A lot of professional fighters sport gaudy undefeated records littered with recognizable names and the inflated numbers impress many. However, authentic greatness is really defined by who a fighter fought and defeated during the signature bouts of his career. In boxing it's never about how many you beat, it's all about who you beat. And Sergey Kovalev has an opportunity to enhance his stature and legacy more so than perhaps any other active fighter because he has two very formidable opponents in front of him who will soon be challenging for his three title straps.
Fresh off WBA/IBF/WBO light heavyweight title holder Sergey Kovalev's seven round beat-down of former title holder Jean Pascal, everybody is hoping to see him finally face lineal/WBC title holder Adonis Stevenson — especially after Kovalev referred to Stevenson as “Chickenson” at center ring while being interviewed by Max Kellerman on HBO after beating Pascal. It was during that interview in which Stevenson 27-1 (22) charged into the ring and said “I'm the real champ” and feigned trying to get at Kovalev 29-0-1 (26) to settle things between them.
If Kovalev and Stevenson were to fight this year, it can be argued that a matchup between them would be the most anticipated light heavyweight title bout since the Roy Jones vs. Antonio Tarver rematch back in May of 2004. In 58 professional bouts between Kovalev and Stevenson, they've scored a collective 48 knockouts. Moreover, they seem to genuinely dislike each other and although most give the edge to Kovalev, Stevenson certainly isn't a no-hope opponent. Adonis can really punch with his left hand from his southpaw stance and Kovalev isn't the hardest guy in the world to find and he has been down a few times as a pro.
Hopefully, HBO, which is aligned with Kovalev and Showtime, which is affiliated with Stevenson, can iron out the particulars and come together and make the fight the way they did the past two pay-per-view monstrosities between Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao last May and Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson in 2002. As of now the fight is dead because an agreement couldn't be reached between the two premier cable giants. Although one must believe that eventually the fight will come to fruition, especially on behalf of Stevenson who is 38 years old and needs to cash in soon.
Unlike Stevenson, who only has Sergey on his radar regarding a marquee bout on the horizon, Kovalev is tentatively in line to fight one of the best and most complete boxers on the planet, former super-middleweight champ Andre Ward 28-0 (15). A bout with Ward would be even more anticipated than fighting Stevenson.
Ward is a master technician and he's great at exploiting an opponent’s weakness while neutralizing their strength. Andre has never come close to losing in the ring and has a boxing aptitude that rivals Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather; that's how cerebral he is during ring combat. Ward also has the same kind of confidence that Muhammad Ali exuded, in other words it's not manufactured, and he just believes he's going to win. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that Ward is the physically stronger of the two, and if that proves to be true, Sergey could be in trouble because Andre is clearly the more fluid fighter. Ward is also capable of doing something Bernard Hopkins was only moderately successful doing when he fought Kovalev, and that's rough-housing him on the inside trying to unsettle him. Ward is also very hard to predict offensively, he mixes orthodox punches and nasty tactics once he's inside and he's a very hard guy to hit flush, and Kovalev has never been in with anyone like that.
Based on the above I almost sold myself on thinking Ward will win…but I'm not so sure.
Kovalev is a tough guy to game-plan for. I don't believe a fighter can be manufactured in the gym to beat him – it's almost as if you have to have been born to beat him, and Ward may very well be that fighter. What makes Sergey so tough, as you saw when he fought Bernard Hopkins was, Bernard couldn't get to Kovalev when he tried pressing him nor could he get him to come inside and mix it up that much. And the reason for that was Sergey's left jab. He was successful hitting Hopkins with it from long range and that set up the right hands that followed behind them. Adding to the problem was Kovalev's power. You could see that if Hopkins wasn't hurting all that bad after being hit, the sting of the punch sure kept him from taking any liberties with Kovalev as he looked for the perfect shot in an attempt to stabilize Kovalev's aggression. Hopkins, like so many other opponents was unable to take away Kovalev's jab, or at the least somewhat blunt it, and that was a huge factor as to why Bernard was back pedaling all night as he was searching for an answer he never found.
Andre Ward is much fresher than Hopkins was when he fought Kovalev. But he's never faced a fighter who he had to be so concerned with from long range the way he will be when he fights Kovalev. On top of that, Ward hasn't fought three times or more in a calendar year since 2009, and that's something that cannot be overlooked.
As of February 2016, Sergey Kovalev may be on his way to becoming, if he's not already, the most exciting and must-see fighter in boxing. And what really makes following him fun is how he's one of the few outstanding fighters in the sport with two legitimate legacy fights out there for him. Again, when it comes to rating and ranking fighters, it comes down to whom did they have in front of them and did they win? The Mayweather effect has pushed fighters of the current generation into thinking more about being undefeated than risking a loss against upper-tier opponents. Sure, he's fooled some into thinking it's all about the zero but it's really more about who you beat as world champion that wasn't washed up or on the decline.
Sergey Kovalev has one outstanding opponent, Adonis Stevenson, to match his skills against, and one great opponent in Andre Ward to measure himself against. If he goes 2-0 against them he'll probably have the deepest resume among active fighters in regards to who he fought and beat. And that will set him apart from the next best guy, whoever that may be. If he can post convincing wins over Stevenson and Ward, to go along with his win over Hopkins, it can be argued that he just may have compiled the best body of work of any light heavyweight title-holder in a decade.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com