he was out of the coma,” Atlas said. “We said, ‘Good, thank goodness, thank God.’ And that’s it. This is what we do for a living. We don’t do it thinking this is what is going to happen. Could the reality that somebody could be hurt, us included, be there? We understand that.
“We’ve thought about Stevenson; we’ve prayed for the guy. We understand the perils of the ring. We’re going on to the next part of our job and the first thing after this fight, after we get out of the ring, is we’ll say another prayer for Stevenson.”