The last time Lionell Thompson fought on national television on NBCSN, he suffered not only the first knockout loss of his career but a defeat so embarrassing that many figured his days as an up-and-coming boxer were finished.
Fast forward 14 months later, and the Buffalo native who now lives and trains in New York City is on the cusp of becoming relevant in the light heavyweight division. Turns out that “bad loss” on Sept. 21, 2012 wasn’t so bad after all, considering the man who beat Thompson that day, powerful Russian Sergey Kovalev, is now an unbeaten world champion. Thompson has won his last two fights since that match, including last May’s eye-opener against former national Golden Gloves and PAL champion Yathomas Riley, a victory that not only vaulted Thompson into the top 25 of the world rankings but also caught the attention of Main Events, which signed the five-time state Golden Gloves champion to a deal earlier this fall.
That brings us to tonight, when Thompson (14-2, 9 KOs) will once again be fighting on a nationally televised boxing card (8, NBCSN) looking to make his name even more relevant in the sport. This time he faces Ryan Coyne (21-1, 9 KOs) in a 10-round co-feature bout at Resorts International Hotel & Casino, Superstar Theatre in Atlantic City, N.J. The main event pits heavyweight Amir Mansour (19-0, 14 KOs) against Kelvin Price (14-1, 6 KOs).
“I’m ready to destroy this kid,” Thompson said. “I’m excited and looking forward to Saturday night. I can’t wait to fight. … A lot of people don’t know how good a fighter I am but they will Saturday night. I’m going to give fans the type of performance they really want to see. I’m stepping up to prove myself.”
It’s fitting the card is called Road to Redemption because Thompson, 28, has been hard at work redeeming his image ever since he stepped into the ring to face Kovalev on two weeks’ notice at a point in his career where he clearly wasn’t ready to face an opponent of that caliber.
Think Luke Skywalker’s first battle with Darth Vader and you get the picture.
Kovalev made quick work of Thompson. He knocked Thompson down thrice before winning via TKO 14 seconds into the third round.
The loss led to sweeping changes in Thompson’s camp, which included leaving trainer Ross Thompson, the former world No. 1 who last summer was inducted to the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44 Hall of Fame.
While Tim Ziccardi is still part of his team, he’s no longer Thompson’s primary manager as he’s now represented by a more experienced man in Kevin Dever.
“The team I was with pretty much pressured me into taking the fight after I had said no,” Thompson said, “but things happen in sports. That’s why I’ve got a new team. There were a lot of mistakes made. As I said before, it’s boxing. I took a bout I wasn’t ready for but we’re not doing that anymore.
“We’re taking the right fights, tough fights. I don’t fight bums. The other prospects are pampered. These guys are frauds.”
Thompson, who is ranked 20th in the division by the World Boxing Council, included Coyne, a lefty who is unranked by the WBC but is ranked No. 9 by the World Boxing Association, in that group in prefight chatter.
“I respect Ryan Coyne but he has been built up and protected. I’ve heard a lot of people are picking Coyne or that it’s a 50-50 fight at best,” said Thompson, who isn’t among the top 15 listed in the WBA rankings but is the highest ranked Western New Yorker by a boxing organization since Niagara Falls’ Nick Casal reached No. 7 on the IBF list in 2008.
“After this fight we’re going to shut up the doubters who haven’t been sold on Lionell,” Dever said.
Last May, Thompson was considered the B-side opponent – the stiff who was supposed to make Riley’s return to the ring a triumphant one after the blue-chip prospect had spent two years in jail on a murder charge that never went to trial and eventually was dismissed. Instead Thompson won via unanimous decision and has seen his star start to rise, culminating with signing with Main Events earlier this fall. That’s the longtime promotional outfit that currently represents Kovalev and whose past clients include former world champions Arturo Gatti, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
Thompson’s last two wins have come against opponents with a combined 26-2-2 record.
He had hoped to return to the ring in September or October, not seven months after his biggest win as a professional, but such is life in boxing.
“I’m the real deal. I’ve just got to go out there and prove it,” Thompson said. “Being stopped for the first time was really tough. I had to pick myself up and prove everybody wrong. I live to prove people wrong. … I’m focused and will dominate until he quits on the stool, or clip him and leave him unconscious on his back.”