After suffering a life-changing brain
injury over two years ago, Adonis Stevenson is lucky to be alive. He speaks to Lewis Watson following the hardest fight of his life
“PEOPLE still call me ‘Superman’ now, but I guess for different reasons,” Adonis Stevenson told Boxing News, emotionally recalling the pain he has endured since his final fight in 2018. “What I have overcome over the last two years isn’t normal. I should have died, but for some reason, God gave me a second chance. It’s incredible really.”
Stevenson isn’t exaggerating. Following his light-heavyweight defeat to Oleksandr Gvozdyk in December 2018, the Haitian-Canadian was rushed to hospital in Quebec and wasn’t expected to leave alive. After suffering a traumatic brain injury, the then-41-year-old required immediate neurosurgery to stem the bleeding, with a portion of his skull removed to reduce the swelling. He’d spend the next 22 days in an induced coma, waking to find out that his life had changed forever.
“All I remember is hearing God’s voice talking to me, telling me to relax and to take my time,” he explained. “I could also hear my kids’ voices – they were all I could think about. I grew up without a father as he died before I was born, so I had that fight and determination inside of me not to let my kids go through the same situation as me. I couldn’t let them grow up without me being there.”
Gruelling hours were spent inside a rehabilitation centre, until Stevenson was allowed to return home to continue his recovery. He moved back in with his 73-year-old mother and stepfather in Laval, Quebec, where he was welcomed into a loving environment to regain his health. During our interview, Stevenson spoke with surprising clarity and conviction, despite the occasional repetition.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Adonis, you can speak two languages – and poquito Spanish – after coming out of a coma, this is incredible’,” he said. “Still, I am going step by step at the moment, trying to improve all the time. I’ve got to keep my brain as active as possible, so I am always reading, always on my iPad. I love trying out new technology and reading about history – anything to keep my brain busy.”
Stevenson remembers very little of his 32nd and final appearance as a professional fighter. After a back-and-forth fight, Gvozdyk snatched the WBC title away from Stevenson via an 11th-round knockout, ending “Superman’s” five-and-a-half-year reign at the top of the division. Stevenson didn’t truly realise the impact of this fight on his health until feeling dizzy in the changing room afterwards, but he recalls the struggles he felt during the final round of his career.
“I remember that I physically couldn’t throw a punch anymore towards the end of the fight,” he explained. “Gvozdyk was hitting me, ‘bang, bang, bang’, but I wasn’t able to do anything. I tried to go to war but I just couldn’t. I was hurt earlier in the fight but I didn’t really know what it felt like to be concussed, so of course, I continued. I am a fighter, that’s what we do.
“That’s boxing. When you go into the ring you really don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t plan for every eventuality. You don’t even know if that will be the last time you go into the ring.”
Indeed that evening was the final time Stevenson walked into a ring, bookending an incredible career in the sport that saw its first shoots of life in 1990. Adonis’ older brother, Pierre, was first to be bitten by the ravenous boxing bug, but it wasn’t long before the young southpaw decided to lace up his first set of gloves. Tiger Paul’s kickboxing gym in Montreal was where he was first introduced to disciplined combat.
“My brother [Pierre] boxed when we were kids and people kept telling him how good he was. I was like, ‘Wow, if he can do it then I definitely can!’ You know, because he was my older brother, man, we were super competitive. So he convinced me to try it. If he had talent then why wouldn’t I, right?”
Stevenson began to laugh hysterically. Triggering these wholesome memories brings him obvious joy. It’s charming and warm, accompanied by his beaming, infectious smile.
“I was like 13 years old at the time and I was always watching Mike Tyson fight. This guy was crazy! We’d both pretend to be Tyson in the ring and see who could be the scariest, but my brother was a lot bigger and had much bigger muscles. When Tyson fought – oh my God. I was shaking and jumping, man. I wanted to be like that, to put this kind of fear in people.
“Who do you know in the sport with the one-punch, exciting power of Tyson? He’d throw a shot and the crowd would be like, ‘Woaaah’, with his opponent flat on the floor. That’s what I wanted to do; that’s who I wanted to be. I learned the secrets of that power in the gym by watching Tyson fight.”
This one-punch power was demonstrated emphatically in 2013, as Stevenson challenged for the WBC light-heavyweight title. He had run 20-1 as a super-middleweight since turning over in 2006, but this step up to 175lbs changed the trajectory of his career inside just 73 seconds.
“You can’t find another fighter that was able to do that to a champion like Chad Dawson,” he stated proudly. Stevenson knocked Dawson out with a huge left hand within the opening round, sending him and the Montreal crowd into a frenzy. “At the time, Dawson was a big, big name; a massive champion who people had as a real favourite against me. He was no joke.”
