Sergey Kovalev – The Road to Redemption

There’s something so alluring about the light heavyweight division. There always has been, it’s such a unique and beautiful weight class with humungous power shots, blistering speed and iron clad chins. Some would call it a purgatory between the super middleweight and heavyweight divisions, and in a way it is, but I see it as the best of both worlds. You can’t just turn up at light heavyweight, you need crisp tight defence and you need immense power, I mean big, like Butterbean restaurant bill big. You need speed, agility, footwork, fitness. I mean I get it, I know you need all these to be good in any weight class, but in this division, you need all these just to be able to survive. Watching boxing for the first time as a young boy, I stumbled across this weight class and fell in love. Some of the greatest of all time started, finished, or saw some of their career pan out here. There was however, a time in recent history where it seemed pretty baron, it was like the forgotten step child of the super middles and the heavies, being bullied and teased by the cruiserweights. We’ve longed to see a light heavy with the showmanship and raw boxing ability of a Roy Jones Jr (quite possibly the most talented boxer to ever live) or the tactical masterclass of a Bernard Hopkins (an unforgettable career resurgence at LHW). I mean we had okay light heavyweights, people light Cleverly and Pascal were good, better than good even, just not great. Just not people we’d be talking about years down the line, or in the discussion for top pound for pound. Then it all changed. In came Kovalev.

Kovalev is a typical Eastern European boxer. Strong, powerful, precise, aggressive. But that isn’t all. He had a tremendous amateur career that gifted him with sound fundamentals, helped develop his accuracy and his pacing. There was always something different about the way he fought, and it was refreshing to see. Kovalev’s impact on the LHW scene was monumental. He left a literal trail of broken bodies, crushed spirits, caved in skulls and split jaws on his way to his first title shot against Nathan Cleverly back in 2013. As a Brit, I remember this well. And I remember how horribly bad it was almost immediately. Kovalev was the huge favourite, and rightfully so. Almost no one had survived more than 3 rounds with him, not that you’d want to, I would honestly rather spend those agonising 9 minutes crawling naked over a trail of broken glass. In fairness to Cleverly he did make it past 3 rounds. Well, you say that. He scraped past 3 rounds. It was an absolute miracle he made it out of 3 rounds. Kovalev was throwing heavy bombs, gargantuan. And they didn’t stop at one. He was throwing combinations, to the head, to the body, his footwork was slick, he was accurate. The collective thought of the nation was simply, “Jesus, who is this man?!” Cleverly was clearly badly hurt, and after being dropped twice in the third he was easy pickings in the fourth. This was a big sign of things to come for Kovalev, in 2014 he dismantled everybody put in front of him, becoming The Ring’s 2014 Boxer of the Year and claiming a solid sport in everyone’s top 5 P4P. An amazing decision victory over Hopkins was amongst it, where he had a chance to show his boxing ability and animalistic fitness. He did not disappoint, Hopkins is one of the greatest of all time, and despite aging he was making huge waves in the division at the time. Regardless, he was simply outclassed. Pascal was probably the only other LHW that had even a chance of dethroning King Kovalev, and Sergey spent the next year and a half making him regret even challenging him in the first place with two stoppage victories. He was an absolute steam train. A freak of nature with not only scary raw power and speed, but slick boxing ability that laid waste to an old division left by the wayside. Kovalev grabbed it with both hands and ran with it. So, what could possibly go wrong; he looked unstoppable? One thing. The return of another King. One of the best boxers of this generation. Andre Ward.

