A comeback of sorts: Sergey Kovalev routs Vyacheslav Shabranskyy

Newly-crowned WBO light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev (right) vs. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. Photo credit: Stacey Verbeek


NEW YORK – Sergey Kovalev’s bid to regain his former perch atop a crowded light heavyweight division was always going to take the path of least resistance and it showed, last Saturday night, in a merciless second round TKO of mediocre Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, in front of 3,307 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.


For now, Kovalev, who improves to 31-2-1 (27), quells the drawn-out speculation regarding his supposed mental and physical decline after consecutive losses to now-retired Andre Ward. Fittingly, Kovalev re-acquired the vacant WBO title he lost to Ward, last November, and is now poised to truly move on from what has been a year characterized by bad blood and poor excuses. With stablemate Sullivan Barrera having widely decisioned tricky Felix Valera – who perhaps amid his frequent chest beatings, bolo wind-ups and knee-high jumps, did not get the memo that the Ringling Brothers Circus closed earlier last Spring – earlier in the night and with newcomer Dmitry Bivol sitting ringside, there’s an opportunity for promoter Main Events to create some worthier matchups for Kovalev in 2018.


As utterly scripted as the whole affair coined “The Next Chapter” was, Kovalev, Kopeysk, Russia, reminded observers that his straight right hand is concussive. He repeatedly found a home for it and dropped “Slava” twice in the opening round, despite the fact that one of the shots was partially blocked by a shoulder. The second right hand came over the top of a lazy jab and stunned Shabranskyy before a left toppled him once more. In the second round, Kovalev, with a noticeable hop to his step, knocked Shabranskyy down once more with a right hand over an extended jab. He finished matters with a flurry of combinations on the ropes before referee Harvey Dock intervened to stop the fight at two minutes and 36 seconds.


“The ‘Krusher’ is back,” Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager stated at the post-fight press conference.


Well, sort of. There were some moments that gave pause, however insignificant they may have been. Early on in the first round, Shabranskyy, 19-2 (16), was able to land a few clean jabs on Kovalev’s face and landed yet another in the second round that made Kovalev stumble backward. These are details normally not worth scrutinizing but, then again, Saturday night was a health check-up of sorts for Kovalev, after a year of enervating tussle with Ward, in and out of the ring. He passses here, with the knowledge that the only question that has been definitively answered is that Kovalev is still able to pummel B-grade opponents with swift impunity. It will take the division’s elite opposition to answer questions about Kovalev’s conditioning and his habit of keeping his hands low. Luckily there are plenty willing to put him to the test. While Adonis Stevenson, the WBC champion, and Artur Beterbiev, the IBF champion, are difficult matchups to make for Kovalev, 34, because of pre-existing network and promotional differences, the Bivol and Barrera fights can be made immediately because they are aligned with the same promoter. (Bivol is promoted by Andrei Ryabinsky but has ties to Main Events). Just as Top Rank CEO Bob Arum signed Timothy Bradley in order to provide Manny Pacquiao with a credible opponent down the line, Main Events has achieved something similar for Kovalev. Here one might add that thinking a little bit about the future is sometimes all that it takes to distinguish a credible boxing promoter from an incompetent one.


After the fight, promoter Kathy Duva told UCNLive.com that she would be presenting Barrera with two offers: A fight for the WBO title against housemate Kovalev or for the WBA title against Bivol. “It is up to him. He has done everything that we asked for,” she said before noting there would be money for Barrera in fighting Kovalev. Kovalev, Duva said, is tentatively scheduled to return the Theater at MSG on March 3.


The win brings some semblance of holiday cheer after what has been a challenging year for the New Jersey-based promoter. Duva, who was not oblivious to the track record of so-called “born-again” fighters, said, after the fight, that she had a dream, the night before, that Kovalev would stop Shabranskyy in the second round. That said, she admitted that she was still especially nervous for Kovalev. “We just haven’t had a good win in over a year-and-a-half,” Duva said, laughing.” We really needed it. With a guy like Sergey, you get used to winning. And it feels good. And it sucks to lose when you have a run like since last November. It’s just a relief to know that he’s back to his winning ways and that he’s ready to rule this division.”


Of course, if you were of the opinion that, on June 17, Andre Ward, multiple low blows notwithstanding, had bullwhipped Kovalev into submission, Saturday night registered a low, low number on the litmus test. Still, swift knockouts smooth over almost anything in boxing, which is to say they make superfluous all the creaky details supporting a comeback narrative. For Kovalev, being in a stellar division means there is no need to rely on tales about training malaise, fondness for drink, re-discovering God in Greece or dodging a close one on the highways of Russia to stay relevant. Certainly, he has the crippling punching power and, perhaps more important, the right attitude to make sure of that. “I love boxing,” Kovalev said afterward. “I’m a real fighter. I’m not running from the real fights.”



Sean Nam is a contributor to The Cruelest Sport and UCNLive. He also writes about film for Slant Magazine and Mubi Notebook.




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