Sergey Kovalev-Jean Pascal redux
The anticipation before the first fight between Sergey Kovalev and Jean Pascal was stimulated by a fighter doing a commendable thing. Kovalev didn’t take an easy route defending the unified IBF, WBA and WBO titles for the first time after defeating Bernard Hopkins. The Russian continued his road warrior agenda by taking on another champion of yesteryear on his turf and he did it in just four months time. The timing was right. Flash forward to the beginning of 2016, when this Saturday, Jan. 30 (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/6:45 p.m. PT), Kovalev will return to the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada to face Pascal in a rematch but the second go-round has taken on an insipid undertone in its lead-up and, considering the first chronicle was a fun, competitive match, one may think the rematch’s lack of build-up is odd.
Maybe it’s the foregone conclusion that Kovalev will stop Pascal again and sooner than the eight rounds it took the first time. There was a moment in the third round of their first encounter in which that very well looked to be the case. Pascal was hit with a monster right hand and it left him hanging on the ropes with his armpit propping his body up. While Pascal never hit the canvas, he took the first 10-count of his career on the wobbliest of legs and, if it weren’t for the round ending, he would’ve certainly been stopped then. Pascal was still on skates to start the fourth and, after two minutes of unabashed punishment from the Russian’s power shots, he spurred the Canadian crowd on with every right hand he miraculously landed. Pascal saved the fight from being an absolute blow-out by timing his counter shots and catching a charging Kovalev. He proceeded to gain all the momentum through rounds five and six with his sleek, awkward, movement. Pascal frustrated Kovalev and, by the end of the seventh, Sergey’s face was reddened by Pascal’s resolute recovery.
Changes in momentum are facets of a fight that can make it great. Pascal was seemingly out on his feet at the end of the third and his ambitious comeback was something to admire. Yet Kovalev thwarted any upset by continuing to let his hands go, despite Pascal timing his counters. Kovalev was willing to take a punch in order to hand one out, however, and he managed to hurt Pascal at the end of the seventh. In the eighth, he landed another flush right hand that sent Pascal stumbling into a turnbuckle. Kovalev smelled blood with Pascal helplessly backpedaling into the corner and Sergey slipped on the canvas while charging forward to finish him off. The slip caused a pause in action and it saved Pascal from a certain knockdown. Jean tried to walk to a neutral corner with time called. It was actually a feeble attempt at walking and Pascal’s drunken stumble was a clear indication that he was badly hurt. Once referee Luis Pabon called for the fight to resume, Pascal stood there in the same corner and basically welcomed Kovalev with open arms. Kovalev landed two more right hands around the guard of a statue and that’s when Pabon waved his arms. To this day, Pascal argues that Pabon stopped the fight too early but what the judgment call ultimately did was guarantee he’d live to fight another day.
“He must say, ‘Thanks a lot,’ to Luis Pabon that he saved (Pascal’s) health and that he’s still alive,” Kovalev said in his thick Russian accent about Pascal’s gripe. He opened the media round table on a December afternoon on the outside patio of a restaurant in Hollywood, Calif. Per usual, at his side was his manager, Egis Klimas, who whispered him a Russian translation whenever necessary, and his promoter, Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events. Surrounding them were various media members popping questions and their subjects fielding them across two tables put together and draped in white linen. “I would like to destroy him as a boxer…forever,” Sergey emphatically said about Pascal within the first few minutes of questioning. He continued, “Enough! Enough to him fighting again because he’s already lost his mind.”
Kovalev, 28-0-1 (25), is regarded as one of the most powerful punchers in the world and his suspicion of Pascal being a crazy person, rather than a man challenging himself, likely stems from Sergey being the impetus of a boxing tragedy four years ago.
He also explained the best he could that the accumulation of punches would have been worse for Pascal’s health rather than one big knockout shot. When asked if there is any worry about causing more harm to Pascal in the rematch, Kovalev explained, “In the fight, you cannot think about this because you have adrenaline from your emotions. You don’t feel any pain inside the ring. After the fight, you’re feeling sore. (Pascal) didn’t understand what happens with him until the stop but after the fight, I’m sure he felt a lot of pain in his head and his body. Even me felt.”
“This fight for me is redemption,” said Pascal, who sat in the same seat as Kovalev after the latter had already left the restaurant. Still, a different cadence of English was spoken from that chair, a French accent, in Pascal’s case. “Yes, he beat me the first fight. The referee might stop the fight a bit too soon but the only thing that Kovalev has more than me is power. He doesn’t have better footwork than me. He’s not faster than me. And he’s not more good looking than me.”
