The hurting kind: On Sergey Kovalev and Jean Pascal
In a singularly pointless card on HBO, Sergey Kovalev repeated his drubbing of Jean Pascal, this time via disturbing seventh round TKO at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Just as Gennady Golovkin appeared to carry Willie Monroe Jr., last year, in hopes of looking vulnerable to a middleweight division playing “Hideaway Pets” en masse, Kovalev prolonged his onslaught against Pascal for personal reasons at odds with both the concept of sportsmanship and the very notion of prizefighting as a sport. A dark pursuit, yes, but one whose formality separates it from being merely GBH under television cameras.
Mike Marqusee, in his book, “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties,” notes how the ritual background of boxing affects most fighters: “Boxing is not an expression of ghetto criminality or primitive aggression or some innate human propensity for violence, though when a Mike Tyson comes along, it is all too easy to paint it in those colors. The culture of boxing is all about self-restraint, self-discipline and deferred gratification. It is a highly structured response to and safe haven from the anarchy of poverty. The boxing gym is a world of rituals and regimen, mixing cooperation with competition, the hierarchy of skill and experience with the sweaty egalitarianism of the work ethic. Even when boxers leave the ghetto, they take this sustaining subculture with them.”
Kovalev seems to have brought more of the ghetto into the ring with him than most pugs. Despite his measured style, Kovalev is in the mold of Roberto Duran, Wilfredo Gomez, Tony Ayala Jr. and Mike Tyson, fighters whose vicious temperaments could not be subsumed by civilizing notions of competition. After flattening Ray Lampkin with a wrecking ball left hook, Duran infamously told a shocked television audience that had he, “Hands of Stone,” been in shape, Lampkin would have been carried to the morgue instead of to a hospital. Still only a teenager when he was terrorizing junior middleweights in the early 1980s, Ayala spit on one of his opponents and attacked another after the fight – a TKO in his favor – was already over. One of the most vicious pure boxers in history early in his career, Gomez, no stranger to dirty tactics, at times, had to be restrained from continuing to wallop his opponents.
By admitting he had carried Pascal for punitive reasons, Kovalev put himself in rare and distinguished company.
Of all the drawn-out beatings administered by one fighter to another, based on malice, not sport, none stands out like the demolition job Muhammad Ali did on poor Ernie Terrell in 1967, a disgraceful exhibition even 50 years ago when boxing was less merciful than it is today. Indeed, Ali, despite later becoming a spokesman for humanist ideals, pulled the same sadistic stunt on Floyd Patterson two years earlier. Patterson, who was past his prime when he fought Ali (he also entered the ring with a bad back) and Terrell, hampered by a mangled eye from the early rounds on, both suffered dementia in their later years. Ali, however, was never really the rough-and-tumble type. For exemplars of machismo, like Gomez and Duran, there was a unique cultural cachet to be found in their frenetic styles. At his peak, Duran was a hero to most of Latin America. In Puerto Rico, a national day of mourning was declared after Gomez lost to Salvador Sanchez (ironically, Sanchez carried Gomez to inflict more punishment, the very subject of this essay. Gomez has suffered from neurological problems for years now).
In 1987, Mike Tyson, whose grim post-fight pronouncements made him sound like the Marquis de Sade of boxing, brutalized Tyrell Biggs for seven rounds before the fight was finally halted. “I could have knocked him out in the third round but I wanted to do it slowly,” Tyson said after the bout. “I wanted him to remember it.” Tyson, whose gripe with Biggs went back to their amateur days, made no secret of his dislike for the Olympic gold medalist. “He talks so much. He didn’t show any class or respect as a professional fighter. I made him pay for his health for everything he said” (Marlon Starling made a similar statement after dismantling Lloyd Honeyghan in 1989: “Because Lloyd was doing all the talking, I wanted to beat him up. And believe me, if you look at Lloyd’s face, he got beat up.”).
Tyson was forever on the verge of a disqualification loss and he finally snapped against Evander Holyfield in 1997, twice tearing at Holyfield with his teeth. To Joyce Carol Oates, Tyson’s actions, as shocking as they were, had a certain symbolic value: “Boxing’s taboo secret – that the boxers are upright animals, restrained by “regulation” and by the third man in the ring, and, that we, as spectators, are embodied in their mad struggle – has found its most vivid, poetic image.”
But Tyson also revealed how his rage in the ring was part of a larger cultural issue. For Tyson, his outlandish actions against Holyfield, were, in part, determined by his status in the street, that is, among those who would least understand the professional code of conduct and discipline to which a prizefighter adheres. “Some people are sheltered and protected, born with a silver spoon in their mouth. They don’t know what it’s like to be hungry and scared and have to have courage. They know who they are. I am no schizophrenic and no manic depressant. I’m just me. I represent people, pimps, whores, prostitutes. I always have to be strong because I never know who’s looking at me.”
