Was it only a year and a half or two ago that the fight many fans most wanted to see was a light heavyweight unification matchup of 175-pound knockout artists Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson?
Kovalev and Stevenson presumably are still available to swap shots for pride and profit, but circumstances have rendered the once-hot pairing to something more akin to lukewarm, and that’s even if the two would-be combatants can bring themselves to do something more than make snide remarks about one another. For one thing, the 40-year-old Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs), who defends his WBC title against Badou Jack (22-1-2, 13 KOs) on May 18 in Montreal, has always seemed about as anxious to test himself against Kovalev as he might be to contract the Ebola virus. For another, Kovalev, the “Krusher” from Russia, also seems to have lost some of the shine from his once-shiny reputation. Oh, Kovalev still might belong on a lot of knowledgeable observers’ top 10 pound-for-pound lists, but he’s 34, has those two losses to Andre Ward on his resume and was targeted for some scathing comments from his former trainer, John David Jackson. Even his latest victory, in which he defended his WBO championship on a seventh-round stoppage of fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin Saturday night at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, seemed almost drab in comparison to the heavyweight barnburner held just 5.4 miles away in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where WBC champion Deontay Wilder survived some scary moments before putting away his most formidable opponent to date, Luis “King Kong” Ortiz, in the 10th round.
“She (Main Events matchmaker Jolene Mizzone) had been telling everybody all along that Mikhalkin was going to present a real test,” said Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, whose company promotes Kovalev. “He’s got that southpaw style, he’s relentless, he’s Russian. She knew that this was not going to be a walk in the park (for Kovalev). The guy did belong in there. He earned his shot.”
Maybe so, but the test presented by Mikhalkin (21-2, 9 KOs) for the most part seemed less final exam than pop quiz with an open book. Although the challenger’s southpaw stance might have given Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) momentary pause, for the most part the clearly superior titlist demonstrated why he went off as a 19-to-1 favorite, which is pretty much of a sure thing.
Kovalev opened a cut to Mikhalkin’s right eye with a left hook in the sixth round, and the wound worsened until referee Steve Willis felt obligated to step in 2 minutes and 25 seconds into round seven and wave off the rest of a bout whose outcome had always seemed preordained.
But while Kovalev is accustomed to ending things with spectacular flourishes, this TKO seemed almost routine. In fact, Kovalev’s postfight comments bordered on apologetic.
“Little bit disappointed,” Kovalev said of his performance as he held his giggling, attention-seeking and impossibly cute toddler of a son, Aleksandr. “I did not show everything that I wanted because Igor is southpaw. It is not a comfortable style (for me).”
“He is not easy opponent, believe me. He looks like maybe a no one guy, you know, but he is good. And I was, like, a little lazy. Sluggish. I don’t know, something was wrong.”
Despite Kovalev’s professed inertia and obligatory kudos tossed the outclassed Mikhalkin’s way (Kovalev won 17 of the 18 completed rounds on the three judges’ official scorecards and would have made it 20 of 21 were it not for Willis’ intercession), he and his support crew – Duva, manager Egis Klimas and trainer Abror Tursunpulatov – no doubt realize that there is lost ground that needs to be made up, and quickly, if some of the big bopper’s luster is to be restored to its former level.
“There’s a lot of light heavyweight fights happening in the next few weeks,” said Duva, who hopes to get Kovalev back in the ring in June, preferably at the Garden, which he now calls his favorite venue. “I really think those fights have to happen. Once we figure out who wins, we’ll make some decisions.”
Kovalev said he’d prefer not to fight another southpaw next, which would appear to rule out Stevenson, not that that evaporating dream fight is apt to ever advance beyond the theoretical. There’s the standard HBO/Showtime snag that somehow would have to be resolved, with Kovalev contractually bound to the former and Stevenson to the latter, as well as the likelihood that the Haitian-born, Quebec-based WBC ruler would decline to exit his Canadian comfort zone, where he has staged his last 14 fights and is determined to remain unless extradited. But Kovalav expressed interest in a possible rumble with Jack (22-1-2, 13 KOs), should he get past Stevenson, an iffy proposition.
