By David Finger
Photos: Mary Ann Owen
With the recent completion of Saul Alvarez’s impressive title unification fight against Austin Trout, and the upcoming Floyd Mayweather versus Robert Guerrero fight, it almost feels like the heavyweight division just doesn’t matter anymore. When was the last time that American boxing fans purchased a $50 PPV headlined by a heavyweight champion? But there’s an old adage in boxing: things can change with just one punch. And if there is ever a fighter who can change everything with one punch, it is heavyweight Bermane Stiverne.
Name: Bermane Stiverne
From: La Plaine, Haiti
Record: 22-1-1, 20 KOs
Rankings: #2 WBC (Silver Champion)
Notable Fights: Franklin Lawrence (TKO1), Demetrice King (TKBY4), Brad Gregory (KO1), Charles Davis (D8), Kerston Manswell (TKO2), Ray Austin (TKO10), Willie Herring (W8)
Strengths: Power, and lots of it. The hard punching Haitian has amassed an impressive highlight reel of devastating knockouts over normally durable fighters.
Weaknesses: His chin has failed him in the past, and in his last fight against Willie Herring, he showed that a boxer with a solid chin can give him trouble. Also has a history of inactivity due to injuries.
There’s an old saying in boxing about why fans love the heavyweight division so much. Boxing fans love the knockout and in the heavyweight division a fight can end with one punch. Purists tend to scoff at the mindset, but few can deny it. That’s why heavyweights make more money. And if punching power is the gold standard of what fans want in the sport, than 34-year old Canadian heavyweight Bermane Stiverne (22-1-1, 20 KOs) may very well emerge as one of the sports brightest stars in the coming year.
Stiverne may be the hardest puncher in the sport today, and a throwback to the truly “devastating” bomber like Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers. But Bermane Stiverne has more than just punching power working for him. Unlike Shavers or Lyle, he fights in an era where power has seemingly gone to the wayside. Many heavyweight contenders today don’t have that eye opening punching power that excite fans, and those who do tend to use it sparingly. For many fans, this has diminished there interest in the sport, and created a unique opportunity for the Haitian born brawler as he takes on his toughest opponent to date on April 27: fellow puncher Chris Arreola.
A win would put him in a title fight and give something that the heavyweight division has not had in quite some time: a mandatory challenger who fans can get excited about. Because then fans would know something about the Haitian born Canadian that many boxing insiders already recognize: that if Stiverne does fight for a world title and he lands one of his bombs on the chin of the champion, he can very well knock them out.
The funny thing is that the Haitian-born Canadian almost didn’t end up in boxing. In 1997 the teenager first emerged on the radar not because of his fighting prowess, but because of his skills on the football field. After an outstanding high school career, and an older brother who played for the Miami Hurricanes, Bermane was given a scholarship to play for the Michigan State Spartans (the same college team that fellow heavyweight Seth Mitchell would play for several years later). Although Stiverne showed talent, his collegiate career never took off, and he dropped out after a year.
Sports seemed to be something in his past when Stiverne moved to Miami for two years (working in cell phone sales) before he returned to Montreal overweight and out of shape. It was a simple desire to get back in shape that led Stiverne to the boxing gym and into the sport that he would go on to excel at. Launching an amateur boxing career in 1999, Stiverne won six Quebec Golden Glove Championships, four Canadian National championships, and a slot on the Canadian National Team. It was there that he would go on to defeat noted heavyweights like Robert Helenius and David Price. A controversial loss to George Garcia robbed him of the chance to fight in the Olympics, but still, the conventional wisdom was that he had a promising professional career ahead of him, particularly since his hard punching style seemed better suited for the professional ranks than the amateurs. And there were already comparisons to him and another noted Canadian heavyweight.
“I actually met him right after the Olympics in 2004,” Stiverne said of meeting former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, “we exchanged compliments and we still talk to this day, off and on. I wasn’t sure if I was going pro and I was talking to him trying to get some advice at the time.”
Stiverne took Lewis’ advice to heart and also the warnings about the pitfalls in the professional ranks.
“He told me to sit down with the family and look at some options,” Stiverne said about his discussion with Lennox Lewis before turning pro, “What it came down to was me, myself and I. If I feel like I’m ready to step up, to do so, but it was way different than amateurs. He was trying to warn me and teach me of the world of professional boxing.”
Although Stiverne was seen as a solid professional prospect, it wasn’t until his seventh fight that he opened eyes of the boxing establishment of just how good of a fighter he might become. Taking on the highly touted American prospect Franklin Lawrence, Stiverne scored a first round stoppage in a fight that was not absent of controversy. Although most felt that the fight was something of a “pick ‘em” fight, many were nonetheless impressed with what they saw of the Canadian, even though the win was due to an injury as opposed to a knockout.
“Everything happened so fast,” Stiverne said of his victory over Lawrence, “the only thing he threw was a right hand a few jabs. I kind of went in and we were mixing punches and hit him a few times and then he threw a shot and I kind of blocked the shot and then he hurt his hand.”