Are there other codes, not professional ones, not cultural ones, but moral ones that a fighter should follow? And what about the men ostensibly in charge of protecting fighters? Mercy stoppages ought to include putting an end to obvious mismatches (of course, that would mean referees stopping 80 percent of televised fights) and Freddie Roach may have erred in letting Pascal answer the bell for the seventh. This brings up the question of fighters – like Pascal – who have what can be called “hazardous pride.” In other blood sports, this attribute (at least from the viewpoint of the spectator) is referred to as a “dead game,” a phrase long disused in boxing for fear of its concretization in the ring.
Two weeks ago, Amir Mansour yielded in his corner after taking worrisome damage in his heavyweight brawl against Dominic Breazeale. When it became clear that Mansour could no longer continue, his trainer, Calvin Davis, pleaded, “Don’t do this to me.” He dashed his cap to the canvas in anger when he realized his meal ticket was cashing out. This attitude is typical of the voyeur found in so many fight racket participants: living vicariously through the exploits of athletes in the most dangerous sport of all – a pursuit in which going from the massage table to the operating table can happen in an instant – often means losing objectivity. What happened to Mansour was reminiscent of the abuse Juan Roldan received from Tito Lectoure when, unable to see out of his left eye, Roldan quit against Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1984. At the end of the fight, Lectoure hurled a towel at his fighter and berated him in the corner. So did Carlos Monzon, only a few years before murdering his wife, who hectored Roldan from ringside. Later, Lectoure told the working press that Roldan lacked heart. “Roldan doesn’t have the big guts,” he said. It should be noted that Roldan once fought a bear at a carnival.
Pascal showed that strange courage – some may call it character – when he continued with a task as hopeless as it was painful (ultimately, not even his bravery could coax a kind word from Kovalev). Aside from an occasional arcing left hook, which rarely hit its target, Pascal was at a standstill for most of the fight. It had taken only a few rounds for Kovalev to slow Pascal down with his supernatural power shots. Sooner than perhaps expected, Pascal basically just stopped all over (Kovalev-Pascal II showed what the fake controversies can lead to in boxing: not only false narratives perpetuated by promoters, managers, networks and fighters but, also, in this case, a tangible and sinister result. Pascal pretending that his first loss to Kovalev was fishy only brought him that much closer to ruination as a professional athlete). From that point on, Kovalev clubbed him at will and with an ease bordering on contempt. After the sixth, with virtually nothing left but heart, Pascal managed to convince Freddie Roach to let him out for one more round. Kovalev calmly bludgeoned him from corner to corner. Most disturbing was how deliberate Kovalev placed his blows and how casual he was about backing away from a fighter who was clearly one barrage away from being laid out for the count. Even the promise of a quick KO – a professional obligation for any prizefighter, who seeks to limit his exposure to cuts, injuries and the dreaded lucky punch – could not convince Kovalev to switch into high gear. No, Kovalev is a fighter for whom business and pleasure seem inseparable.
“My favorite HBO moments of 2015 may seem odd, if not chilling. In contrast to Gennady Golovkin, whose bonhomie can be infectious, unified light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev is as baleful as a mortician. But Kovalev has something even general sports fans covet: Crippling, one-punch power and a take-no-prisoners attitude between the ropes. To see Kovalev grinning like a madman as Jean Pascal stumbled across the ring, groggy, after rising from a knockdown, or watching him taunt Nadjib Mohammedi on the canvas and in obvious distress en route to being counted out, is to see a fighter whose inner animal seems ready to burst out at any moment. That kind of bloodlust, while it can be considered unseemly by some, is at the dark heart of boxing and part of its elemental appeal.”
The closer a prizefighter comes to the bloodthirsty attitudes of a Kovalev, the closer he comes to the bloodsport ideal: That rare combination of skill, will and their dramatization. Like matadors, whose fame and pay scale depend on heightening risk while facing a bull on the hot sands, a boxer raises his stock, more often than not, on his willingness to wreak havoc in the ring. But Kovalev may be too sinister even for boxing. In an unusual move, HBO not only did not air any of the press conference shenanigans that preceded this fight on its telecast but also failed to mention why, exactly, Pascal accused Kovalev as racist. This was one controversy the network seemed queasy about. Even so, they now have a fighter under contract whose racist missteps are a matter of public record and whose chilling post-fight epilogues cannot be passed off on a poor command of English. In a way, Kovalev is a stand-in for boxing itself: He is horrible and magnificent and generates uncertainty as often as he does excitement. No one will be able to look away when he practices his dark art. Some, however, may flinch.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.