“I’ve read on the internet that Badou Jack would be a big-money fight,” Kovalev said. He also opined that a unification bout with WBA champ Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs), who almost toyed with Cuban expatriate Sullivan Barrera (21-2, 14 KOs) before stopping him in the 12th round in Saturday night’s co-featured bout on HBO, is on the table and deserving of consideration.
By any measure, including earning potential, Kovalev is not where he was heading into his first showdown with Ward on Nov. 19, 2016, in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. There are more than a few people who believe that Kovalev had done enough to get the nod in that one, although Ward, by consensus one of the two or three best fighters in the world, came away a 114-113 winner on all three official scorecards. With a chance to settle the score in the rematch on June 17, 2017, at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas, Kovalev was stopped in eight rounds in another tight scrap, leading 68-65 on one card and down by just 67-66 on the other two. Kovalev claimed the stoppage was the result of illegal, below-the-belt punches that drew no warnings or penalties from referee Tony Weeks, an argument that was not without some merit.
The Ward setbacks seemed to send Kovalev into a funk, and when he decided to jettison Jackson, the sacked trainer claimed he was being unfairly portrayed as a scapegoat by a selfish fighter who took too many shortcuts in the gym.
“Sergey likes to talk trash,” a bitter Jackson said after the Ward rematch. “He’s blaming me for the loss but let me tell you this, you can’t blame me for the loss when he quit. He quit! Once Andre started hitting him to the body he was done.
“He makes Russian people look bad. All the Russians that I’ve trained, they are wonderful people, man. This guy (Kovalev) is a complete (expletive), just a really selfish person.”
Although Klimas floated the names of better-known replacement trainers, most notably Freddie Roach, the gig went to Tursunpulatov, who came to Kovalev’s attention because he trained Russian middleweight Bakhram Murtazalien. They now have been together for two fights, Kovalev’s two-round blowout of Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Shabranskyy on Nov. 25 of last year for the vacant WBO title and now Mikhalkin.
“He reminds Sergey of his old trainer from the beginning in Russia, especially because Sergey wants to hear the Russian language in his corner,” Klimas said when Tursunpulatov came aboard. “That is important to him.”
The restoration of Sergey Kovalev remains a work in progress. Jackson’s depiction of him as a quitter is about the worst thing that can be said of a fighter, and his sacking of a well-thought-of black trainer and some insensitive comments have raised, perhaps unfairly, the ugly specter of racism. Those are labels that aren’t always easy to scrape off, and Kovalev must try to do so to mollify the doubters while at the same time demonstrating that he is still the potentially great fighter he appeared on the verge of becoming not so very long ago.
The fastest and most obvious way to reestablish himself as a card-carrying member of the boxing elite would be to get a third shot at the now-retired Ward and to win. Ward recently mused that a third clash with Kovalev has crossed his mind, so there is that to consider. Certainly, all evidence suggests that such a fight would come with shorter odds than Kovalev getting a first go at Stevenson.
If not Bivol or Jack, the grab bag of possible Kovalev foes include Joe Smith Jr. (23-2, 19 KOs), Marcus Browne (21-0, 16 KOs), Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KOs), Okeksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs), Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs) and Anthony Yarde (15-0, 14 KOs). Even Mike Lee (20-0, 11 KOs), the Notre Dame grad better known for his role as a pitchman for Subway sandwiches, would appear to be in play; he is, after all, ranked No. 3 by the WBO.
But whomever Klimas and Duva select as the next partner on their guy’s dance card, you have to wonder how big a splash that bout can make in a landscape where a preponderance of fight fans are fantasizing about the May 5 rematch of middleweight superstars Gennady Golovkin (37-0-1, 33 KOs) and Canelo Alvarez (49-1-2, 34 KOs), or the prospect of similar superfights pitting heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua (20-0, 20 KOs) and Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) and welterweights Errol Spence Jr. (23-0, 20 KOs) and Terence Crawford (32-0, 23 KOs).
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