All is not lost: Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez
It wasn’t all that long ago when Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev was at the height of his powers. The Russian sat atop the light heavyweight mountain with three unified titles, a perfect rival, a palpable presence of destruction and a persona that resonated with boxing fans, for better or worse. At any rate, there was a reason to care about Kovalev fights, and, while that remains true, in terms of him being an important player in the current landscape, there’s no mistaking things have changed. Tomorrow night, Kovalev will take on Eleider “Storm” Alvarez, in the main event of an HBO (10:00 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT) telecast, and riddled within its official billing were the days of when the Russian knockout maven produced great excitement during fight week.
“Super Men” is the official name of the card promoted by Main Events, which takes place at the brand new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It’s an obvious jab at Kovalev’s longtime nemesis – Adonis “Superman” Stevenson – who still holds the WBC light heavyweight title and lineal tagline that came with it, once knocking out Chad Dawson five years ago. There are various reasons as to why Kovalev and Stevenson haven’t fought but not even Alvarez could strike a deal with Superman, when he was the WBC’s No.1 contender and mandatory opponent for the past two years. Alvarez has accepted step-aside money, so he has helped the process drag on, and, in a similar sense, so has Kovalev, who dropped out of a purse bid with Stevenson in the only time that fight came close to happening. Be that as it may, the theme of tomorrow night’s show is clever, considering Kovalev is taking on a competent opponent Stevenson wasn’t in a rush to face. However it’s a stark reminder of a fight that hasn’t happened.
“It’s not the biggest fight in my life but it’s big for me because it’s the next chapter in my boxing career. Next time it will be a harder opponent,” Kovalev said about this fight with Alvarez. “He’s undefeated; he’s motivated. He’s hungry. I should be ready for whatever he can bring. It’s a big test for me. He is very motivated. He’s hungry for this fight, and for a victory. He’s undefeated. It’s not an easy fight, and I must be ready for what he will bring. He’s dangerous. I cannot say whether I can knock him out or get a victory by points. It’s a good fight for the boxing fans. I never said that I don’t want to fight this guy because he’s very strong. I’m ready for everybody. As a champion, as a boxer, I’m ready for anybody.”
Kovalev, 32-2-1 (28), is looking to make the second successful defense of the WBO light heavyweight title, and convince the boxing world he can still be the destructive force he was a few years ago. Last summer Kovalev ended a complex affair with Andre Ward, who turned out to be a tremendous rival for his career but maybe not the right one. Two back-to-back HBO Pay-Per-View bouts with Ward produced Kovalev’s highest paydays, and tremendous competitions for boxing fans to see who the best was, while the only other titlist was out collecting solid purses for fighting menial contenders. While their saga was marred by controversy on both occasions – the first being a close decision and the rematch, a referee’s stoppage – Kovalev walked away from both as the loser, and no matter what the perception was of the disputes, he also walked away a mere mortal.
“I should visit there every year, for recharging mentally,” Kovalev said about a Greek monastery he visited last year, after the Ward rematch. “Every man and every woman should be alone with his Spirit, his God, for two or three days a year. I mean, you should be with God always but I went there four nights. It recharged me. I cleaned up my mind and body. You follow the prayers. It is a saintly place. I already miss it. Maybe if I have the opportunity this year, I will go again.”
There’s no doubt something changed with Kovalev after his chapter with Ward. Even after the first fight – one in which many (this writer included) felt he deserved to get the decision, or even a draw as the champion, in a razor-thin fight – Kovalev eventually admitted to tiring out in its second half, and was calling for a detox of his body before the rematch. That summer fight of 2017 will forever be overlooked and underappreciated until it was abruptly stopped by referee Robert Byrd but a few low blows at its end shouldn’t exactly get in the way of a yielding fighter who had been hurt with a right hand upstairs and left hook to the ribs, that had panicked Kovalev. There was plenty of soul-searching left for Kovalev, once having faced a guy who was unquestionably an elite talent, on or even above his level. That can be debated for sure but certainly not, when comparing the preparation and mental approach of both men. Kovalev didn’t waste time changing trainers after the rematch, and returned to the ring quickly after going through the wringer of the best fighter he’s ever faced. It only took him five months to return to the ring, and, after Ward retired within that time span, vacating the same three belts he once held, Kovalev was able to fight for the beltwith which he started. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy wasn’t expected to beat him last November but Kovalev swiftly stopped him to reclaim the WBO light heavyweight title he violently took from Nathan Cleverly in Cardiff, Wales back in 2013, when Krusher first made a name for himself.