Although the nature of the stoppage was not one for the highlight reel, Stiverne felt confident that the fight was going his way up to that point.
“I believe that the shot I threw hurt him,” Stiverne added, “I won’t say he was lying, but I think the shot I hit him with was the cause of him not wanting to continue.”
The win propelled him into the heavyweight picture, and over the next twelve months he excited boxing fans and insiders by crushing his next five opponents by knockout before disaster struck nearly a year to the day after his big win over Lawrence. Stiverne took on a tough journeyman with a reputation for durability named Demetrice King. Coming into the fight with a hardly awe-inspiring record of 11-15, King had nonetheless only been stopped once in his career, by hard punching former WBO champion Shannon Briggs. However, the durability of King, along with the inexperience of Stiverne, led to disaster when King scored the shocking upset over the undefeated fighter.
“I had control of all the rounds throughout the fight,” commented Stiverne on his first loss, “I dropped him in the first round, but he got back up. There was about ten seconds left in the round and that saved him.”
Despite his early dominance, King proved that his reputation for toughness was well earned, and King was able to roar back and rattle the green Canadian despite being pounded early in the fight.
“Throughout the fight he was talking BS,” added Stiverne, “and he hit me with a right hand, I was on the ropes, I was blocking all the shots, as soon as I threw a left hook and a right hand the ref stepped in and stopped the fight. At the time I was very upset that it happened like that.”
Although Stiverne is still upset over the defeat, few deny that his career has continued moving forward despite the loss. Although King was unable to parlay his upset win into a place in the world rankings, he continues to frustrate heavyweight contenders with his durability and veteran tricks (including decision losses to hard punching David Tua and former contender Michael Grant), and Stiverne has not ruled out a rematch to set the record straight.
“I’d love to, but being in the position I am in right now, I have bigger fish to fry,” Stiverne said of a rematch with King, “but sometime I’d love to get him. I moved on from there, but it is still something, that…is unresolved. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
And Stiverne walked away from that fight with an important lesson, one that would prove important four years later when he made his HBO debut against world ranked Ray Austin.
“When I dropped him, and I was trying to get some more rounds, that was my mistake. I went back to what I was doing. When I hurt somebody I get at them right away.”
Stiverne took no time in bouncing back after the loss to King, stopping Eddie Gutierrez in first round three months later and followed that win with impressive knockouts over Jimmy Haynes, undefeated Brad Gregory, and former IBO Intercontinental heavyweight champion Lyle McDowell, all in the first round. He then scored a decision victory over Robert Hawkins in 2009, a fighter who, like King, was regarded as a durable journeyman who could frustrate a puncher. Although the knockout’s continued, some critics were beginning to express concern about his over dependence on power, and how if a fighter could simply withstand his punches he could give Stiverne serious fits. It was a criticism that appeared to be confirmed when Stiverne was held to a draw in his nineteenth fight against club fighter Charles Davis, who entered the fight with a 17-17-1 record. Davis, like King and Hawkins, was seen as a durable fighter, with only three stoppage losses in thirty-five fights, but with most of his career at light-heavyweight and cruiserweight, most assumed Stiverne would walk through the smaller man. Few even paid much notice to the fact that Stiverne came into the fight overweight and unprepared, until the bell rang.
“I was in a gym helping Jameel McCline get ready for his fight with Chris Arreola,” Stiverne said about his fight with Davis. “I was sparring, but not really training. Then they offered me a fight, and I took it but I shouldn’t have. I was at 60% and I just took the fight.”
The near disaster was a sober wake up call for Stiverne, who recognized that he could ill-afford to look past any opponent considering how close he was to the top ten.
“It could have cost me a lot,” added Stiverne “I still feel like I won the fight, but it was a mistake, it was my own mistake. Since that fight I promised myself I would never go into the ring that heavy.”
Stiverne stepped back into the ring six months later with nearly twenty pounds shed from his midsection, stopping Jerry Butler in the seventh round. However, the win over Butler would be his last in 2009, as he was sidelined for over a year after the Butler fight.
“I was getting ready for a fight in 2009 and I was sparring and I actually had to pull out because I hurt my hand.” Stiverne said of his layoff, “Four to six months. I had to turn down 2 fights because of my wrist.”
A quick knockout over Ramon Hayes positioned Stiverne for the biggest fight of his career up to that point, against undefeated Kerston Manswell in the Pontiac Silverdome on the undercard of the Timothy Bradley versus Devon Alexander fight. It was something of a homecoming for the former Spartan football player, who was now fighting in the former home of the Detroit Lions. But it proved to be more than just that for the career of Stiverne. It would be the fight that saw the hard punching Canadian finally realize his potential and emerge as a heavyweight contender. Coming into the fight in the best condition of his career, Stiverne dominated the 20-0 prospect, stopping him in the second round in brutal fashion.
“When I fought Kerston, I never felt better in my life,” commented Stiverne of the Manswell fight, “I felt great, strong. I think if I fought anyone that night I would have beat anyone that night. That’s the fight I felt really, really great.”