Now I’m not one of those crazy Ward fanboys, but I still am a huge fan and admirer of his craft. As a two-weight world champion with more fancy belts than Russell Brand’s wardrobe, it’s hard not to respect the man and his ability. He has a perfect record, some great finishes and some impressive names on his resumé. All of this paired with his slick, textbook boxing ability. He’s a counter puncher, an accuracy obsessive who has one of the best lead hands I’ve ever seen. The piston job, the seamless left hooks and uppercuts that quickly slice his opponents to ribbons in mere seconds before they’ve even taken a step forward. His fight IQ is second to none, an incredibly intelligent boxer with lightning quick decision making and tactical analysis that zoom through his head quicker than his straights do his opponents jaws. His body movement, footwork, angles, all favour the lead left with really is where Ward strikes gold. Upstairs, downstairs, jabs, switch hit crosses, you name it. He really has mastered the art. Now let’s just talk about it. The fight. Kovalev started so strong, knocking Ward down in the second and out-boxing someone who we’ve never seen be out boxed before, it was astounding. He may have trailed off in the later rounds and lost some steam, but it all seemed to be going well for the Russian world champion. Did Kovalev win? The easy answer is no, all three judges voted against him. The more complex answer is, well I had him up on my scorecards, all my friends had him up on theirs, the majority of boxers I know and respect had him up on theirs, and I’m sure God almighty himself almost opened the heavens, marched down to Vegas, and asked the judges what fight they were watching because this is clearly a huge misunderstanding. So who knows. But regardless, it went down in the books as a Ward victory and as I’m sure the entirety of Kazakhstan will attest to, these things happen in boxing, no matter how much you fight it or tweet a particular Mexican boxer calling him a cheater. A dirty cheater. Well I’m clearly still not over that, but that’s a different story for a different day. Luckily for all of us, the rematch clause was rock solid, and due to the heavily contested result, one was set for the following year. 

Well there’s not much to say here, or maybe there is. Controversy has never been far when these two collide and this fight is a prime example of that. It was a fight where it could have been going either way, Ward was edging it for me this time around with better timing and cleaner counterpunches, utilising his fight IQ learning from the previous outing. Then, the infamous eighth round. A clean punch rocked Kovalev bad and a flurry of body punches put the Russian down. Were they low? Well, I don’t know. Maybe a little, but they seemed on the belt and even if it is a slap in the face to fall due to potentially illegal shots, I didn’t see Kovalev winning this one. Although it was pretty even at times, Ward did well to shut Sergey out and prevent his signature power punches and chopping right hand. Honestly, it was an amazing performance from Ward, and his retirement following that must have been a huge blow for Kovalev, the only man to ever beat him is now completely out of the picture, and with a proud man like Sergey, the thought of never being able to avenge your only loss must be a hard pill to swallow. Following this loss, Kovalev made huge changes to his team, including his head trainer, which I agree was needed. Although still incredible between the ropes, he needed to evolve his game, and a shake-up is usually a good way of accomplishing this. And it seemed to work. The old Kovalev seemed to be back reclaiming the world title with an emphatic TKO of Shabranskyy within only 2 rounds, after being dropped repeatedly in the first by his sledgehammer right hand. His fellow countryman Mikhalkin didn’t have it much easier with the resurgent Kovalev, being dominated for 7 rounds before being put out of his misery by a merciful referee. Then, this happened. We all know what. Alvarez. Now I’m not slagging him off, he’s an amazing boxer, with a great record, and clearly great ability, but when you say a Colombian destroyed Kovalev’s nose you’d assume he’d had his license revoked for a poorly timed coke binge. Unfortunately, it was a boxer with a perfect record who out played the Russian. Kovalev started strong, winning the first half of the fight and outclassing Alvarez with stiff jabs and good right hands. But he began to tire, and in the seventh came a thunderous blow to put Kovalev on the canvas. He followed this up with two impressive knockdowns, one of which included an uppercut that shot Sergey’s head up higher than Escobar’s bounty. What a defeat. What an upset. What an amazing performance by Alvarez who shocked the world with a picture perfect game plan, exploiting Kovalev’s fatigue. 

Fortunately enough, there was a rematch clause. And I’m glad there was. Kovalev is unfortunate and a victim of cruel fate. He did, in my opinion, win the first Ward fight and was unlucky to be stopped in the second. Then, after just looking like his old self, gets stopped in a dramatic upset. Kovalev has always been on the precipice of immortality, just on the edge of unifying the division and going down in history as one of the greats. Don’t get me wrong, I hope he does, I hope he improves, finds his feet, beats Alvarez this weekend and continues his road. He has all the tools, raw power and talent, breath-taking speed and incredible genius in timing and tactical pragmatism. With a good run, and the hunger to continuously improve, he could go down as one of the best ever light heavyweight boxers. He looks good, he looks sharp and he looks determined. With a new trainer, a new renewed focus, and from what I can see from training videos, he’s ready to reclaim his crown. I love Kovalev, but you have to appreciate the mental strain that was put on him by the Ward loses as well as the first Alvarez one. But I think he’s strong enough, physically and mentally, to reach the top of the mountain and cement himself as the great he already should be. Let’s hope he gets a monumental KO, and continues his road to redemption.

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