“Some fights, I like myself. Some fights, I don’t like myself – I mean my fights. I didn’t like my last fight. I didn’t like my performance,” Kovalev said about his mid-rounds stoppage win over Igor Milkhalkin last March. “Right now, I am trying to delete these mistakes, and do better every fight. Every fight, something happens. I thought I knew a lot but something always happens new. I get a new experience from each fight, and each preparation.”
Preparation has been the faulty wiring of the Krusher machine as of late, and the kinks are still being worked out in the early relationship with trainer Abror Tursunpulatov, who can communicate much better during the heat of a fight than John David Jackson. Their break-up was ugly and publicized but there were some signs of it deteriorating, if you go back between rounds of the Ward fights, in which very little communication was shared. Kovalev is certainly a lone wolf when compared to other fighters, who have teammates within the same gym. He was once a protege of Abel Sanchez in Big Bear, California, but Kovalev wasn’t exactly up for the rigorous regiment Sanchez’s fighters are required to go through up in the Summit. Kovalev still goes up there for the altitude but always of his own accord, and rarely will you see him alongside another fighter.
“We’ve been working together; we understand each other,” Kovalev said about Tursunpalotov, who also trains Fazliddin Gaibnazarov, a 2016 Olympic gold medal winner from Uzbekistan. “He gives me the same boxing study since I was 11 years old. It’s very comfortable. We speak the same language; it’s easy. I follow his exact instructions. Before this, I did it with all of my amateur experience to the pros. Before it was enough but I spent all that amateur baggage. Right now I need the help of a coach, and Abror helps me.”
Alvarez, 23-0 (11), is a Colombian-born Canadian national, whose awkward style can pose a problem for Kovalev, should he be allowed to fight his fight. He heads into his first world title shot off his two biggest wins – a fantastic knockout of Lucian Bute and an ugly majority decision over Jean Pascal – but Alvarez can’t be considered active heading into tomorrow evening. June of last year was the last time Alvarez saw action, and, with Kovalev fighting his rematch with Ward two weeks after Eleider’s win over Pascal, Sergey has fought three times since.
“I am well-prepared for the biggest challenge of my career. I suffered in training, and I am at my peak right now,” Alvarez, 34, said in a press release from his training camp in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. “I think it will be a difficult fight for me but also for Kovalev. I am excited, and I can’t wait to fight. I am ready for everything that he is bringing. It is my chance; it is my time! I can’t stop smiling right now because, next week, the whole world will know who is Eleider Alvarez.”
Kovalev, 35, has maintained an active career throughout, and has also been a fighter willing and able to fight anywhere, as the conventional road warrior. Returning to Atlantic City, Kovalev looks to start the ascent back to the top of the class on the Boardwalk that was once considered a defunct home, four years ago. The city itself is currently going through its own sense of transformation, and, after going through a bit of reform himself, Kovalev is motivated to reclaim what was once his.
“I’m building right now in my mind, my head, my personal championship in my division,” Kovalev said. “In this division, it’s tough. We don’t have the opportunity to make a (World Boxing) Super Series (tournament) like (undisputed cruiserweight champion) Oleksandr Usyk. My congratulations to him and to his team. He’s motivated me. We don’t have a tournament series in this division but, in my head, I have a schedule of my tournament, my championship. I am driven to win this championship. I have a picture in my head; I see my goals and my championship win.”
On tomorrow night’s HBO undercard, Dmitry Bivol – the WBA light heavyweight titleholder who was elevated in wake of Ward’s retirement – hopes to showcase himself in the second defense of his belt against Isaac Chilemba. It will be the second HBO card in a row in which both titleholders are featured, and it’s not hard to figure out where they’re going, should both Russians win.
“It’s already started unofficially between us,” Kovalev said about Bivol, who is eight years younger, and a highly-praised talent, “because everybody wants to make unification fights; I hope. Everyone who is a champion in the light heavyweight division wants to get all the belts together. We want to see who is first between us…I am fighting everybody who is ready to fight me, who is available at this point. I never had a choice. Do I want this fight or this other guy to fight. (Manager) Egis (Klimas) or (Main Events CEO) Kathy (Duva) inform me, ‘Your next opponent is Eleider Alvarez.’ OK. It’s new. I keep my head, and prepare for this guy because I should be better than him. I don’t think about this, who is next, because I’m thinking right now about Alvarez.”
