There’s a New Crop of Elite Light Heavys, But Don’t Forget Sergey Kovalev

On November 4th, Dmitry Bivol 12-0 (10) won the vacant WBA light heavyweight title with a first round knockout over Trent Broadhurst. The following Saturday night Artur Beterbiev 12-0 (12) won the vacant IBF title with a 12th round stoppage over Enrico Koelling. And on November 25th at Madison Square Garden, former champ Sergey Kovalev 30-2-1 (26) will fight Vyacheslav Shabranskyy 19-1 (16) for the vacant WBO title.

Andre Ward’s unforeseen retirement on September 21st left three major titles vacant and now the top guys in each governing body are fighting to grab them. This will no doubt set up some compelling fights in the light heavyweight division in the near future. No, it won’t rival the division’s greatest era when it was really loaded with upper-tier fighters circa 1975-85, but it’s no doubt becoming the strongest era of the last 30 years.

The fighter who could have a major say as to who ends up on top when it all sorts out is Kovalev, which is ironic since only a year and a half ago he was the alpha fighter and man to beat in the division. Then he had back-to-back fights with Andre Ward.

Kovalev lost a highly disputed unanimous decision to Ward the first time they met. The rematch, five months later, began like the first fight in that there wasn’t much to choose between them. In the eighth round Ward rocked Kovalev with a big right hand. Ward followed it up with a series of finishing shots, some of which streamed a little low, and the fight was stopped with Sergey slumped on the ropes.

Immediately after the bout Kovalev claimed he was fouled and that the bout was stopped prematurely, a claim that drew support; Kovalev wasn’t alone in this view. Shortly before his upcoming fight with Shabranskyy was announced, Kovalev revealed that he was bringing on a new trainer, Abror Tursunpulatov. He stated that he and his former trainer John David Jackson had trouble communicating and that prior to both bouts with Ward he was doing too many things that distracted him and limited his gym time. He now believes that will no longer be an issue and he’s driven to win back the titles he once held.

Kovalev said, “I learned a lot from my fights with Andre Ward. When you don’t win and when you suffer adversity, it makes you stronger. It also shows you who your real friends are. I feel like I cleaned out my life and now I’m ready to start fresh. I’m very excited to get back in the ring and fight at Madison Square Garden for the first time, and I’m focused on the future. I’m not looking back.”

Some may have written Kovalev off due to him losing twice to Ward and that may turn out to be how it unfolds, but that may also be a little premature. And I say that because we know that he truly believes he beat Andre the first time they fought. I have no doubt he went to bed the night after their first fight believing that it was the judges that beat him, not Andre Ward.

In regards to their rematch, Kovalev has repeatedly said he felt the referee and Ward beat him. In other words, Ward couldn’t do it by himself; he needed the American boxing establishment to help him. They allowed Ward to foul, ignoring his low blows disguised as body punches. To me Kovalev isn’t reaching by justifying the two defeats like that. Because he still may go to bed at night convinced that Ward wasn’t the better fighter, it’s plausible he hasn’t been damaged psychologically by the two setbacks.

The fact that his management and HBO have signed on for him to fight a big puncher like Shabranskyy suggests one of two things….either they have total confidence in him, believing he isn’t a damaged fighter and that the old Kovalev still lives. Therefore he’ll be fine facing a fighter who will try to knock him out instead of putting him in with an easy touch. Or else, HBO doesn’t want to invest much in Kovalev until they’re sure he isn’t gun shy. So they want to test him to see if he falls apart under fire.

My guess is he’ll be okay. Andre Ward, even on his best nights, doesn’t beat up his opponents physically to the point where they’re ruined. I’m sure many of Ward’s opponents think to themselves after facing him – what the hell just happened to me? I’m not hurt, I wasn’t knocked out, but it’s as if a gang of ghosts mauled me and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That’s something that can riddle a fighter’s confidence more than it takes away his heart. On top of that, Sergey probably figures there’s nobody out there like Ward, or as good as him, and that he beat him in the only fair fight they had. So, in his view, there’s nothing he can be confronted by that he can’t overcome.

Against Shabranskyy, I have no doubt Kovalev will fight with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been mocked and excoriated on social media and in the press, and that can’t be easy for a guy who calls himself “Krusher” to live with. Kovalev, in case you hadn’t noticed, loved to speak of all his titles when he held them, as if they were his identity. I believe the chance to win one of them back in his first bout after losing the rematch to Ward can only be a good thing pertaining to his mindset and ego.

The light heavyweight division is full of new contenders and title holders who stand between 6-0 and 6-2, men like Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Dmitry Bivol. Those two would make for a great matchup with Kovalev if he can get by Shabranskyy. No doubt they’d start out boxing him, but if forced to fight I have no doubt they’d roll with it. And maybe the most intriguing fight in the division as long as Kovalev is near his pre-Ward form would be a fight with Artur Beterbiev. They’re both bullies and carry themselves as such and they don’t like each other going back to their days fighting as amateurs. I’d love to see Kovalev-Beterbiev with their titles on the line.

If Kovalev looks like the same guy who fought Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins in his upcoming bout with Shabranskyy, the light heavyweight division is in for some spectacular fights in 2018.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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