By Derek Bonnett: I first covered Sergei Kovalev in January of 2013 at Mohegan Sun Casino. I sat ringside while my wife leaned upon the ring apron with her camera for a closer examination of the Russian’s demolition of the typically formidable Gabriel Campillo. Kovalev thrice deposited the Spaniard on the canvas in round three to produce an emphatic victory which thrust him into immediate title contention. Kovalev fought mean, but didn’t necessarily show it. He executed his target with the relentlessness of a great white shark and the emotion of a Sicario. Maybe it was the other way around?
After the contest, we reviewed the camera shots and discussed the nights action. My wife, not a fan of boxing, but a lover of the lens, was moderately impressed. My thoughts were clearer: This man will win titles and hold onto them for a long time.
For Kovalev, awhile would be the better part of five years. This is not to say there would not be any interruptions in his reign. He won his first belt seven months after dismantling Campillo when Kovalev aptly KO’d Nathan Cleverly in 2013 to become WBO champion. Three stoppage defenses followed before Kovalev thoroughly dominated Bernard Hopkins in a title unification bout which conjoined three light heavyweight belts. Four more defenses followed through 2016, including two stoppages of former champion Jean Pascal.
Kovalev met Andre Ward later that year in a legitimate boxing Super Fight. The match-up delivered beyond the paper and saw Kovalev dropping Ward early only to lose his belts by one point on all three cards. The outcome was met with cries of controversy and praise of Ward’s adjustments. Both sides were right; it was that kind of fight. It demanded a sequel. The rematch in 2017 saw Kovalev again jump out to an early lead and it also ended in controversy as Ward ended the night with a stoppage following some decisively landed low blows.
For me, two things were evident that night in Las Vegas. First, Ward absolutely hurt Kovalev with low blows. Second, the greatest damage done to the Russian colossus was to his psyche.
Sergei Kovalev would never be the same fighter.
Kovalev regained a title with a stoppage victory of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy inside of two rounds. It was a victory Kovalev needed and it was enough to fool most that The Krusher was back. If not then, surely after Kovalev broke down his first challenger in seven rounds. Well, maybe?
Boxing as a sport is better with Sergei Kovalev at the top of his division in frightening form. The same was said about Mike Tyson, but fight after fight the difference became obvious once the aura of invincibility was shattered. After defeat, both Tyson and Kovalev were capable enough to dispatch the rest, but what about the best?
Canada’s Eleider Alvarez was among the division’s best. That much we suspected since his 2015 victory over Isaac Chilemba, but his career lacked definition. The KOs were not spectacular and the decisions were not dominant overall. In 2017, Alvarez finished the career of another adopted son under the Maple leaf flag. Lucian Bute acquitted himself well in two recent title shots at super middleweight. Two thudding right hands from Alvarez ended matters in five rounds and sketched further definition into a career that was largely being defined by Adonis Stevenson’s unwillingness to fight him. Already a mandatory challenger for some time, Alvarez added a decision victory over Pascal to close out the year.
Alvarez and Kovalev would collide in August 2018. Both fighters checked in at six feet tall and only half a pound separated them beneath the 175-pound limit. Yet, Kovalev appeared smaller and less sturdy. His skills, still considerable, were effectively plied to jump to an early lead over the Colombian native. However, the words “early lead” can only be read as a harbinger of something to the contrary to come.
Round one was contested with poise from both men. Kovalev actively threw the harder punches as was to be expected in any Kovalev fight. Alvarez’ confirmed his speed in the opening frame. This elicited a conversation between Roy Jones Jr. and Max Kellerman about the greater asset at hand: crushing power or decent power behind greater speed. Kovalev jabbed and landed his right hand in round two, but his punches looked to be dictated by assignment and not the work of pleasure. He stood straight up while Alvarez showed good energy in his legs and torso. As early as round two, Kovalev appeared withdrawn over the realization that Alvarez was far more Ward than Shabranskyy. Alvarez snapped the Russian’s head back with a rapid jab in the third and Kovalev began to lean more toward his power game.
The rounds continued to show very even punch stats as both fighters took turns moving forward. Volume and pressure benefitted Kovalev in round four, but a genuine absence of quality punches was obvious in the opening minute of round four. The Krusher showed signs of resurgence later in the round though it was at the expense of his own defense. Kovalev landed harder blows, but, like Ward, Alvarez took them and that seemed to exact a greater toll on the Russian’s psyche than anything Alvarez was doing to him physically. Even still, Kovalev upped the pressure and unleashed his fury on his Colombian foe for a big round. No longer an underestimated boxer, Kovalev found openings on the more defensively sound contender. The pendulum swung more and more toward Kovalev; however, Alvarez did his best to keep it well-centered in the fifth. Alvarez’ jabbed picked up some mustard in the sixth. It did its part to shut down the Kovalev combinations and in forcing the Russian to reset his footing more frequently than desired. Kovalev used his left hook more and more to follow his right hand and it worked as a scoring blow, but it was not in the fight ending realm up to this juncture. Both men finished the sixth bruised, nicked, and welted about the face. Alvarez alone bled from a cut beneath his left eye.
Power shots brought Kovalev back into his comfort zone to start the seventh. He had built a lead over some very closely contested rounds and now appeared to settle into a groove. A minute gone into the round and Kovalev continued to box well, bringing in his power behind the skill. With just more than a minute to go, Kovalev put out a jab, not exactly a lazy one, but one lacking some of the education Alvarez had previously seen. As he saw it, he perfectly timed a right hand and Kovalev stumbled back on his heels and onto the canvas. Kovalev rose, disappointed and hurt. Alvarez landed an uppercut immediately. A solid jab followed seconds later. A left hook scored the second knock down and all but affirmed a knockout was en route. Kovalev rose wearily this time: an exhausted fighter with nothing left to bubble in the basement. The final knockdown was gratuitous; even the most elementary of blows would have finished the champion in this state. In this instance, it was a pair of wild right hooks that partially connected.
SecondsOut’s Upset of the Year was realized at 2:45 of round seven. With Kovalev dethroned after his third visit to the canvas, Alvarez achieved his dream of becoming world champion after years of being maneuvered around through step-aside agreements. Alvarez, 34, enhanced his resume with his career best victory and performance. His dossier improved to 24-0-0 (12). Kovalev, 35, fell to 32-3-1 (28).
The two boxers will meet again on February 2, 2019. Alvarez should be favored significantly, but Kovalev support will even things out by fight time most likely. Like many punchers, this strength is enough to elevate a fighter to the highest rungs in professional boxing. When that fighter also possesses keen boxing skills, it prolongs his time at the top. However, what’s lost in the ring is never a matter of skill or power. It’s something far less obvious until it’s gone. Losing to Andre Ward masked the significance of both losses and the tolls they had on Kovalev. Disappointment came first, then disbelief. For Kovalev, a speedy resurgence was just as damaging as Alvarez’ speedy fists. Conventional wisdom leads me to believe the rematch will not be any different.
Derek Bonnett is a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and can be contacted on Facebook.