Pascal, 30-3-1 (17), wanted the rematch immediately after the fight was stopped and now he’s got it. He wasn’t surprised he got the rematch either, stating, “I have no belt but everybody wants to fight me ’cause I’m the cash cow. Kovalev made his first million not because of Bernard Hopkins, not because of HBO, but because of me.” Pascal is straightforward and he doesn’t want you to confuse his confidence for cockiness but what he said is indeed the reality of the situation. For Pascal, 33, the loss to Kovalev was unprecedented. It was the first time he’d ever been stopped and, marking another first, Pascal’s woozy disposition in the ring that night was a rarity for a man who garnered a solid chin over the years. “Yes, I was,” Pascal admitted to being hurt by Kovalev. “That’s part of the sport but, to me, it doesn’t matter because this is boxing. It’s what happened next,” Pascal cited about his rebound in the first fight.
Sitting next to Pascal was his new trainer, Freddie Roach. He revealed that he sought Roach on the advice of fellow Canadian and UFC superstar Georges St. Pierre. “After the first session of pads, I said, he is my man,” Pascal happily said about the legendary trainer. Roach was wary to take on another project but was ultimately convinced by Pascal’s attitude. “He came to work out and I told him my back was sore and I might have to have surgery and I don’t have time for him right now,” Roach said. “I told him to go home. He wouldn’t go home though. He kept showing up at the gym and I said, well, if he shows up, I’ll show up too. He showed me that his work ethic is really good…He still hasn’t gone home.” Perhaps a new coach for Pascal will be a rejuvenation ala Timothy Bradley Jr. hiring Teddy Atlas near the end of last year. No matter how you put it, something had to change.
That July night at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev., Pascal squeaked by Yunieski Gonzalez in a unanimous decision. It was a competitive match, surprisingly, and was mostly inspired by Gonzalez’s no-holds-barred effort. The Cuban came forward the entire fight and left Pascal with no choice to duck and counter for most of it. Neither fighter had a defining moment in the contest and it was as close as you can draw it up. There was a large contingent that had Gonzalez’s inspiring effort enough to win on his American television debut and he was left in tears once the decision was read. On the other hand, Pascal looked unprepared against the formerly undefeated yet nameless opponent. “That’s why they’re in the crowd and not judges,” Pascal said about the overwhelming opinion many had about the result. Kovalev headlined the HBO card soon after the Cuban’s tears dried from the canvas. Sergey demolished his unheralded opponent, Nadjib Mohammedi, within three rounds in a mismatch of a mandatory bout set by the IBF. Although Kovalev did what he was supposed to, the drubbing of such menial opposition left him in a lose-lose situation even though it was necessary to keep hold of his status in the sport. Kovalev’s ultimate goal is unifying all four world titles and become the undisputed champion at 175 pounds.
It wasn’t hard to read the writing on the wall for a rematch when Kovalev and Pascal shared the same card last summer; however, it wasn’t the plan for Sergey to give Jean another shot in his very next fight. Duva, the architect of Kovalev’s career, spoke exclusively with UCNlive.com after the fighter interviews and gave an explanation. “Originally the fight with Pascal was supposed to take place around March or so, or April, and then (Kovalev) was going to be fighting again in September,” she revealed. That plan was on the heels of getting Kovalev a fifth bout in Russia to round out 2015 but that was easier said than done. “He was turning down opponents because they were too easy,” Duva said. It was learned that Sergey didn’t want to fight an overmatched opponent in front of his home crowd because he wanted to give them a competitive show and not just another showcase bout. Considering he is recognized by most as the best in the division, it was also hard to convince any viable foe to travel into his territory without an astronomical demand in purse guarantees. The Russian excursion quickly fell apart by the end of the year but a light at the end of the tunnel shined in the same instant.
Plans were put in place for Kovalev, who has an exclusive network contract with HBO, to fight former consensus super middleweight champion Andre Ward in 2016. With that in mind, Duva elected to have Kovalev get the rematch with Pascal over with. “When we saw that Ward was gonna go all the way to November (of 2016), we said let’s move up this fight into January and then we have a window to fight in June to fight again and then fight in November. So the long period of inactivity turns out to just be the six months from July to January as opposed to maybe a much longer period of time the following year when you have this big fight coming up,” Duva explained. When followed up with the question of wanting to establish a three-fight-per-year pace, Duva responded, “He would love four times a year if I could do it. It’s not possible. He get’s annoyed that it’s only three.”