Striverne credited his impressive performance on a herculean training camp that put him in the best condition of his career up to that point.
“That was the best preparation I ever had in my career,” Stiverne added, “I actually was in camp from July and I was training and trying to get a fight. When I was in camp, we fought in November, Ramon Hayes, in Montreal, and we went back to camp. From July to January I had the longest camp I ever had. ”
Although it was an important fight for Stiverne, it also was one of the most difficult for him for another reason: he and Manswell, who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago, were close friends.
“I didn’t want to fight him,” Stiverne said about fighting his friend, “If I could have picked anybody else to fight I would. But that’s who they gave me and I had to take it. That’s the only thing I was against, having to fight him.”
Despite the high profile main event, the turnout for the fight in Michigan was dismal, and as the fight with Manswell was not televised on HBO, few boxing fans had the chance to see it live. However, the performance impressed may with HBO and he was given his golden opportunity who he was offered an HBO televised fight against Ray Austin for the vacant WBC Silver Heavyweight title June of that year. The high profile fight did add pressure, but it also promised a WBC belt and a possible title fight if he were to emerge victorious.
“It was my first time seeing my name on TV,” Stiverne said of his fight with Austin, “Not even nationwide, but worldwide. I was happy, but a little nervous. World wide!”
Coupled with the added pressure was the fact that Austin was a difficult opponent to have to draw for your first HBO televised fight. Austin was world ranked veteran, with wins over many of the top heavyweights of the last twenty years, something that Stiverne knew something about.
“I use to remember, when I was in the amateurs, I was actually watching the Austin-Ibragamov fight,” Stiverne said of fighting the cagy veteran, “At the time I was always telling myself I’m going to be a cruiserweight because these guys are so big.”
But Stiverne had a rude awakening in the days before the fight.
“At the hotel it was very hot outside, and (inside) the hotel, it was 45 to 50 (degrees). Two days before the fight, I had a fever. So we had to rush to get the track suit. I couldn’t take no medication, I don’t know what was good and I know they drug test so I decided just to take cold showers all day. But at the weigh in I felt really sick, but the day of the fight I felt better. I think that reflected in my performance. But I m happy…I was able to deal with my fever and get a ‘W’.”
Stiverne scored an impressive tenth round TKO over Austin, a win that propelled him into the world rankings and positioned him for a possible fight with Wladimir Klitschko for a world title fight. But for Stiverne, another battle with inactivity followed after his win over Austin.
“After the Austin fight I decided to go back in to the gym and work on some things like conditioning and adding some muscles,” Stiverne said of his layoff of ten months. “Worked with a guy for two months on conditioning, then went back to Florida and continued my training. Basically it was to take the time and go back to school. I didn’t want to go back to the ring without updating myself.”
He came back in April of last year in what was supposed to be a tune up with a journeyman named Willie Herring, who, like Demetrice King and Charles Davis, was a borderline .500 fighter with a reputation for durability. And as was the case with King and Davis, Stiverne struggled with the journeyman after dominating the contender. Stiverne won an eight round decision, but didn’t look like the same fighter who stopped Austin and Manswell. But for Stiverne, there was a good reason for his struggles against Herring: he was fighting with a broken hand.
“(In) the second round, I fractured my right hand,” Stiverne commented on his fight with Herring, “it changed my plan; I had to work with what I had. It was bad luck. But I believe that if my hand was 100% I would knock him out. But he was the toughest guy I ever faced, I hit him with some shots and he was still up.”
With a #2 WBC world ranking, and his fight with Chris Arreola just a week away, many boxing insiders are now wondering if he might just finish this year with a title fight against Wladimir Klitschko. And although some would point to his fights with Davis, King, and Herring as reasons why he would struggle against Klitschko, others would point to his power and another curious fact about him that might just even the playing field against a Klitschko: his success against bigger men. Whereas Davis and Herring were smaller heavyweights, Stiverne does seem to shine against taller fighters. His amateur wins over Robert Helenius and David Price set the mold, and his knockout over Ray Austin confirmed it. And Stiverne was not afraid to say what is his dream fight for 2013 was before signing to fight Arrola.
“A title fight,” Stiverne said late last year, “that’s a dream and I’m expecting it. Any boxer who boxes, that’s the dream to fight for the world title.”
Still, with all the talk of fighting Klitschko, Stiverne realizes that he has a very tough opponent in front of him on April 27th and can not afford to look past him.
“There is not much to say,” Stiverne said in a press conference recently about his upcoming fight with Arreola, “personally I am not much of a talker. I have been waiting for this a long time…I just want to get it done.”
The fight with Arreola is sure to be a war, with both fighters possessing bone-crushing power and an all-action style. Some have wondered if this fight could end up becoming a modern day Foreman-Lyle. Still, Stiverne feels that regardless how many bombs are thrown in the fight, he will emerge on top.
“Chris is Chris,” Stiverne added, “whatever he brings mine is better.”