The Messy Rise of Sergey Kovalev

Fightland Blog

By Gabe Oppenheim

Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports 

I am discussing four drunk men in a bathhouse with Sergey "The Krusher" Kovalev, the undefeated light-heavyweight champ known most for his overwhelming power. We're at a steakhouse 30 minutes northwest of Dallas, a day before Canelo Alvarez's body-snatching win against an English bloke in the Cowboys' massive stadium.

Kovalev sits to my right, at his deserved spot at the head of the table. This man has 26 KOs in 30 wins. After emerging almost a decade ago from Chelyabinsk, Russia—a grim city dominated by a tractor factory that Stalin built under his first Five-Year Plan and that could barely pay its workers, including Kovalev's mother, after the fall of the USSR—he has reached the capitalist world's splashiest sporting stage, the Las Vegas strip.

On November 19th, in the MGM Grand's new arena and live on HBO pay-per-view, Kovalev will face undefeated former 168-pound kingpin Andre "Son of God" Ward, who won an Olympic gold medal in Athens 12 years ago, then a boxing tournament on Showtime, then a clutch of title bouts, before holding himself out of the ring so he could switch promoters to Roc Nation (HOVA!), during which time he put in a nice cameo in Creed­—a high-profile run that belies his heartbreaking roots in Oakland as the child of a crack-addicted mother and a now-deceased heroin-abusing dad.

But like all sports, boxing is not a contest of privation, no matter how bleak its participants' pasts. What Kovalev and Ward endured is secondary to what they can inflict on each other. And the fistic stakes couldn't be higher: the consensus among fans, media members, and even fellow fighters is that the winner must be henceforth be considered the best boxer in the entire world.

Photo by Craig Bennett/Main Events

As dinner begins, Kovalev isn't very inclined to open up about his past to me. Or maybe he misses his family and that's drawing him to his phone. I race through a million possible points of confluence—what moment, event, idea could I have already shared with Sergey? And then, and not for the first time in my life, I am saved by film.

I remember The Irony of Fate, with Light Steam!, a Soviet movie (Cyrillic title: Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!) that has been replayed each New Year's Eve throughout the former USSR since it first aired on TV in 1976. I've seen it because I was once treated by a Ukrainian nurse, who shared a love of movies and introduced me to the many (very grainy) creations of Mosfilm, the Soviet studio that controlled all production until the '90s.

For the first time all night, Kovalev smiles. So does his steely-blue-eyed manager Egis Klimas, who emigrated from the USSR with the equivalent of $42 to pursue a better life in the States and now directs the career not only of Kovalev, who could soon be top dog based on deed, but of Vasyl Lomachenko, who already occupies the top slot in rankings of pure talent.

Now the race is on for Kovalev and Klimas to convey the movie's plot to the two women at the table—a boxing promoter and a publicist from New Jersey, the state that produced Springsteen and the Sopranos but likely no Soviet film nights at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park.

Four guys go to the bathhouse on New Year's Eve and get so drunk, they forget where they live.

So says Klimas. Ellen, the publicist, doesn't understand the connection between the bathhouse and New Year's, so Kovalev explains the ablutions are symbolic—the washing is to rid oneself of the past year's sins. He adds that Russians find no contradiction in undergoing the bathing while utterly drunk, and he laughs and smiles at the irony of that (part of the "irony" of the film's title). It's the first evidence that this man they call the "Krusher" has a nuanced sense of humor – an ability to step back from a situation and appreciate its surreality.

Klimas picks up Kovalev's thread. Once the four friends get drunk in the bathhouse, they forget crucial parts of their identity. One of them is supposed to take a flight to Leningrad. Another lives on a particular street in Moscow—3rd Builders' Street—and is due to join his fiancée there. The latter mistakenly winds up on the plane and, after landing, makes his way to Leningrad's 3rd Builder's Street—brutalist Soviet architecture being so similar a normal man might mistake the two streets, let alone one who's totally wasted.

Wouldn't you know it? The building design is so farcically unchanged from his own Muscovite complex that his key fits into the lock. What ensues is a three-hour unfolding of this housing-project comedy: the man falls asleep in the apartment. The very-much-engaged female tenant returns home to find him there and screams in shock. Their time together will transform her shock into a kind of love, and soon enough the two are no longer engaged to anyone but each other.

I sigh from relief—my Mosfilm reverie has eased me into this conversation. I'm like a rattled comedian who has finally garnered an audience chuckle. I rattle off other Soviet films whose names I can recall: Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears (a melodrama about tough life in the big city), Kin-dza-dza! (sci-fi/fantasy), and Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, (a man literally takes his betrothed away in a sack, Borat-style).

