A year later, just who – and what – is Sergey Kovalev?
It was just a little over a year ago when Sergey Kovalev was the unified light heavyweight champion of the world, undefeated and considered one of the most lethal prizefighters on Earth. But on November 19, 2016, at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the “Krusher” dropped a controversial decision to Andre Ward.
Then, last June, he was halted by Ward in their rematch in the eighth round.
He didn’t just lose his belts and his “O”; his cloak of invincibility was also taken from him.
So as he is scheduled to face Vyacheslav Shabranskyy this Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City (HBO 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT), one wonders just what version of Kovalev currently exists? And what is his value in the current marketplace and where does he stand in the 175-pound division?
This business is fickle. A year ago, he was this fearsome force. Now he’s a question mark.
“It’s interesting,” said Kovalev’s promoter Kathy Duva, the head of Main Events. “I saw him last week; mentally and physically, he seems in a better place than he was before those fights. I’m not quite sure what to attribute that to. I think the change in trainer (Abror Tursunpulatov) clearly was necessary; it made a difference. There was a lot of tension and stress in that camp but it’s interesting. You talk about his worth now commercially, he’s in an interesting position.
“He’s still the man in the division after all that happened. He’s the guy all the others have to come through, if they want to be the champion. So he’s still worth a great deal in the marketplace because we’re in a situation where you have one of the deepest and most competitive divisions in the sport, with all kind of fights coming up against guys who are younger. They’re all kind of come-forward fighters who are going to make it fun to watch and they’re are gunning for him now.”
With the retirement of Ward, it has opened up the division and belts, such as the WBO’s, became vacant. Kovalev and Shabranskyy will be fighting for that title this weekend. Ms. Duva has a point; while Kovalev’s record is now blemished, with “SOG” riding off into the sunset (for now), he is the most established light heavyweight in the world.
Duva points out, “It’s a different situation than he was in, in the beginning. When he came here and was unknown he had to fight his way for everything he got.”
Back in 2013, when he made his HBO debut, the Russian had to play the role of road warrior.
“He had to fight in England to fight (Nathan) Cleverly. He had to fight (Jean) Pascal in Canada twice. He had to fight (Bernard) Hopkins in Atlantic City, right outside of Philadephia, his hometown. Had to go out west, where Ward lives, because he was not the guy who came here with a gold medal, not a guy who came here with a world title. He had to fight for it.”
Prior to the fights with Ward, Kovalev went on an impressive run in the division, devastating just about everyone put in front of him.
It’s obvious that he’s still a part of the HBO boxing franchise and the network is clearly investing in the light heavyweight division. “Now he sits at the top of the division and everybody has to come to him,” continued Duva. “So it’s a different situation and I think he’ll be very comfortable in that position.”
Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated published a revealing feature about a reborn and rejuvenated Kovalev. But is this is the typical spin from a fighter and his camp after hitting a rough stretch?
At the very least, he did make a clean break from trainer John David Jackson, in what has been a nastier divorce than Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It was obvious that this union had run its course and it was time for everyone involved to part ways. Duva recalls, “There were points when the relationship with George Benton and Pernell Whitaker was probably worse but they somehow managed to pull it together and work together, going into fights. No matter how much dysfunction there was between the two of them, I don’t think Pernell ever lost his trust in George to give him the right information and whatnot.”
Of course, winning is a great deodorant. When you come out on the short end of things, well, it stinks.
“In this case, it seems that the trust was lost,” opined Duva, of Kovalev and Jackson. “We’ve seen dysfunctional relationships before and they’ve worked but sometimes a parent and child don’t get along but they pull it together, when they need to. We certainly hoped that would be the case; in retrospect, that was not the case at all. It had broken down badly.”
Going back to Kovalev, regardless of who’s in his corner, the intimidation factor is no longer what it once was. Can he show the character of a truly great fighter who can handle adversity or is he just a hard-punching frontrunner? In the past, Main Events had Evander Holyfield and Arturo Gatti, whose legacies became enhanced after their defeats.
“A reporter came up to me at the (media) workout last week and he said, ‘Was there a moment where you felt panicked that this could be it when you lost to Ward? Was there a moment where you got overly concerned?’ And I just said, ‘One of the advantages of being in my age group is that you get a lot of perspective,”’ recalled Duva, whose company has had to get off the canvas more than once.
“And I thought it was the end of the world when Holyfield lost to (Riddick) Bowe and look at what he did after that,” she continued. “I thought it was the end of his career frankly, before Gatti fought (Micky) Ward, when he lost to (Oscar) De La Hoya. That was his farewell, his kiss-off fight, basically. And the first Ward fight was just supposed to be a thank you for taking that difficult fight with De La Hoya that you weren’t going to win.
In many ways, the story of a fighter’s career really gets interesting after hardships.
Duva goes on, saying, “What happened to their careers afterwards – and I can probably come up with a hundred examples of other guys where this happened – when they get to that place where they have that big loss or they get to that place where it seems to be over. And I don’t think that’s the case with Sergey, at all.”
Of course, Duva has to believe that, given Kovalev is still their flagship fighter. But with Ward retired and WBC beltholder Adonis Stevenson slipping further into “Bolivian,” he is still very relevant.
“Again,” pointed out Duva, “he is the man in the division. Everyone has to come to him. Now we find out to some degree what he’s made of. Is he going to respond the way Holyfield did after losing to Bowe – and that was a bad loss to Bowe – that first fight? Is he going to seize the opportunity the way Gatti did, after losing to Ward, in that first fight? And then look at what he did.”
There are plenty of tickets available for this weekend’s event (and, for that matter, the following week at the Garden where Miguel Cotto has his farewell fight). There has been an unprecedented stretch of boxing in New York recently, and it’s clear this market is a bit saturated.
“This is not a normal occurrence here. It’s a shame because you can go through five, six months and not have a single fight here and now you have five within a space of six weeks – three in the same building in a row. It’s not ideal and, like I said, when you make your decision about these things and you get a chance to put your fight on Thanksgiving weekend, you know there’s trade-offs,” admitted Duva.
“You’re in a good position to get a nice television audience, which is very important,” she continued, “but you’re not in a position to have a huge gate. We knew that before all these other fights got scheduled.”