Kathy Duva Q&A: Main Events CEO talks about Sergey Kovalev’s journey to greatness
By Ian Aldous: As Sergey Kovalev (29-0-1) prepares for his long-awaited Russian homecoming in Ekaterinburg on Monday July 11th against Isaac Chilemba (24-3-2), the WBA, IBF and WBO light-heavyweight world champion has been on an incredible run since signing with Main Events in 2012. This week, Main Events CEO and co-founder, Kathy Duva, took some time to talk with me about how life with Sergey has panned out under her promotional wing.
IA: When you signed Sergey in November 2012, did you face much competition for his signature, or was he a little under the radar? Am I right in saying he fought on one or two of your undercards before you signed him?
KD: Every promoter in boxing had already passed on him, so they brought him to me. That’s the truth. He fought on an undercard on our June 2012 NBC card. He was presented to us by Egis Klimas (his manager), we met in January for the first time, Jolene (Mizzone, Main Events’ matchmaker) and I, and he was such a nice man and really made an impression on us. He was so nice and the kind of person we’d want to work with. He (Egis) said ‘just put him on one of your cards, give him one fight and if you don’t want to sign him, I won’t bother you anymore’. He told us everybody else had passed on him. So, we did it because of two reasons: one, that Egis was so sincere, and the other was Don Turner (legendary trainer) who I’ve known my whole life. He had called and said ‘take a look at this guy, he’s something special’. And if Don Turner tells me somebody’s special, I’m gonna believe him. Between those two things, it was kind of a no-brainer to put him on one of our cards. Then Jolene was trying to find an opponent for him and apparently no-one wanted to fight him. She came up with the idea of Darnell Boone. He fought him before and struggled a bit (2010 split decision win). Egis called up Sergey and said ‘you know what they want you to do? They want you to fight the same guy you had trouble with’ and Sergey’s response was ‘that’s a great idea, then I’ll figure out if I’m better or not’. Russell Peltz kept giving me crap because I put a Russian on the card and he can’t sell any tickets (laughs). When the fight was over (TKO win), Russell came around to me going ‘oh my god’ (laughs). And so at that moment I told Jolene ‘get the contract out on Monday’ (laughs).
IA: Less than a year later, you took Kovalev over to Wales to fight Nathan Cleverly for the WBO light-heavyweight world championship. Were you shocked at how easily he decimated the unbeaten champion that night?
KD: You know, if I’m gonna be really honest, I’m gonna say I expected him to do it. We had given him the nickname ‘Krusher’ at that point, we were just describing what we saw (laughs). Within a week in June, he became the no.1 contender in the IBF and was offered the Cleverly fight (for the WBO belt). In the IBF, Bernard Hopkins was the champion and we all know Bernard honors his mandatories. So I had a conversation with Sergey’s manager and I said ‘well we’ve been offered the fight in the UK and they have a well deserved reputation that if you go there, you better knock the guy out!’ So I said ‘you realise the risk we’re taking?’. The thing is, with Bernard Hopkins, we’ll get the fight but it might be a few months later because he’ll honor his mandatory and it’ll be in the United States if the fight happens, and you’ll probably make a lot more money too. We went back and forth that day for a couple of hours and HBO really wanted him to go over to Wales. They (Kovalev and his team) based the decision on – first title shot they can get, that’s the one they want. When I got there (Wales), I saw Nathan and his father, we went to a press conference and you see this guy who’s been champion for a while and he’s carrying himself like a champion and acting like a champion. I looked at him and I looked at Jolene and I said ‘boy, this guy doesn’t know what’s about to hit him!’ (laughs). You don’t wanna go to a fight thinking ‘we got this’ because you don’t wanna jinx it or anything, but in my heart of hearts I believed he was gonna blow him out.
IA: Undoubtedly his biggest win under the Main Events banner was his dominating and punishing victory over Bernard Hopkins. Going into the bout, we assumed Bernard wouldn’t have the power to stop Sergey, but did it cross your mind that Sergey could lose and be out-boxed by Bernard?
KD: Obviously there was much more trepidation going into that fight. What surprised me wasn’t that he beat him, because I did think he would, what shocked me was how he beat him. To so thoroughly outbox the boxer – that I didn’t expect. I really didn’t think he’d be able to win twelve rounds against him (laughs). I was really torn in those last two rounds between the piece of me that wanted Sergey to get the knockout, and the piece of me that wanted Bernard to last (laughs). And I think that the referee was thinking similarly in the sense that I think if it had of been anyone other than Bernard Hopkins – he would have stopped it in the twelfth round. In the end, two warriors became great friends and they really are genuinely friends.
IA: One of the defining memories of Sergey’s title run will have been the failure to unify the division with a fight against Adonis Stevenson. Just how disappointing will it be if it never happens?
