Sergey Kovalev will fight for the 39th time as a professional boxer on Saturday night, in a fight which is set to be defining, although more so in expectation for his opponent than for Kovalev.
In the opposite corner is Mexican PPV star and multi-weight world champion, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez (52-1-2). Canelo is debuting a light heavyweight and continues in his lofty, belt-collecting aspiration to be the first man since Henry Armstrong in 1938 to concurrently hold titles in three different weight divisions, which – should he win – will be at middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight.
With the comforting career-high recompense Kovalev is expected to earn on Saturday, combined with a body which aged now a seasoned 36 - and which has been boxing since it was 11 - is starting to evidence depreciating wear and a recession of its pinnacle capacities, there is the suggestion that should he lose then this may be one of, if not the final fight of Sergey Kovalev’s professional career.
But now is not the time to unduly focus on deterioration or the physical declinations of age. No, in a respectful testament to the man nicknamed ‘Krusher’ due to his exceptional, obliterative punching power, Elliott Grigg, on behalf of ESBR boxing, brings you four defining nights for the man from Kopeysk.
17th AUGUST 2013 – KOVALEV VS CLEVERLY (WBO LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE)
Despite entering the contest as a World champion with five successful title defences and the vaunted status of being Ring magazine’s #2 ranked contender, Nathan Cleverly (30-4-0) started as the betting underdog against Sergey Kovalev.
Indeed, excluding a contentious technical draw against Grover Young - who Kovalev was harshly adjudged to have mislanded a left hook to the back of his head - the challenger entered his first world championship bout on a run of eight successive knockout victories.
As Kovalev began landing on the champion, the HBO ringside commentary team were moved to articulate that the preceding 22 fights had certainly seemed to have served Kovalev well as an apprenticeship, but that he now looked ‘more than ready for the world stage’. Cut during an unfortunate clash of heads in the second round, his concussive artillery thrashed at the chin of Cleverly in the third round, knocking him down twice and nearly finishing the fight at the end of the round, before Cleverly was quite-literally saved by the bell and eased back to the corner by the concerned referee. The 60-second respite was insufficient to rally and recover the champion, however, who bravely came out for the fourth round, energised on bravado and by an unaccepting pride, before Kovalev got to him once again and ended the contest 29 seconds into the round.
30th JANUARY 2016 – KOVALEV VS JEAN PASCAL (WBA SUPER, IBF AND WBO LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLES)
Ten months previously, these two had met within the same venue and for the same belts. Kovalev won via TKO, yet an aggrieved Pascal argued that the fight had been stopped prematurely. Kovalev had knocked Pascal down in the third round; he was ahead 68-64 on all three judge’s scorecards at the time of the stoppage and was again in the process of landing powerful, damaging blows to the head of the challenger which were causing him to wobble across the ring.
Still, Pascal was granted the re-match he desired and teamed up with Freddie Roach in order to overhaul the champion. Instead, in front of 9866 spectators, Kovalev dominated the fight by margins unusual and irregular for a championship fight. Round 5 was scored 10-8 in favour of Kovalev, who landed 31 of 73 punches, despite there being no knockdown.
At the end of the seventh round, Freddie Roach refused to let Pascal continue, with all three judge’s scorecards at the time of the stoppage reading 70-62 in favour of the champion. Kovalev landed 40% of his punches that night and received only 28% of those thrown in return. It was a truly dominant performance of punching accuracy, skill and power, and was a true vignette into the characteristic attributes and pugilistic personality of a peak Kovalev.
19th NOVEMBER 2016 – KOVALEV VS WARD (WBA, IBF AND WBO LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLES)
Marketed simply as ‘Pound for Pound’, this was only the third time since the Ring magazine’s inception that two undefeated fighters ranked within their top 5 would face each over. Ranked #2 and #4 respectively, both fighters came into the contest with 30 victories. It was to be a match-up of contrasting styles, the aggressive and destructive Kovalev vs the evasive, countering and defensively elite style of Ward.
All three judges scored the fight 114-113 in favour of Ward, in a collective decision which engendered disagreement within the boxing community. Whilst commentators and observers, Paulie Malignaggi and Abel Sanchez offered reasons as to how and why the judging could result in these scores – arguing that Kovalev faded in the latter stages of the fight and allowed Ward to dictate during the close, inside exchanges – decorated presenter, sportswriter and HBO presenter, Larry Merchant summarised the result with the aphorism: “It was a classic hometown decision, Kovalev won the fight.” Max Kellerman and Gareth Davies were also public in their scoring of the fight 115-113 in favour or Kovalev, who states show landed 126 of 474 punches in comparison to Ward’s 116 of 337.
2nd FEBRUARY 2019 – KOVALEV VS ELEIDER ALVAREZ (WBO LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE)
This was the second time these two had fought within a six-month period. Alvarez had won the first fight, recording a surprising seventh round KO victory. Kovalev had been dominating until that moment, controlling the fight using his piercing jab. Alvarez confessed after the fight that his tactics had been to concede the early rounds, encourage Kovalev to tire and then look for a late stoppage. The KO was premature, but it was planned. The rematch clause was subsequently exercised and the two met again to contest the WBO world title once more.
In this re-match, Kovalev put on a performance that many thought was now beyond him. Using his jab to great effect again, he dominated, winning the fight via a unanimous decision, shutout victory, with the judges scoring the contest in his favour 120-108, 116-112 and 116-112. This win made Kovalev a three-time light heavyweight world title holder at 35-years-old.
Following the fight, Kovalev’s promoter, Kathy Duva told gathered press, “I’m thrilled. It’s sweeter when nobody thinks you can do it.”
On Saturday, again, no-one truly believes Kovalev can do it. The smart money and consensus seems to be on a Canelo KO victory, with the fight likely ending due to a body shot sustained in the middle-to-late rounds. Yet can Sergey prevail? Can he will his ageing body to succeed one final time?
If he can, he’ll surely give us one final defining night.