Kovalev has never heard of one of these so Klimas shows him the Wikipedia page on my phone. "Classics," is how the boxer sums up my knowledge, which feels like high praise, though his personal taste tends toward the kind of Jean-Claude Van Damme action films he watched hundreds of times as a child. In fact, he just acted as a stunt double for Van Damme in front of a green screen (the name of this impending release isn't clear).

"My dream comes true in America," he says with a laugh.

Photo by Craig Bennett/Main Events

What makes Kovalev's athletic journey all the more remarkable is that it wasn't a straight upward shot from his immigration here to this present moment of stardom. There were all manner of highs and lows in the interim. He turned pro in the States in 2009, with no promoter and no fanfare. He had the backing only of Klimas and Don Turner, the trainer who prepared Evander Holyfield for his two wins over Mike Tyson.

Klimas had to work the phones constantly just to land Kovalev spots on shows across the country— Greensboro, Columbia, Tacoma, Fairfax, Louisville, Lafayette—and the shaky, available footage of these early bouts tells the story. Kovalev knocked out or forced to retire his first nine opponents, and still Klimas couldn't interest a soul. But Klimas kept the faith. He paid for Kovalev's food and board out of generosity but also in anticipation of the wave of funds to come.

In October of 2010, Kovalev defeated by decision Darnell Boone, a man known for beating big-time prospects. He attracted the notice of Don King and flew to Florida to meet him the very next day, but no deal was signed and better-heeled suitors stayed away still.

On the other hand, Kovalev was offered the opportunity to train under Abel Sanchez. While incredibly grateful to Turner, with whom Kovalev still worked, he was all too eager to join Sanchez's stable in Big Bear, California, for one basic reason: it was the home of middleweight destroyer Gennady Golovkin.

Golovkin hailed from an industrial wasteland similar to Kovalev's Chelyabinsk—the coal mining town of Karaganda, Kazakhstan—but the middleweight Golvokin had been a boxing star since his days as an amateur. If no one had picked up on Kovalev's potential, everyone had always immediately recognized Golovkin's. That the two are stars of equal magnitude now may be a testament to Kovalev's willpower to overcome any gaps in natural athleticism or power.

Photo by Craig Bennett/Main Events

Whatever the case, Kovalev went West, to a gym 8,000 feet above sea level, to learn at the hands of his master contemporary. You'd think Sergey's rise would begin there, and as he kept winning, one might say it did. But the rise was less linear and more like a squiggle, messy and tragic and nuanced.

July 29, 2011: Kovalev fought in Vegas for the first time. KO in two rounds.

December 5, 2011: Kovalev returned to Russia to face compatriot prospect Roman Simakov, whom he had known for years and who owned a 19-1-1 record to Kovalev's 16-0-1 (Kovalev's previous match had ended in a technical draw when an early injury occurred).

In everyone's mind, it was an even match. It didn't turn out that way. Kovalev battered Simakov, forcing him to take a knee twice before knocking him out in the seventh. But after the ref finished his count, Simakov didn't get up or respond. He had fallen into a coma from which he'd never awake. He died three days later.

Kovalev wrestled with what he considered his responsibility for the tragedy—though in truth, Simakov's corner, the ref, and the athletic commission all should've stopped the fight, but Russia has a notoriously poor record of medical oversight in sport.

Kovalev had asked Klimas how to slow up and reduce the damage to Simakov during the fight. Sanchez had also tried to halt the damage as his trainer; he told Kovalev to hit only Simakov's body at one point and petitioned the ref to stop the fight. But none of those facts afforded Kovalev any comfort in the following days, months, and even years. When I spoke to him about this incident at dinner, it was, as far as I know, only the second time he had delved into it in 2016 (and in past years he has avoided it altogether).

Now, years later, Kovalev says he has come to a certain peace with what happened. He told me that Simakov's fighting spirit lives within him, that his extraordinary power is due to Simakov's being added to his own, that whatever he achieves will only spread and glorify Simakov's name and that if Simakov held him responsible, his departed soul would haunt Sergey in his dreams.

Photo by Craig Bennett/Main Events

Sanchez had done nothing wrong in handling the Simakov fallout, but just at that delicate moment, another issue emerged: Kovalev felt the trainer was belittling him in order to enhance the reputation of his friend Gennady.

(Full disclosure: I became good friends with a member of Sanchez's family the weekend Kovalev took down Bernard Hopkins in Atlantic City.)

After Kovalev returned from some downtime in Russia, when he was admittedly rusty and not in peak condition, he sparred with Golovkin, still his idol. Golovkin connected with a body shot to Kovalev's breadbasket and Kovalev went down.

