Sergey Kovalev – More Than A Can “Krusher”?
By Jay McIntyre: The light heavyweight division has been without a unified champion for some time now. As the alphabet soup of world titles swirl about the sea of competitors, changing hands readily, the fans have been left unfulfilled.
Recently though, Bernard Hopkins (55-6-2-2, 32 KO’s), owner of the WBA and IBF titles has made arrangements to fight Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KO’s), owner of the WBO title on November 8th, 2014.
Although the WBC belt isn’t up for grabs in this fight, this match still is a step in the right direction towards unification.
Sergey Kovalev has steamrolled his way to the top with an impressive streak of beat-downs that have left many scratching their heads and wondering – how does one beat such a man? His opponents have given us few answers thus far. Without any evidence of a strategy, they enter the ring in “survival mode” as Kovalev marches them down and continues to knock them out. His shots are so fearsome that his opponents seem unwilling to throw their own, instead preferring to hide in safety behind their gloves. And who can blame them?
Aside from a few names – like Nathan Cleverly, who hadn’t fought many high level opponents anyway – Sergei Kovalev hasn’t been truly tested. He has always been the breaker of wills, but has never had his own subjected to any real scrutiny. With a definite hype surrounding this man and a very intriguing match-up against Bernard Hopkins looming soon, let’s take a moment to give an honest appraisal of Kovalev’s ability. Is he more than what he has accomplished thus far, or will be exposed and relegated to the duty of a soulless can-crusher?
Shrewd Punching and Form
His most commonly employed combination is the jab, straight right, and left hook. It’s a staple because the jab measures distance and blinds the opponent, while the right packs some power and the left hook comes at an angle that can be unexpected. Typically fighters brings their gloves together to smother the 1-2 combination, so the left hook is an effective and natural follow-up punch, reaching behind the gloves of the defender and finding his jaw.
When Kovalev’s opponents stand in front of him he will fire combinations, using some punches like crowbars to leverage openings for other punches. If his opponent merely raises his gloves to put on his “earmuffs”, it may not be enough. Blocking punches make be good for your skull, but your limbs are still getting battered. Tired arms make poor weapons and let’s not forget that Kovalev’s power has a rattling effect, even if one is covering up. Kovalev knows this and works tirelessly to wear down his foes. On other occasions he will feint and draw a response from them so that he can punch an exposed area on the body or head.
On the surface Kovalev might seem like a pretty predictable puncher. He does most of his fighting off the jab, and isn’t terribly fast. But there are nuances to his style that are subtle and measured which make him a rather difficult for his opponents to overcome. He maintains his poise when he punches so he never looks careless or over-eager. This poise allows him to get his full body weight behind his punches, while also – more often than not – keeping him out of compromising positions.
Since Kovalev is content to fight with a stoic conservatism, we may not have seen all of his tricks – but I do believe we have seen most of what he has to offer.
Deep Amateur Experience
Amateur boxing may be different from professional boxing in many ways, but the one thing amateur boxing does is make a boxer respect the fundamentals – and boxing is all about the fundamentals. Virgil Hunter attested to as much when he said this about them: “[Fundamentals,] if you don’t have them, you’ll run into somebody else’s.”
With a record of 195 wins against 18 losses, Kovalev has a wealth of experience that goes well beyond his professional background. He has also experienced loss which – if not felt before – can often wreak havoc on a fighter’s psyche.
Although Kovalev is a heavy-handed knockout artist that stalks his prey, there is no denying that he is patient when conducting his business. He doesn’t get careless or overly aggressive. He relies heavily on straight punches to set up his work. All of these things are indicative of his sharpened and well-rehearsed time spent as an amateur.
The Fearlessness of the Puncher
Mike Tyson broke wills without breaking a sweat – until someone wouldn’t let him. A certain confidence blooms when you know that the guy who is touched by your glove is instantly petrified. It can be thrilling, but a fighter can get drunk off his own power. Kovalev’s expressionless face doesn’t give us much of a glimpse into how much he believes his own hype. But still, he must have a hard time arguing with his own results. Numbers don’t lie, and his 23 knockouts in 25 fights (all wins) might tell him stories that he likes to hear.
What then, will happen when he finds an opponent that refuses to wilt under the blaze of his punches? Perhaps nothing, his psyche appears to be clad in iron – but you never know until it happens.
Crushing the Krusher
To beat a fighter with power, one must frustrate them and not let them make their power count. Kovalev hasn’t been frustrated, so he hasn’t lost – yet. But, just because he has been winning, that doesn’t mean he isn’t making mistakes.
Frustrated people make even more mistakes, and with that in mind, let’s see what it takes to frustrate the big bastard.
One of the many things that have worked against Kovalev is timing his punches. He doesn’t move his head so his opponent always knows where to find it, and he almost always leaves a space for his opponent to throw a sneaky punch. To begin the process of frustration against Kovalev, his opponent will have to draw the lead from Kovalev and punch him in his inert face.
When Nathan Cleverly fought the Krusher in 2013 he was savagely beaten, but there were a few things he did that actually worked and kept him around longer than most of Kovalev’s opponents. One of those things was jabbing in between Kovalev’s punches.
It worked wonderfully. He should have done it more. Why didn’t he? Well, he forgot to move when he jabbed and instead he became a sitting duck for counters. Kovalev will gladly eat a jab to give a beating, and while Cleverly was clever enough to slip jabs into the spaces given by Kovalev’s combinations, he stood there, seemingly admiring his own work instead of moving. It wasn’t just Cleverly’s jab that landed, but his overhand right too. Kovalev fights tall (with an upright posture) and one way of dealing with an upright fighter is too smack them with an overhand right. Steve Cunningham temporarily flattened Tyson Fury with just such a punch when they fought in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, tall fighters can deal with overhand rights – but they need to move appropriately.
If the Biblical David was whipping sling stones at Goliath while standing at arm’s reach it would have been a real short day for the Israelite – long story short, he refused to be a target for the lumbering warrior. Cleverly’s mistake was putting on his earmuffs and thinking he could somehow beat Kovalev while standing in front of him. Even though he had some success, he didn’t do enough of the right stuff to win.
Kovalev is not a fast boxer. He may be methodical and concussive, but he is far from fast. Firing the jab and turning him will keep him from setting up those withering combinations. It will destabilize his offense and take him out of his rhythm. If his opponent can move laterally and keep Kovalev one step behind, then Kovalev will start to reach for his punches, or get reckless in his pursuit. When boxing at such a high level, the slightest mistakes can be made to look quite substantial.
Kovalev reminds me of Gennady Golovkin in that he is a hard-hitting boxer that looks half as good moving backwards when compared to how he fights moving forward.
I expect that if/when Kovalev loses, it will be to a really smart boxer, not a really hard puncher. Until someone can make Kovalev’s feet betray him and embody the axiom of “hitting and not getting hit”, don’t expect Kovalev to lose. It’s really – ironically enough – the fundamentals that will beat him. Of the two other leading names in the light heavyweight division, Adonis Stevenson is the easier, but more explosive fight for Kovalev. The other, the aging gunslinger that is Bernard Hopkins, will fight Kovalev on November 8th and that fight will give us a very real picture of where both men stand. Kovalev hasn’t fought a boxer with a ring IQ as tremendous as Hopkins’, and Hopkins hasn’t fought a truly sinister puncher in a very long time (Tavoris Cloud doesn’t count – not even close to being sinister). Much remains to be seen from Kovalev, the trick is keeping him in the ring long enough for his weaknesses to find their way to the surface.