Tensions boiled over in the lead-up to the fight, with Dawson suggesting he had to Google Stevenson’s name because he had never heard of him. The champion also dismissed the power of Stevenson, claiming: “If the only thing you can say is he’s a good puncher, I feel sorry for him.”
“I said, ‘Maybe you don’t now but when I knock you out you’ll see my face everywhere’,” Stevenson confirmed in riposte. “And it happened.”
“That night was crazy. The dream came true that night. My promoter, Yvon Michel, told me that night, ‘Adonis, nobody has ever become the number one in the division after moving up a weight like that.’ It was a special, special night. This was the best win of my career by far. It makes me emotional thinking about it. Every boxer dreams of looking back on a particular fight that changed their career for the better, and that was mine against Dawson.”
The destructive left hand that landed was a punch that he claims to have perfected in the gym over several years. A healthy blend of nature and nurture, his power was evident from a young age, yet honed by the late, great Emanuel Steward.
“My nickname came from my amateur days,” he explained. “I was punching so hard even when I was young, and knocking guys out cold even with bigger gloves and headgear. I was punching like Superman. It’s how I would throw my left hand, a big left hand and leaving it extended made me look like Superman. My left hand was the ‘Superman’ punch!
“This left hand won me the world championship. I am a world champion with only one hand. Most other guys would work on their combinations and finding the right angle, but for me, the left hand is all I needed.”
But when Stevenson committed to fighting out of Detroit’s famous Kronk Gym, he fell under the spell of a man who is regarded as one of the most influential trainers of all time.
“Emanuel Steward was a class above. I owe my left hand to him. He was like my father, man. I spoke to him every day and he gave me the best advice in life, not just boxing. I was so upset when he passed; it took me a long time to get over. He would do anything for me, he was so much more than a trainer. He was everything to me.
“I had 100 per cent confidence with Manny in my corner, like nobody in the world can beat me. He told me, ‘You have tremendous power, but first, we’re going to train you on your balance.’ He helped my whole body work together, from my feet to my fists.
“When he died a lot of people were telling me to find another trainer, but I was fortunate to have SugarHill [nephew to Emanuel] waiting to take me. I couldn’t have gone anywhere else really. This was the Kronk style and the Kronk way of life, and I had to stay where I was. SugarHill was always there, so he knew exactly what I needed.
“People said it was a mistake ahead of the Dawson fight, they said I needed another trainer. But even if Manny had died he was still there in my mind, and in SugarHill I had the second-best thing.”
Steward – and indeed his manager, Al Haymon – acted as the father that Stevenson never had, a role left vacant in his formative years which facilitated a route down a murky path of crime in his early twenties. He served 18 months of a four-year sentence behind bars in Montreal, following charges relating to the managing of prostitutes and assault.
“I was a stupid kid, man,” he admitted. “I was only young, and I hurt people without truly realising. It’s hard when you come from nothing and get mixed in with the wrong crowds. I wouldn’t say I was scared for my health, but I was scared I would never come out. When you go into a place like that you never truly know if you’re going to get out. Some f**ked up stuff goes on in there.
“I got into a lot of fights while I was in there. I had so many inmates trying to jump me all of the time as they knew I was a fighter. I had to protect myself at all times. I had like 10 guys jump me at once and I knocked five of them out [laughs uncontrollably]. It was like some American film, man. They were saying, ‘Oh you’re a fighter, Adonis? Okay, well, we’ll see about that.’
“See, I was lucky, though. I had good people and a good family to come out to. Not everyone has that. Of course, I had boxing too. That gave me the motivation and distraction to stay out of trouble. I made a promise to myself that I would never go back there once I was out.”
Stevenson’s mood then changed. Jovial throughout our conversation, the 43-year-old turned pensive and reflective. He has experienced a lot over his four decades, but life is now viewed through an altered lens. He’s vulnerable now but in less dangerous surroundings, clinging onto the superhero cape that used to define his career. He’s eager to show me the newest addition to his collection of boxing awards.
“This new title is so important to me,” he explained, referring to the WBC’s ‘Champion of Hope’ belt he was awarded in 2019. Stevenson broke down in tears in Cancun, Mexico, after being joined on stage by Roberto Duran, Shawn Porter, Bernard Hopkins and Badou Jack, and he takes obvious pride in this role.
“I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to live to tell the tale and give hope to others that have suffered similar injuries.
“If you don’t have hope you have nothing. This is really important. I can help inspire so many people now – not just boxers, but everybody.”
Regrets? Sure, Stevenson has admitted many throughout his life, but the decision to enrol in the sweet science isn’t one – no matter the eventual consequence.
“Boxing saved my life,” he concluded. “It nearly took it away afterwards, but it saved me before anything else. I owe boxing everything.”