At dinner, not only did Kovalev not dispute the incident's details; he added that he was actually encouraged by the fall. What better way to learn boxing than at the weighty hands of Golovkin?

But in the weeks that followed, he saw details of this small knockdown across the boxing press, and it was clear someone was touting Golovkin's incredible power as a middleweight who could fell a light-heavyweight. Given where the news appeared and the form it took, Kovalev and Klimas were sure it was Sanchez doing the leaking.

So they pulled their operation from Sanchez's gym, and Klimas called up John David Jackson, a former junior-middleweight champ with a successful training operation in Florida who had worked with a great power puncher in a lower division named Randall Bailey. Kovalev drove all the way from California to Florida and has worked with Jackson ever since.

Sanchez's response to me a few weeks ago: "I think that [Kovalev] needs to understand clearly, I did not discuss anything with anybody, there were other fighters in the gym when they sparred, so what ever happened was witnessed by others. He needs to tell you when the incident he is referring to happened. The last time they sparred [Kovalev] had 17 fights and was rated in the top 15 in the world. He won the world title 5 fights later.... Sergey didn't leave on his own, I asked his manager to please remove [him] from my gym, because I didn't think he was willing to be guided."

Sanchez added that whatever he has said about Kovalev—and since they parted, he has openly mentioned Golovkin's supposed superiority to Kovalev (even as the fighters themselves remain friends)—he did in self-defense, because Sergey's promoter was talking trash about him.

Yup, that's right. After coming to America, seeing more of its shabby auditoriums and gyms than any HBO-signed fighter today, after returning to Russia only to become involved in a ghastly tragedy, Sergey Kovalev finally landed a promoter—Main Events, the company run one of first ladies of boxing, Kathy Duva. He secured his long-awaited, hard-earned promotional deal with another win over Darnell Boone, this time by KO.

Call it a linear rise if you want to. Meanwhile, both Boone and Sanchez, neither man a friend of Kovalev's, believe will beat Ward convincingly. If the figures of Kovalev's past are correct, how he'll pull off the win becomes the intriguing question.

Andre Ward. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Kovalev describes Ward as a fighter of Bernard Hopkins' craftiness but with two decades more youth. Kovalev took down the real B-Hop two years ago, showing with small feints and shifts that his game encompassed more than just straight-ahead Pavlik-punching.

As for what Andre Ward has flashed in his decade-plus in the pro ring: Like B-Hop, he could probably win with a measure of artistry if he had that impulse in him, but he is always a junkyard dog, no matter the venue. Hopkins first learnt this game in prison to get by, so you can understand perhaps why his main goal is to shut down the other guy no matter what (plus, in his dotage, he's actually opened up and become a more inviting fighter).

Ward has had the same trainer since he was just a kid in Oakland, but he also won a gold medal at the birthplace of the Olympics, so you'd think he'd shift from what the British term cynical tactics to more confident ones. He is probably one of the smartest athletes I've ever met. He will do anything to avoid becoming punchy, to evade taking headshots, even as a violent sport's premier star. If that means smothering a dude so the opponent can't get off, fine by him.

Kovalev says that's why he needs to strengthen his upper body to the point that he can push Ward off as needed. That's all he'll share. But his arsenal features a couple of unorthodox deliveries to watch for. Kovalev will jump in with what appears at first to be a left hook but is actually far more of a straight left jab. The fact he can summon power off the shoulder is key: a jab is going to hit the target sooner than a hook that needs to be turned (and requires torso torque). The jab can also be fired from a greater distance than a hook. So expect some combinations that leave the hook out entirely – 1-2-1s, say, instead of 1-2-3s.

Kovalev can also be seen in the highlights delivering a kind of bolo-uppercut right-hand from distance. It comes from such a wildly different angle than his overhand right that it could be unanticipated blow that opens up a rally.

Kovalev during the world light heavyweight championship boxing match in January. Photo by Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Hailing from the Bay Area gives Andre Ward a hell of a posse these days. Steph Curry has led Ward's entourage into the ring. Area-native Marshawn Lynch visited his gym during a training session this week. Other members of the crew include Draymond Green, Colin Kaepernick, and actor Michael B. Jordan (besides playing a fighter alongside Ward in Creed, he also starred in the Bay Area-set film Fruitvale Station).

Andre Ward has that crossover cultural swagger going for him, without a doubt.

Kovalev has a different vibe—bring up four guys in a Russian bathhouse and he'll laugh. If he trusts you, he lets down his guard and chills. But ultimately, he seems very much like an efficient worker. Outside the ring, his life has been always uncertain, and he seems as a result to relish boxing's single, simple mandate: Go at that man across the ring. And take him down.


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