Just when it looked like the path was relatively clear for the light heavyweight unification showdown between champion Adonis Stevenson and three-belt owner Sergey Kovalev, a big wrench was thrown in the plans on Tuesday.
The fight is by far the most anticipated in the 175-pound weight class, but the chances that it comes off this fall as many hoped were greatly diminished when Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, Kovalev's promoter, decided against participating in a WBC-mandated purse bid on Friday in Mexico City.
The WBC, whose belt Stevenson holds, made the very unusual move of making the winner of the Kovalev-Jean Pascal fight on March 14, which Kovalev won by eighth-round knockout, the mandatory challenger for Stevenson.
Sanctioning bodies do not rank other organizations' titleholders, but WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman said he wanted to see the fight happen for the good of boxing and made the move, which was music to Kovalev's ears because he has been chasing Stevenson for more than a year. Last year, Main Events thought they had a deal only to watch as Stevenson, under the guidance of adviser Al Haymon, went in another direction and got crushed for it in the court of public opinion.
But after Stevenson (26-1, 21 KOs), 37, of Montreal, retained the title by one-sided decision against Sakio Bika on April 4, he and promoter Yvon Michel, whom Kovalev and Duva had accused of ducking the fight, professed their desire to make the match, be it to negotiate terms or let it go to a purse bid, where the promoter with the biggest offer would win the promotional rights.
Then Duva announced that she would not participate in the bidding process, which came as a surprise considering how much she dogged Stevenson for supposedly avoiding the fight.
Duva, the one who initially suggested that the WBC make Kovalev the mandatory at the organization's annual convention late last year, said that while she and Kovalev very much want to make the fight, Kovalev is under exclusive contract to HBO, which would not allow him to fight on another network. Stevenson is backed by Haymon, who could bankroll a big bid by Michel and put the fight on Showtime or one of the networks on which his Premier Boxing Champions series appears, such as NBC, CBS or ESPN, whose deal begins in July.
Most believe that if the fight did go a purse bid, Main Events would have no prayer of winning because even if HBO backed the bid it would not be enough to beat Haymon, whose PBC investor war chest is believed to be worth far more than $100 million.
On Tuesday, Duva sent a letter to the WBC and to Michel advising them that she was withdrawing from the purse bid. Had the fight gone to the bid, the fighters would have split the winning figure 50-50 and the winning promoter would control all aspects of the promotion, including all the revenue streams and determining when, where and on what television network the bout would take place.
"We want to make the fight very much and we'd love to make the fight with them on a 50-50 deal," Duva told ESPN.com. "But Sergey is contractually tied to HBO and we can't go to a purse bid. We can't fight the fight if we lose the bid, so there's no point in going to the bid and putting on charade."
Kovalev (27-0-1, 24 KOs), 32, plans on making a mandatory defense in June or July against France's Nadjib Mohammedi (37-3, 23 KOs) in what was to be a tune-up prior to facing Stevenson in the fall. Stevenson also likely would have taken a summer fight, Michel said.
Duva said having the purse bid Friday, several months before the fight and with interim bouts on the table, was an issue because there were a lot of unknowns when it came to planning a fight so far away.
Michel said he was disappointed in Duva's decision and the she was "playing games."
"They asked to be the mandatory. They asked for a 50-50 split if we don't come to an agreement and we went along with that," Michel told ESPN.com. "Adonis does not have a contract with Showtime, but we are affiliated with Showtime and PBC but we managed to arrange that if we were going to lose the purse bid we could have gone on HBO and we thought it was the same on their side.
"If you request a purse bid it's because you decide you want to play the game and if you lose you go on the network where the winner of the bid says. I don't understand. We never said we want to do a bid but fight only on HBO. She was playing games and I'm disappointed. I believed they were genuine and I thought it was a smart move going to the WBC to make Kovalev the mandatory. It was unusual but now I realize it was just games."
In her letter to Sulaiman, Duva wrote, in part, "There are numerous factors which make a purse bid on April 17th impractical. Please allow me to explain. First of all, we are still finalizing arrangements for the IBF mandatory fight with Mohammedi, which will take place this summer. It would be entirely incongruous to hold a purse bid for the subsequent Stevenson bout prior to finalizing the Mohammedi bout. Second of all, the early bid that has been proposed would necessarily violate the WBC rules and cause financial hardship.
"Rule 2.21 states that championship contracts are due for presentment within seven days of a purse bid. It also states that the date and location must be specified within 15 days of a purse bid. It is quite difficult to specify a date for the Stevenson bout months before the Mohammedi bout takes place. Typically, purse bids are built upon offers from television networks and sites. As television networks generally focus upon one bout at a time, and as so many worldwide networks are focused primarily on the upcoming megafight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather right now, a Kovalev/Stevenson bout is not yet on their radar.
"Similarly, sites want certainty, as well. Kovalev and Stevenson are both scheduled to fight other opponents this summer. As we all know, this is boxing and anything can happen. Fighters could be injured or even lose a match. When an arena locks in a date, it locks out others who may wish to contract for the arena on that same date. The same holds for major television networks. Thus the reluctance of arenas and networks in this regard is understandable."
Duva went on to write that while she was ready to negotiate with Michel "on a 50-50 co-promotion basis at this time, in contrast, a purse bid must necessarily be made based upon a fixed number. In all practicality, no matter how much time one needs to promote this bout, its value cannot be determined accurately so very far in advance."
Duva also wrote to Michel and outlined a proposal to make the fight without the purse bid but insisting the fight be on HBO.
"Sergey has a contract with HBO and he will be fighting on HBO. If Adonis doesn't want to do that, God bless him," she told ESPN.com. "Sergey is the best light heavyweight in the world. If Adonis wants to prove he's the best he's going to have to fight Sergey and he's going to have to do it on terms that are doable under Sergey's HBO contract."
Not so fast, Michel said.
"Bring the proposal from HBO and I bring a proposal from a PBC-affiliated network and we go where it has the most value," he said. "I'm willing to negotiate but she has to be willing to maximize the revenue. If she doesn't want to do that then stop trying to make everyone believe we tried to avoid Kovalev. When the WBC decided to name the winner of Kovalev-Pascal the mandatory we were on board and we are not backing out. Let's go with the network that can put up the most money."