Sergey Kovalev: The Baddest Man in Boxing
By Paul Lam: In the lead-up to his Saturday night rematch against WBO/IBF/WBA light heavyweight champion Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev, Jean Pascal had talked trash incessantly, accusing Kovalev, amongst other things, of being a racist. Such charges are not new to Kovalev’s ears, but the Haitian Canadian challenger and former light heavyweight world champion was hell-bent on turning them into a personal issue during an increasingly ugly fight promotion, culminating in a press conference in which Pascal symbolically handed out bananas to black members of the audience and notably to Kovalev’s trainer, John David Jackson, who himself is black, nearly sparking a physical altercation. Kovalev himself remained relatively unperturbed throughout the whole spectacle. He did however make one thing clear to the media and public; this time he wanted to end Pascal’s career for good.
Kovalev and Pascal met for the first time in March last year, a fight which Kovalev knocked down Pascal for the first time in his career in round three, hurt him repeatedly with heavy shots and compelled the referee to intervene in the eighth when Pascal was trapped in a corner, out on his feet and taking tremendous punishment. Pascal did have his moments in the fight, particularly in rounds four and five in which he connected with some looping overhand shots that wobbled and backed up Kovalev. For the most part however, he was simply outclassed and there was little to suggest that a rematch was warranted or that the outcome would be any different. Pascal’s next fight, against hitherto unknown Yunieski Gonzalez, did little to dispel that notion, as he won a controversial unanimous decision, despite many observers feeling the Cuban had done enough to deserve a draw at the very least. That night in the main event of the same fight card, Kovalev disposed of his embarrassingly overmatched IBF mandatory, Nadjib Mohammedi, by third round knockout. With a lack of alternative options on the horizon, the rematch was made, despite the aforementioned misgivings which many who saw the first fight will have shared.
These sentiments were realized on Saturday night as Kovalev punished Pascal through seven rounds of depressingly one-sided action that became increasingly difficult to watch, particularly after the fifth round in which Pascal never went down but took such an awful beating that all three judges scored it a 10-8 round in Kovalev’s favor. Thereafter, Pascal had nothing left apart from his chin and courage. By the end of the seventh round, Pascal’s trainer Freddie Roach had seen enough and pulled the plug, probably saving Pascal’s life in the process. The punch stats reflected Kovalev’s dominance; he landed 165 of 412 while Pascal was limited to a miserable 30 of 108. Pascal will live, but not to fight another day, certainly not at world level, despite vowing to return in his post-fight interview. The punishment he has taken from Kovalev has turned him into a shadow of the man who once held the lineal light heavyweight championship of the world and waged exciting wars with the likes of Carl Froch, Chad Dawson, Bernard Hopkins and Lucian Bute. Facing an opponent on Kovalev’s level again could be a grave error, quite literally. Kovalev, for his part, was hardly magnanimous in victory. He told Max Kellerman in the post-fight interview that he had no respect for Pascal, mocked him for losing a side-bet of $50,000 that Kovalev could not knock him out before the eighth round, and chillingly admitted that he carried Pascal through the last few rounds in order to prolong his suffering.
While he may never match Mike Tyson for fame and notoriety, Kovalev, now 29-0-1 with an intimidating 26 knockouts, is fast becoming the baddest man in boxing today and must-watch-TV with his brooding nature, macabre sense of humor, knack for straight-talking and crippling power in both hands. Saturday night was not the first time that he has produced words and actions that carried more than a whiff of sadism. When asked to analyze a replay of his knockout of Gabriel Campillo in the aftermath of their 2013 bout, Kovalev said with a grin on his face that he just saw a target. In his title-winning fight against Nathan Cleverly later that year, Kovalev after hurting the Welshman for the first time, momentarily stepped back and opened up his arms mockingly before resuming his attack and hammering his opponent to the ground. After knocking Ismayl Sillakh down in the second round of his first title defence, Kovalev taunted him as he rose on Bambi legs, before rushing in after the mandatory eight count to send him back to the canvas, this time for good. Prior to the final round of his fight against the legendary Hopkins, surely some of those watching were speculating whether Kovalev, far ahead on points, would carry the old champion through the last three minutes out of respect. When Hopkins had the chutzpah to stick his tongue out at Kovalev in defiance, we got the answer. Kovalev responded by hammering boxing’s preeminent senior citizen from pillar to post, giving him the worst beating of his illustrious career. Hopkins is still the only man to have gone the distance with Kovalev in any of his title bouts. Kovalev is not oblivious to the promotional/hype aspect of the fight game; he gets by just by being himself without having to resort to artifice or evasion. He has referred to his hated rival Adonis Stevenson at various times as a ‘piece of shit’ and, after the Pascal fight on Saturday, as ‘Adonis Chickenson’. At no point was he being disingenuous; they reflect his honestly held opinion of the WBC light heavyweight champion. At times he appears to be bemused by the boxing media’s obsession with his vaunted punching power. Kovalev is on record as saying that he never goes into fights looking specifically for the knockout. To paraphrase Ivan Drago, if it comes, it comes. In the wake of the Mayweather era in boxing, Kovalev’s honesty and directness are a breath of fresh of air; beguiling yet scary at times. In stark contrast to Tyson’s antics which often bordered on the bizarre, there is nothing unhinged about Kovalev, making the air of danger that surrounds him all the more palpable.
