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Boxing trainer Bobby Miles once said in an interview to Thomas Hauser: “In most sports, there’s a code of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. If you’re a fighter, you have to approach each fight like a gladiator in the Roman Coliseum. You have to be mean. You’re fighting for survival. Tyson, Duran, guys like that; they understand. All great fighters do.”
Add to that list Sergey Kovalev, the rugged 32-year-old Russian prizefighter who earned the recognition of Ring Magazine’s “Fighter of the Year” in 2014, and the one other contender who makes a valid claim to being boxing’s “most feared.” He also holds an unblemished professional record and has just about demolished every opponent placed in front of him. A couple of weekends ago, he disposed of France’s Nadjib Mohammedi in three rounds and improved his KO count to 25 inside 28 fights.
While he hasn’t yet reached the levels of a Tyson and Duran, if there’s anyone who understands the need to be “mean” inside the ring, it’s Kovalev. Analysts dub him as the “Russian Terminator” and he is often described to hit his opponents as if they owed him money. Last year, Grantland put out a great piece on the undefeated champion and described him as the following:
“Kovalev fights with a vicious streak that comes off as rare even among prizefighters. He walks opponents down and keeps shooting thudding straight right hands and lashing left hooks until he breaks through their guards and leaves them broken. And he does so with a demeanor that suggests he’s not just doing this because he’s a professional athlete whose job it is to win boxing matches, but also that he does it because he is in touch with his inner sadist. Kovalev appears to enjoy hurting people who challenge him, and he does not seem at all conflicted about it.”
While generally an accurate depiction of his fighting style, it’s important to take the comment on his motivations with a grain of salt. In 2011, Kovalev stopped fellow countrymen Roman Simakov in the 7th round of a bout Kovalev largely dominated. Simakov slipped into a coma soon afterwards and died three days later in the hospital. Kovalev might appear to enjoy hurting people, but he certainly did not enjoy ending anyone’s life. Kovalev apologized profusely to the Simakov family and reportedly flew the parents out to where the fight took place to be with their son. He then both dedicated and donated the earnings from the following fight to the Simakov family. If all of that is indeed true, then Kovalev handled the matter the best way a person in his situation could. He also proved himself to be just as much a man as he is a fighter.
The fear when a fighter takes a life in the ring is that they are forever changed. They pull their punches, are cautious where they once weren’t, and lose a general appetite for the sport. Essentially, their boxing career dies with that opponent. Such does not seem to be the case for Kovalev as since the tragedy, he’s gone on to win 10 out of the next 11 fights by way of knockout, the one fight going the distance being that against Bernard Hopkins. Over the years I’ve seen my share of Hopkin’s fights and never once had I seen him definitively beat, let alone beat up. Hopkins was beat up by Kovalev that night. I was intrigued. I came to discover that 3 out of his 4 opponents before Hopkins were undefeated, and the following showing against former titlist Jean Pascal didn’t disappoint as the 7-round firefight reminded audiences why boxing is a sport worth keeping around. Kovalev seems like the real deal. Now observers are questioning what challenges are left remaining.
Kovalev holds three of the four major belts in the light heavyweight division, but the one knock against him is that he is not the lineal champion. That designation belongs to the WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson who won the belt against Chad Dawson back in 2013. The logical step would be for the two to fight each other, but here’s where the politics of boxing get in the way. Stevenson is managed by Al Haymon, who in recent times appears to be making moves towards establishing an attempted monopoly in the boxing world. Kovalev fights for Main Events and has his fights broadcast on HBO, a network that has since refused to work with Haymon. The parties involved haven’t appeared to come to an agreement to make the fight happen.
The other fighter in the mix is unbeaten prospect and fellow countrymen Artur Beterbiev. Though still at a humble 9-0 ledger, Beterbiev’s holds victories over former titlists Tavoris Cloud and Gabriel Campillo, impressive names to have on a single-digit resume. It might also be worth mentioning that Beterbiev beat Kovlev twice in the amateurs, and if the IBF mandatory list is any indicator, Beterbiev is #2 on that list, with Kovelev KO’ing the #1 two weekends ago. Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, expressed making moves to having the two meet sometime in November though things always seem promising at the outset and get dicey when details are set forth. Beterbiev also appears to be tied to the Haymon network, so the same roadblocks are in place here as a potential bout against Stevenson.
Finally, super middleweight titlist Andre Ward, who recently came back after nearly a 2-year layoff has been thrown in as a potential next opponent as well. Weight class aside (as Ward campagins a weight class below), Ward is a slick, skilled and athletic opponent that would present many problems for Kovalev, and at the same time Kovalev’s relentless and hard-hitting style could pose issue for the former Olympic gold medalist. It would be a great style matchup and an adequate test for either fighter. The problem here, reported by Kevin Iole at Yahoo Sports, is that representatives of Roc Nation (Ward’s promoter), indicate they’re waiting for a potential bout against Gennady Golovkin, should the middleweight champ emerge victorious against David Lemieux on Oct. 17th. Golovkin has also been mentioned as a potential opponent as well for Kovalev, but with two weight classes between them, finding the optimal weight could be tricky. Either way, the divisions between middleweight and light heavyweight could get interesting.
Whether against Stevenson, Beterbiev, Golovkin or Ward, Kovalev is someone worth keeping an eye on in the world of boxing. He fights hard, fights often, and it’s fighters like him that are instrumental to reviving the sport of boxing. What’s tragic is that the thing stopping him from being put in the best fights is the same thing meant to promote the sport’s presence to the general public. They’ve seem to have forgotten that a good fight expands the entire table, giving everyone more room to eat, and in the case of Kovalev and his next fight, I’d say two things to the promoters involved:
“A rising tide lifts all boats”, and it doesn’t matter which side of the deck shines brighter if the whole ship is sinking.
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