It should have been the greatest night of his life.
On December 1, 2018, Oleksandr Gvozdyk stepped into the ring with so much at stake. His opponent was the feared (if fading) Adonis Stevenson. They would be fighting for the WBC Light Heavyweight Title. A win by Gvozdyk would take the “interim” off his title victory over Mehdi Amar just under 9 months earlier. Taking down Stevenson would legitimize him. It would help inch the 2012 Bronze Medalist from the Ukraine out of the shadow of his good friend and countryman, Vasily Lomachenko.
It was to be the fight of his life.
It ended with his opponent fighting for his life.
There are many well-earned negative opinions of Stevenson. His former career as a brutal pimp. His ducking and dodging in recent years of top-level opponents. Both of these things are true. I’ve written on them myself. Stevenson is not a sympathetic character. But imagine being Oleksandr Gvozdyk reaching the pinnacle of his profession and then having the result dampened by the result of his brutal (but clean) 11th round KO of Stevenson. To spend that evening – and many of the oncoming days and weeks, I’m sure – worrying about the life of your opponent. And to know that you did that.
How do you just pick up and move on? Gvozdyk is a fighter. Therefore, he must fight. It’s not like he didn’t know the risks of the sport when he entered it. Punching another man in the face while he tries to do the same to you ain’t bean bag. To be good at the profession, I imagine you have to put those risks in the back of your mind. I would also suspect that your own welfare comes before that of the guy who’s trying to batter you into submission. When you are getting hit, you’re first thought must be to return that fire. It’s him, or it’s me.
Gvozdyk told The LA Times, “I knew I could have been in his place. It’s unpleasant. I’m not in this sport to hurt anyone.” I believe him. He’s in the sport to win. The thing is, the sport is the hurting business. And hurting your opponent is unavoidable. You’d like to think that killing your opponent is. At the time of me scratching this out, Stevenson’s recovery has moved forward in a positive way. He has transitioned to a less serious facility. He can walk and he can speak. He will likely never be the same.
Boxing is littered with stories of post-match horror. From the deaths of Duk Koo Kim..
..and Benny Paret…
.. to the dire consequences suffered by Magomed Abdusalamov and now, Stevenson.
People like to use the word “war” a lot when talking about boxing. While that may be a bridge too far, the two endeavors certainly have one thing in common. For all the soldiers/fighters who die in the employment of their profession, so many more suffer injuries that they never fully recover from.
Sometimes those that are on the giving end of the pain don’t either. Gabriel Ruelas, Ray Mancini, and Emile Griffith are all good examples of that. Therefore, it was no small thing for Gvozdyk to return to the ring. He was quoted as saying, “Honestly, I don’t feel guilty. I’m a fighter. What am I supposed to do? What would someone do in my place?” I hope that’s true. Because he’s right. He did nothing wrong. He fought his heart out against a world class opponent. It went the way it went.
Still, you have to wonder, what must it have been like for Oleksandr Gvozdyk last Saturday night? To walk into the ring against Doudou Ngumbu more than 15 months after putting Adonis Stevenson in a coma? What ghosts might have been dancing in the back of his skull. Gvozdyk won in his return to the ring. Ruled the victor by 5th round TKO after his opponent succumbed to a leg injury. It was an anti-climactic way to end the fight. Gvozdyk struggled some with Ngumbu’s awkward style but had the fight comfortably in hand at the time of the stoppage.
Of course, Ngumbu is not a top shelf fighter. I’m sure Gvozdyk’s crew’s selection of him as his first opponent after Stevenson was quite intentional. After a long layoff, and a traumatic end to his last fight, Ngumbu is the kind of guy you pick to shake off the rust. Due to the short duration of the fight, it’s hard to know how much got shook loose for the champion. However, both fighters did leave the ring under their own power with their faculties intact. That is a win of another kind.
Those of us who’ve never gotten in the ring can never understand what it takes to get over something like that. Hell, we can’t even grasp what it’s like to take the risk. You can bet Oleksandr Gvozdyk knows. By all accounts, he is considered an unusually mature man. I hope that keeps his mind well while his body endures the rigors of training and fighting. The brain can be a terrible master. Those of us who’ve suffered emotional trauma in normal life know that. But for Gvozdyk, should his mind turn on him, make him hesitate, add even a moment of uncertainty to his travails in the ring, it could lead to tragedy. The next time, for him.
Last Saturday night, Oleksandr Gvozdyk took his first step – maybe just a half-step. Not only back in the ring, but also in clearing out that crowded room in his head. Where fear, doubt, and concern can take up residence. We must not underestimate what was required of him to do that.