KD: Extremely disappointing. He wants to unify the titles. I think that will happen eventually, I just don’t know if it will be against Adonis Stevenson because he doesn’t seem to want any of this. I sat down with Yvon Michel (Stevenson’s promoter) in October and negotiated every single detail, down to who gets in the ring first – everything. Everything was agreed upon. Last thing I had to do was get Al’s (Haymon) ok. At one point they came asking for a guarantee, I worked it out so they’d get their guarantee directly paid to them from HBO. There was nothing that they asked for that they didn’t get. We had repeatedly said in every meeting ‘just saying this up front – it’s gotta be on HBO, has to be on HBO and if that’s gonna be a problem, let’s stop talking now because there’s no point in having this conversation if you don’t accept that it’s gonna be on HBO’. Then every time when we met them ‘Al said it’s not gonna be a problem’. Then when everything I thought was done, every little detail, ‘I just gotta go back to Al’ they come back ‘just one thing – Al wants it to be distributed jointly’. I said ‘really?’. I saw Stevenson when Eleider Alvarez fought up in Canada and we were at the show, he started making a fool of himself in front of the camera talking about how it has to be on Showtime and I’m like ‘really?’ (laughs). Then I walked up to Sam Watson (Al Haymon’s face in public) and I said ‘what’s going on? Are we gonna do this fight or not?’. He said ‘I don’t talk about that stuff, I don’t get involved in that’. I said ‘well, you’re Al’s representative here so I’m asking you’. He said ‘you have to talk to Yvon, he has the power to make this deal’. I met with Yvon the next day, every detail got worked out. It has to be on HBO, I gave him all the reasons why, not the least of which was that I think at the time between the two of them, HBO had done nine of their fights ( laughs). He’d only fought twice off HBO at that point and one was on Spike. He hadn’t fought on Showtime at that point in over a year, I think. This isn’t a problem unless you want to make it a problem, and they did.”
IA: So, they wanted that to be the sticking point.
KD: Well, they kept coming back asking for things that they didn’t think I’d agree to, and every time I agreed to it, they just kept coming up with new things until they came up with a term I couldn’t agree to.
IA: Just how desperate has Sergey been to get a fight on home soil?
KD: He’s wanted to go back there for quite a while obviously, and I tried and tried to find a way to make it work. In Russia, everything is based on sponsors, so we found a sponsor that was willing to make it possible. So happily, The Russian Copper Company is going to be sponsoring and that changed everything.
IA: Was it easy to set-up the fight?
KD: “Once that was in place, yeah. We were working with German and Alexei Titov (Titov Boxing Promotions) and they will be running the boxing portion of the show. We had meetings there last week with a lot of the different entities that have come together to make this happen including the sponsor. So far, so good.
IA: Will it be broadcast on HBO?
KD: I am supposed to know momentarily. I’m very optimistic that it will be, but they’ve just gotta tell me for sure pretty soon.
IA: Just how much of a threat is Isaac Chilemba to Sergey and his three world title belts? Sell to me just how much of a threat Isaac will be.
KD: Well, Sergey’s gonna be favourite no matter who he fights including Andre Ward and Adonis Stevenson. There’s nobody on the planet he could fight that he wouldn’t be favourite against at 175lbs. So, that’s a given when we go into a fight. Bernard Hopkins said it on the night that Sergey won the titles from him ‘you’re gonna keep this title as long as you want to, it’s in your hands now’. That really is the truth when you have someone who is so dominant. It is up to them (Sergey and his team) to not get distracted, to not lose focus, to not look past the guy in front of you. We’ve got what could turn into a perfect storm of everything that could go wrong. When you have a guy like Isaac who is a very skilled boxer, very experienced and not gonna be rattled by the crowd, not gonna be rattled by the bigness of the event, one of the biggest guys Sergey has fought physically. Sergey is gonna be home for the first time in years, there are all kind of distractions that come with that. My experience over the years in this sport has been that the road warriors are the guys that have trouble when they go home. Evander Holyfield is the perfect example. When he fought in Atalanta one time, and it never happened again – there’s a reason why. He was in a bad state mentally because the fight with Mike Tyson had just been cancelled. He was put in with Bert Cooper at short notice, the kind of guy you don’t want to fight on your worst night. Evander got knocked down by him and it was one of the longest nights of my life. We saw it happen while we were there, everybody was around him, his friends, the people from his church. All These people would not have anything to do with him leading up to a fight. They’re on the phone ‘oh I need a ticket, I need this and that’. In this case, Sergey is looking ahead to what could very well be the defining fight of his career. All this stuff is happening and the guy that he’s in with is a very skilled fighter. He’s not somebody he’s gonna expect to blow out in one round. Sergey who excels on the road is going home and already at the press conference there’s all these people around who aren’t normally there. On top of that, the reason Isaac was chosen other than the fact that he’s been with Main Events and loyal, and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and we feel he earned a title shot, he fought Eleider Alvarez and got what we thought was a bad decision. He is the best test we could come up with for Sergey leading into the Ward fight. Sergey’s better off getting some work than he is going in there and blowing somebody out as he’s preparing to fight a boxer (like Ward). The biggest problem I have with Sergey is when I’m trying to make fights is he complains when the opponent isn’t tough enough, he’s done it several times. In this case it was ‘ok he’s fine’. He recognised he’s a legitimate top ten fighter.
IA: So, the biggest fight that probably can be made for him would be against Andre Ward. How likely is it that we’ll see Kovalev vs. Ward?
KD: The fight’s done, it’s signed. I don’t know why nobody believes me. We signed it last October (laughs). Both fighters signed contracts, with us, with the promoters, with HBO, everybody signed everything! They have the right to each fight two times. They’ve each fought once, Sergey is now scheduled for his second fight, Ward’s people are working on his second fight, whether that happens or not – I don’t know. Once the end of July comes and goes – the next fight is each other.
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