Kovalev expressed more frustration that day. “Yeah, I was disappointed,” Kovalev admitted about the canceled plan to fight in Russia. “We didn’t find an available opponent. A lot of opponents asking a lot of money but when I gonna get good money?” Sergey opined. “I always pay opponent more, sometimes more than I get in money just so I can make a fight…I should start to get money for this job.” That rant was probably inspired by the fact that Kovalev has fought for free just to get himself in the ring in hopes of a promoter discovering him. According to Sergey, he fought 18 times without compensation until Main Events found its diamond in the rough.
While Main Events has done a remarkable job getting Kovalev big fights and a network deal, it has been a struggle to garner a large following in the United States for the 32-year-old from Kopesyk, Russia. It’s head scratching, considering there’s another Russian-speaking, undefeated KO artist with unified titles from across the globe who has recently captivated the American boxing public: Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. Unlike Golovkin, Kovalev can’t sell tickets and the sold-out audiences for whom he has fought derive from riding the coattails of his opponents’ fan bases. Perhaps it’s the menacing look Kovalev possesses, contrary to the smiling Golovkin and his happy-go-lucky demeanor. It’s certainly not a communication problem because, in this writer’s experience, Kovalev is much better at English than Golovkin. In the ring, however, they’re virtually the same. Like Golovkin, Kovalev also believes there is a duty to put together entertaining fights. “I’m just trying to make fight interesting for the fans, for the people and for TV, for HBO, because these fights are recording and people can see a fight live and, after this, people can watch these fights year by year, maybe long time if your fight interesting,” Sergey said, basically preaching to the choir. He continued, “You make history. I remember when I grew up as a boxer, my coach showed me and my friends Sugar Ray Leonard, (Thomas) Hearns, Marvin Hagler. It’s all history because these boxers are very interesting. My goal is to show young people and to young kids to get the same examples and follow me.”
Kovalev’s initial home base was Atlantic City, NJ, but the Boardwalk has since become the bored-walk, and the city doesn’t have the financial drive it used to since becoming practically bankrupt. He’s currently without one outside of his home country – where no one dares to face him. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas has expressed interest in getting into the Kovalev business but his last fight at the Mandalay Bay Events Center was in front of a sparse crowd. Kovalev expressed interest in maybe making Canada a second home, stating, “I feel very comfortable in Canada because Canada in winter time (reminds me of) Russia. Same buildings, looks like Russia. People very polite and fans very good. I feel a lot of support from them because I’m getting a lot of messages from Facebook to Instagram comments supporting me from Canada. I’d like to say thanks a lot for the support.”
If Kovalev is frustrated by his flailing reception in the US, he certainly doesn’t show it. He also makes it clear that he’s not a businessman and entrusts Klimas and Duva with that subject. He just wants to fight and his view on boxing as a sport isn’t influenced by the muddy business side, rather, the spirit of competition. One irritation Kovalev can’t hide has been the inability to get a chance to take the final step toward achieving his main objective – a fight with the WBC light heavyweight titleholder, Adonis Stevenson.
It didn’t take long for reporters to mention Stevenson’s name within minutes of both Kovalev and Pascal taking that seat and both were champing at the bit to throw shade at the elephant in the room. Kovalev had an encounter with Adonis last month while ringside in Quebec City at the James DeGale vs. Lucian Bute fight. “I was afraid,” Sergey said with a sarcastic smirk on his face. “‘Superman’ flew this way, this way,” he said while motioning his hands and adding a zooming sound effect to the gesture. “He flew one time, second time, and, third time, I stopped him and asked him, when you should fight with me, let me know, please.” Stevenson is the only man in Kovalev’s way of winning all four recognized world title belts and becoming the undisputed light heavyweight champion. “This fight possible if he will say yes but not to reporters, on the contract, put his signature,” Kovalev said about facing Stevenson. The happenstance last month was mostly smiles but in a moment that could’ve easily changed the mood during that encounter, Sergey pinched Adonis’ cheek as if he were his nephew. Stevenson tried to do the same immediately afterward but Kovalev slipped out of the way. When proposed to the idea of Stevenson reacting negatively, or perhaps physically, to the cheeky gesture, Kovalev responded, “He has no balls.”
