What to do with Chad Dawson? The light heavyweight champion is among the most athletic boxers in the world, a troublesome southpaw who isn't afraid to fight anyone and also happens to be adroit when it comes to the finer technical points of the sport. He also is a flake who sheds trainers like a chicken molting twice a year, can't make up his mind whether HBO screwed him over on a 168-pound limit for his his last bout against Andre Ward, fails to enthuse a great many fans and sometimes fights like he isn't even enthused about himself.
HBO's answer to the question of what to do with Dawson Saturday is to throw him in with Adonis Stevenson, one of the sport's purest punchers. It's a pretty good answer. It's hard for boxing's power players to turn their backs on a talent like Dawson, no matter how baffling that talent is; yes, HBO owed Dawson this fight contractually, but if he wins I expect him back on one of the big networks in no time. And if he loses? America gets a big-stage introduction to Stevenson on his home soil in Canada, where Montreal is known to be electric for any big fights, even already once before for a Dawson fight.
I'm somewhat inclined to think HBO is semi-punting here with Dawson as a headliner in a contractually owed bout since it's going head-to-head with a very good Showtime card. The appearance on the undercard of lightweight Yuriorkis Gamboa, another sensationally talented boxer who has had his share of flaky moments, could on one level herald that punting, or it could show that HBO is trying to bolster the card -- so confused are fans about what to think of Gamboa these days, a boxer who is 50 Cent promoted and therefore doesn't neatly fit into the network's allegiance with Top Rank. Gamboa, too, still wears the scarlet letter of being affiliated with Biogenesis, the "anti-aging clinic" that has Major League Baseball players in hot water for suspected performance enhancing drug usage.
(An aside about Gamboa: This week I contacted his manager, Tony Gonzalez, via e-mail to inquire about how Gamboa ended up in the infamous Biogenesis notebook with a prescription for a PED regimen, the extent of the Gamboa connections to Biogenesis, etc., citing the fact that Gamboa's team has not apparently commented on this matter since January, and even then only very passingly -- and that the silence is being taken in some quarters for guilt. Gonzalez answered: "Please refer to all the interviews that Mr. Gamboa has given this week in which he addresses the matter. He has been anything but silent." He did not respond to my follow-up questions about where those interviews appeared. I consume boxing news voraciously and have seen nothing, and I've asked everyone I can if they've seen these interviews, and no one has. As dissembling goes, avoiding answering questions by citing interviews that do not seem to exist is ballsy, and, by the way, does nothing to assuage the image of impropriety.)
Ultimately, HBO has ended up with a pretty good card as far as the in-ring product goes. Now it's just a question of which Dawson shows up, and what Stevenson can do with him.
Dawson is a much-decried figure who has earned some of it but is also sometimes tarred unfairly. Yes, he is often in boring fights, but the first Glen Johnson bout was a war, his first trip to Montreal for Jean Pascal was a very good fight and he was the one forcing the action early against Ward early. He often does fight without passion, but he had plenty of it for both Bernard Hopkins fights. You can't overlook the Pascal loss, but if you set aside the Ward loss -- and you probably should, really, because it was a good win for Ward but a failed experiment in late-career weight-shifting downward for Dawson -- he's beaten a helluva lot of good fighters. Hopkins, Johnson, Antonio Tarver, Tomasz Adamek... some of them were over the hill at the time, but then, all were at or near the top of their division, and you don't beat that caliber of opponent (and especially not as easily as Dawson usually did) if you aren't damn good.
The Dawson package starts with his quickness of hand and foot. The southpaw thing helps. So does his size and length. At 6'1", he'll have two inches on Stevenson, and untold inches of reach at 76" (Stevenson's reach is not listed on BoxRec). He can jab you to death, has a sick counter right to accompany his arrow-straight left, rarely gets hit with stupid punches and does everything with a fluidness that almost makes you sad because of how good it looks but how underachieving he is. His weaknesses start with his power, which is largely absent but not so meek that anyone can rampage through his punches. Then there's that brain of his. He does have some heart, he really does, because who wants to fight the guys Dawson has fought without it? Who wants to go to war with Johnson when there's an option to outbox him instead? It's just that sometimes he goes into space cadet mode. Pascal's power affected Dawson and made engaging a dangerous affair, but once Dawson got fearless, he nearly knocked him out. And while we can attribute the knockdowns and eventual quit job against Ward to a drained body and the pointlessness of continuing, it is the case that Dawson can be wobbled. He usually ties up well and recovers quickly, but against someone like Stevenson, that tendency to get stung is a worrisome one.
For all his flaws, though, Dawson is leagues better than anyone Stevenson has faced. His best win is... Don George? Aaron Pryor, Jr.? He's worthy of a spot near the end of the 168 pound division, but he's very nearly a prospect, and a 35-year-old one at that. Oh, and he's completely unproven at 175. Boxers with the kind of power Stevenson packs usually carry at least some of it up when they switch divisions, but "how much" will be a pretty critical factor because of the unlikelihood that Stevenson will outbox Dawson. On the plus side, he has gotten better at boxing; if you look at him against Jesus Gonzales, he's just swinging for the fences, because, hey, it worked. But against George, and in a rematch with Darnell Boone, the king of quality gatekeepers who gave Stevenson his only loss back in 2010, Stevenson fought a measured, disciplined, controlled bout, rarely throwing anything wild. That power has gotten him knockouts in all but three of his wins, and he does damage with a left cross and right hook to the body, mainly. The jab has also improved into something functional. His hands are reasonably fast, and while he plods a little bit, he's athletic enough to cut off the ring. His defense also has become increasingly plausible, and outside of the Boone knockout loss, he's usually shown the ability to absorb big shots, because George is, at least, a decent puncher.
Not only has Stevenson not fought anyone on Dawson's world-class level, or contended at 175, but he also hasn't fought anyone LIKE Dawson, i.e. someone this fast and long. Stevenson's chances, then, depend especially on his punching power but also on Dawson's state of mind. At times, Dawson has sounded psyched and ready for this bout. But complaining about the weight issues for the Ward bout suggests he might not be recovered. He also came in at 173.4 pounds Friday, which is an odd weight for someone to clock in at if he was having trouble shrinking down in his previous fight. Stevenson knows his chances depend on those twin factors: his power, Dawson's psyche.
It is very tempting to pick Stevenson for the upset here, but when in doubt I tend to go with class. Dawson has loads of it. His uneven application of that class is maddening, but he should have enough of it to beat Stevenson unless he's a wreck mentally or Stevenson has carried up an enormous helping of his power and improved dramatically since we last saw him. The home turf won't help Stevenson as long as the bout goes to the cards -- Dawson wins a unanimous decision, in a bout where he has some shaky moments but does enough to keep the judges well in his favor.