The roots of Kovalev’s demeanor can be traced back to an impoverished upbringing in his native Russia. Originally an ice hockey player, he switched to boxing as his family could not afford hockey equipment and went on to enjoy a successful amateur career in which he medaled in numerous national and international competitions. He failed however to make it onto the Russian Olympic team and, frustrated with his perceived unfair treatment and the corruption of the national boxing authorities, decided to move to the United States under the management of Egis Klimas to turn professional in 2009, despite not speaking a word of English at the time. Klimas enlisted the services of Don Turner, the former trainer of Evander Holyfield and numerous other world champion boxers, to tutor Kovalev in the finer points of the pro-game. His work ethnic impressed Turner, one of boxing’s most respected trainers, who has described Kovalev as having the meanest streak of any boxer he has ever met in fifty years of involvement with the sport; a powerful statement coming from a man who knew Sonny Liston personally. However, without the backing of a promoter, Kovalev was forced to graft; fighting regularly in small-town venues across the US against unheralded opposition.
In December 2011, he returned to Russia to face countryman and fellow prospect Roman Simakov, who held a record of 19-1-1, and bludgeoned him to defeat via seventh round TKO. Simakov lost consciousness in the ring, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. It was a devastating moment for everyone involved in the fight, including Kovalev. After the tragedy, he took half a year off from the ring to reflect and regroup. Boxing history is littered with the corpses of fighters who met their end in the ring and the subsequent careers of their conquerors; haunted by the memories of the conclusive final blows; glassy-eyed adversaries motionless on the canvas; devastated families robbed of fathers, sons and husbands. Many find themselves unable to handle the feelings of guilt and subsequently crumble, never to reach the heights of the sport which were expected of them. One must consider that the boxer is meant to be blessed with mental fortitude beyond that possessed by the average person. The grueling and repetitive rigmarole of sparring and training, making weight and spending time away from family takes its physical and mental toll. A professional boxer has not chosen a career; he has chosen a lifestyle and must accept the consequences. The inescapable fact of the matter is that boxing is the hurt business and these sacrifices are made only in order to better prepare you for physically debilitating another human being in the ring. Every boxer who steps between the ropes does so knowing the risks involved for himself and his opponent. For a man who had fought against adversity all his life to get to where he was, such cold-blooded pragmatism was not difficult to grasp for Kovalev. He faced a stark choice; be the anvil or the hammer. With all the money that Klimas had invested in him and with his own livelihood and that of his family at stake, there was no turning back.
Kovalev was matched tough upon his return in June 2012 with Darnell Boone, a durable, hard-nosed spoiler who could punch like a mule. Kovalev had previously fought Boone in his tenth professional contest and laboured to a split decision victory on that occasion. This time, he emphatically destroyed Boone in two rounds. Among the impressed onlookers was promoter Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events. Klimas’ faith in Kovalev’s abilities had come to fruition as the offer of a promotional contact followed and the rest is history. In 2013, Kovalev brutally dethroned WBO light heavyweight champion Cleverly in front of his home fans in Cardiff, Wales by fourth round TKO. After three successful defences, he faced the ageless Hopkins in a title unification bout. In the biggest fight of his life to date, Kovalev produced the best performance of his career, winning a landslide decision and capturing the WBA and IBF titles. It takes a special – critics might say callous – individual, to rise above tragedy in this way. Kovalev killed a man in the ring and not only did he come back; he did so better and badder than ever before.
There are parallels between Kovalev and another great light heavyweight champion, the late Bob Foster. Like Kovalev, Foster was a skilled and rangy boxer-puncher. And boy could he punch. During a six year reign of terror from 1968 to 1974, Foster defended his light heavyweight crown 14 times, stopping 10 of his opponents within the distance in devastating fashion. Foster was a cool, clinical and vicious champion. After putting Vicente Rondon away to be with the fairies, he admitted to having been tempted to kick the Venezuelan’s prone body. After knocking Mike Quarry out cold, he looked down at the stricken Quarry in contempt, before casually flexing his neck and walking back to his corner. Years later, he would regale journalists with stories of fracturing men’s skulls with punches and hitting them so hard that blood shot out of their ears, apologetically chuckling away while jaws dropped. Foster was also willing to fight the best anywhere. He traveled to the UK and South Africa to defend his title against Chris Finnegan and Pierre Fourie respectively, much in the same way that Kovalev made the trip twice to face Pascal in front of his home fans in Quebec, Canada. Incidentally, shortly before his death, Foster himself said that Kovalev was the only light heavyweight who might have given him problems had they fought in the same era.
Whatever you might think of Kovalev as a person, one thing cannot be denied. Namely that he is the best light heavyweight on earth at this moment in time, in spite of any protests coming from Planet Stevenson which currently orbits the boxing galaxy without any sense of direction and light years from reality. He deserves this accolade on resume alone, but it is the chilling nature of his victories allied with an ice-cold charisma which place him alongside greats of the sport like Foster. He is a true throwback fighter, forged from the same iron as them. At this moment in time, it is hard to imagine anyone other in his division other than Andre Ward who can even be competitive with him. With a contract having already been signed for the two to eventually meet in a HBO pay-per-view clash, the question appears to be when and where rather than if. Victory over the supremely talented and undefeated Ward, the former undisputed super middleweight king, would not fulfill Kovalev’s dream of unifying the light heavyweight titles. It would however confirm once and for all that he is indeed the baddest man in boxing today.