Even though Stevenson is a fellow Haitian import whom calls Canada home, Pascal’s disdain for Adonis is equal to, or maybe even supersedes, Kovalev’s. “I don’t even know why people bring up his name because everybody knows that he’s not a real fighter. He’s not a real champion. Cause to be a real champion, you need to beat the best to prove that you are the best. I was trying to fight him many times, and he doesn’t want to fight me cause he knows,” Pascal preached about Adonis. “I beat him twice in the amateurs. He knows that I’m better than him. He doesn’t have a great fan base because he doesn’t want to the fight the best. I told him, you fight me, you beat my ass and you become a mega-star in Quebec. But he’s too scared.” Pascal went on to gloat about coining the nickname “A-duck-nis Chicken-son” and maintains a lack of disrespect for Stevenson. That said, he holds the same contempt for Kovalev.
“Honestly, I have no good comments to say on him because I don’t think he’s a good person. Because to be a racist in 2016, is very low,” Pascal told UCNLive.com in a separate one-on-one interview. His claim on Kovalev being a racist derives mostly from a photo the Russian tweeted out last year with him pointing at a t-shirt with a monkey wearing gloves, captioning it, “Adonis looks great.” The tweet was quickly deleted and an apology followed soon after but Pascal says it’s more than just that. “People are gonna say he has a black coach (John David Jackson). It doesn’t matter. He made a few comments only on black people. He only says, ‘He’s of a piece of shit’ to black boxers. Plus, he said Stevenson was a monkey but it wasn’t the first time. He said that to Ismayl Sillah. That Sillah was a monkey and that he’s gonna whoop his black ass. So, when you do something once, it might be a mistake but when you say it and do it two or three times, it’s not.”
The opening press conference in Montreal for this Saturday night’s fight was highlighted by a long soliloquy from Pascal about his allegations on Kovalev. Of course, Kovalev says he is not a racist and put simply that the tweet was nothing more than “a bad joke.” While it was certainly a mistake on Kovalev’s part, the story didn’t get much blowback from the mainstream media. One can blame that on maybe not being that big of a deal after all. Perhaps Kovalev is naively ignorant of American culture or boxing has had a long history of racist hyperbole attached to it or the sport itself is now niche or maybe even Kovalev isn’t a popular figure within an already scorned game. To exemplify how far Pascal’s argument went, and perhaps showing what many thought of the whole ordeal, not one question was asked to either Jean or Kovalev about the alleged racism at the media round table in Hollywood. It also could have been the fact that the tweet, and the story attached to it, dates back to last April. In the closing press conference the Wednesday before the fight, Pascal tried to stir the racism pot once again by eating a banana at the podium and offering one to everyone on the stage. Overall Pascal’s idea was good but his execution of the gag wasn’t well planned and it left an awkward undertone. Jackson wasn’t particularly happy with Pascal’s antics either and his turn at the podium was cut short after the two had to be separated while exchanging expletives.
Kovalev didn’t bother to verbally jab back at Pascal and his final words were as simple as the game plan he laid out in December at the media round table, “Same game plan – just to kick his ass.” As for Pascal, he’s fully aware of Kovalev’s power in regard to the rematch but maintains his speed can circumvent it. “I know what I did bad and I know what I did good, so, right now, I’m gonna mix it up and make a better version of the first fight,” said Pascal. He ended the day by proposing a wager to Kovalev in the rematch. The bet is if Pascal gets stopped sooner than the eight rounds it took Kovalev the first time, he will donate $50,000 to a foundation of Sergey’s choosing. Kovalev accepted the terms and if it goes past eight, he will contribute to Pascal’s charity.
Therein lies yet another clue to why Kovalev-Pascal II hasn’t quickened the pulses of boxing fans. Not even Pascal proposed the idea of upsetting Kovalev and putting that into the form of a wager. If you’d like to have action on this Saturday’s contest as well, Kovalev (-2500) is a heavy favorite over Pascal (+1400) (betting lines via 5dimes.com). Contrary to the swings of momentum in a fight that can make it great, the stalling of momentum in one’s career can hinder it. It’d be difficult for either man to say the card they shared last July has done anything to boost their careers and its effects may be coming to light. Whether or not this will be his last chance at a world title, Pascal said, “Only God knows and the devil has doubts. I can’t predict the future. I know every time I fight, I put my 110% and I always give the fans a good show.” There isn’t much doubt that Pascal will recreate the same valiant effort he gave Kovalev in the first fight and if he does, boxing fans are in for another treat in the rematch. However, if it comes with the same result, boxing fans will likely walk away mesmerized by Pascal’s will and Kovalev’s dominant power – two variables they already experienced in the first fight.