Alvarez isn’t one to be overlooked or disregarded, despite not being a well-known commodity, even in the small circle of the boxing world. He’s hungry, game, coming to fight and certainly Kovalev’s biggest challenge post-Ward. Kovalev beating Alvarez impressively – especially by knockout – may very well result with headlines proclaiming the Krusher has officially returned to form. Perhaps that’s a notion media has wanted to proclaim, and fans have wanted to read for the past couple of years because there’s no doubt it was a lot more fun when Kovalev was at the height of his powers. If it’s been too long for one to remember, reliving one night in particular can recapture the magic, and it happened to be the last memory of the rivalry that never was.
On January 30, 2016, Kovalev rematched Jean Pascal in Montreal. It wasn’t a necessary fight but a hope to recreate a thrilling affair between the two a year earlier. Ward could be seen front and center at ringside but, at that time, it was still in the early stages of an agreement between the two that would later feature a tune-up fight for both. Then boxing fans weren’t exactly suspecting Kovalev-Ward to be a done deal but Ward sat alongside Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, only to see Pascal become a shell of himself, and offer little to no challenge for Kovalev. Trainer Freddie Roach would eventually end Pascal’s night, after seven full rounds of constant punishment and bad form, but Kovalev wasn’t looking all that sharp himself. The logos in the ring that night were slippery but there were a couple occasions in which Kovalev was off-balance, and there was nothing to blame other than some technical flaws when trying to cleanly knock Pascal out. Surely there was a man ringside who noticed, and perhaps an opponent in better form would’ve exploited them, but Kovalev dominated Pascal, and left him sitting on his stool post-fight, with a stare that indicated it very well may be all over. Kovalev’s mother was a feature on the HBO telecast, and, wildly enough, she resembled a Russian version of Duva, wearing a similar green dress and donning the reddest of hair. Mama Kovalev was a bit of a star in her own right that night, as she could be seen passionately rooting for her son ringside but nothing amounted to what happened post-fight.
Kovalev admitted that he wanted to punish Pascal that night, and even when it was all over, felt compelled to reiterate his feelings. If ever you wanted evidence that this Kovalev guy was a sinister guy, this was the interview proving it. The two had made a $50,000 bet that Pascal would last more than eight rounds, and Kovalev paused to remind everyone about it before letting loose a laugh that was so…Russian, it could’ve used an English subtitle. To this day, Pascal never lived up to the bet but just after the interview, Kovalev had the hindsight to shrug Pascal off with a patronizing goodbye, once receiving congratulations from him.
“I want to face Adonis ‘Chickenson’,” said Kovalev, just before mouthing perhaps the most memorable duck call of all-time. Or maybe it was a chicken caw – who knows? – but Stevenson made his way to the ring accompanied by two goons in white fedoras. Their confrontation was awkward, especially considering Stevenson was a Showtime fighter, and it didn’t seem like HBO’s Max Kellerman was expecting his presence. Stevenson grabbed the mic proclaiming, ‘I’m the champ,’ with the fedora twins holding him back, and Kovalev calmly walked out of the camera shot waving goodbye to the broadcast, with one authoratative middle finger directed at Stevenson. Meanwhile, Mama Kovalev could be seen looking threatened by the melee, looking for cover behind her son, where Stevenson wouldn’t dare approach, and ending an otherwise forgetful night of boxing, if it wasn’t for all the extra stuff that separates the sport from the others. Kovalev-Stevenson is a mere afterthought nowadays but that doesn’t mean it’s a fight that wouldn’t draw up interest. With both still being prominent titleholders in the class, it has yet to officially expire remarkably but, even if it were made past its expiration date, there’s no boxing fan with knowledge of their history that wouldn’t want to see it. With Kovalev in his mid-30s and Stevenson over the proverbial hill, it’s a rivalry that very well may be forever young, which so happens to be the translated name of Kovalev’s walkout song, “Vechno Molodoy.”
The song starts off like an episode of HBO’s “Entourage” but, once the woodwinds drop, it’s an unmistakable tune for the diehard boxing fan. If you want to look further into its meaning, perhaps it’s a message from an imperfect fighter delving into a dangerous game in which another man has paid the ultimate price by way of Kovalev’s hands. Once a man who came to the United States to fight for free, Kovalev has come a long way, and, perhaps in his own mind, he had already surpassed his own expectations, once becoming a three-belt-toting unified champ, leaving room for the shortcuts and the obstinacy that prompted a slight demise. Oftentimes it takes a stumble for a fighter to fully realize his flaws, and, while that seems to be the case for Kovalev, there’s sure to be exciting times ahead for the light heavyweight class.