When the hype had passed, the post-mortems had been written, and the sound of pained protests had dissipated in the ether, the boxing world moved on – to the next fight, the next big event, the next inevitable controversy.
Sergey Kovalev was left behind, the once-formidable Krusher suddenly yesterday’s man, humbled and seemingly exposed. His trainer belittled him, the crowd of supporters and sycophants that surround a champion boxer shuffled awkwardly away, and Kovalev was left to find solace and support in that most time-honored of ways.
“I drank,” he admits, when asked how he coped with his knockout loss to Andre Ward in June. “A lot.”
He chuckles, insists he has moved on. “What happened, happened,” he says more than once. But, while he gives every impression of having settled into a state of acceptance, it is clear that he has not completely expunged the other four stages of grief from his system, either.
“I thought the boxing world had turned its back on me,” he says of his feelings in the aftermath of that loss – his second in a row to Ward, and the second to end in controversy. When they first met, in November 2016, Ward was awarded a close but unanimous points decision despite a broad ringside consensus that Kovalev deserved the victory. In the aftermath of that verdict, Kovalev muttered darkly about the disadvantages of being a Russian boxer in the United States, particularly when facing an American, and he returns to that theme when he revisits his loss in the June rematch. That result, an eighth-round stoppage, would appear on the face of it to have been too definitive to leave much room for excuses or explanations, but Kovalev’s supporters pointed to the fact that some of the body blows with which Ward sapped Kovalev’s resistance landed low – including the final one, which thudded beneath the belt just as referee Tony Weeks stepped in with Kovalev slumped on the ropes.
“I always said that every boxing fight is like a street fight, but with boxing rules,” he explains. “And I never throw a low blow because I understand that here in America against Andre Ward, everything is against me. If I throw a low blow, I could get disqualified.”
Even so, whereas manager Egis Klimas and promoter Kathy Duva protested vociferously about the low blows immediately after the fight and in subsequent weeks, Kovalev’s main gripe about the stoppage was and remains what he perceives at its premature nature, the fact that he was not, in his mind, granted the opportunity to go out on his shield, or flat on his back.
“Listen, the referee helped him,” he insists. “It was unfairly stopped. Better he stop me himself, knock me to the floor. I don’t feel beaten. When I am on the floor, yes. Then somebody beat me. But not like that. Nobody beat me.”
And yet … As much as he is able to find qualifiers, he acknowledges that all was not well on the night of the fight. The beginning of the end was a booming right hand that jolted Kovalev to the core; but, he insists, far from sending him to sleep, that punch snapped him back to life after he apparently spent much of the fight in a fugue-like state.
“After the right hand in the eighth round, I woke up,” he says. “Since the middle of the second round, I don’t remember the fight. I don’t know what was wrong with my body during the fight, but I woke up to a right hand from Andre Ward and for the first two or three seconds, I got dizzy, and after that I got focused again and was able to defend his punches. Before the fight I was in very good shape, best shape. But something happened to me when I stepped into the ring.”
It is not, it should be noted, the first time that Kovalev has expressed similar sentiments. He did so after his initial bout with Ward, asserting that he had entered the ring in great shape but that, “after the fifth round. I lost my power, my natural ability, my speed … I tired.” And following the fight before that, when – by his standards – he labored to a win over Isaac Chilemba in a homecoming bout in Yekaterinburg, Russia, he declared himself dissatisfied with his performance and his preparation.
A thread runs through all three underwhelming outings. From the time he arrived in the United States, and particularly after hooking up with trainer John David Jackson, Kovalev had been a wrecking ball, blasting his way through opponent after opponent. It seemed a perfect partnership; until the Chilemba bout, when Kovalev spent much of his training camp in the mountains of Armenia while Jackson remained in the United States, the trainer joining him only when he relocated to Yekaterinburg for the final few weeks before the fight. In the build-up to the first battle with Ward, the American’s cornerman Virgil Hunter mischievously and passive-aggressively asserted that he didn’t want to talk about the problems that he had heard Jackson and Kovalev were having; before the rematch, he cast aside the façade of reluctance and claimed that Jackson had actually offered to jump ship.
While the facts about that specific assertion remain disputed, any pretense that all was well between boxer and trainer was napalmed in the wake of Ward’s rematch victory. Jackson stated variously that Kovalev had quit in the fight, that he was soft in the body as a result of drinking too much vodka, and that he was “an asshole.”
“He’s a nice guy,” counters Kovalev, briefly taking the high road when asked about Jackson’s comments, “but he’s not a coach for me. All the time I work with John David Jackson, he gave me nothing. I got nothing from him except mitts work. I didn’t feel him in the ring like a team, because everything, my preparation, was constructed by myself. The trainer should be able to help you between rounds when you have a one minute rest, to explain tactics. I understand myself if good round or not good round. John said, ‘Good round,’ or ‘Not good round.’ That’s not a help. I’ve thought for a long time that maybe I should split from John.”
Perhaps. But there is another school of thought, based on whispers from some of those in Kovalev’s orbit: that after showing intensity, determination and drive to reach the top, he looked out at a rising sea of sycophants and started believing all that they told him and all that he told himself; that he started taking shortcuts; that, in the words of another trainer, “he only wants to train himself.”
Such suspicions were not exactly allayed when Kovalev eventually announced that his new trainer would be Abror Tursunpulatov, who has little track record in the professional game. He does, however, have plenty of experience in developing successful amateurs; Klimas described him as a “real trainer” – a trainer with whom, moreover, Kovalev is comfortable, who reminds him of his former amateur coach and who, perhaps just as importantly, speaks his native tongue.
Kovalev is keen to underline the seriousness with which he is treating his comeback by pointing out that, ten weeks before his next fight – against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy on Saturday night – he is already close to his fighting weight of 175 pounds.
“If you see, I’m already 183. I keep my shape very good,” he says, and Klimas enthusiastically agrees.
“What I see in him is more desire, more concentration, bigger heart than when I met him first,” the manager insists. “When I met him first, he asked me questions, ‘When am I going to be champion? I want to be champion.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this guy really wants to do something with his life.’ He didn’t change. He is same person he was. But something is new.”
By way of illustration, Klimas points to the fact that Kovalev had been running at 5 AM that morning, before the two of them flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where they are now sitting in a room at the MGM Grand and where, in a few hours, Kovalev will watch his friend Gennady Golovkin take on Canelo Alvarez.
“I’m on my way to pick him up, it’s about a 45 minute drive to his house, and all of a sudden, my phone buzzes with an Instagram that Sergey posted,” Klimas recounts. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell?’ And there he is: ‘Ready for my morning run.’”
There is no question that the rematch loss to Ward has been a chastening experience. In its shadow, Kovalev has witnessed for himself that truest of boxing aphorisms: that friendship can be fleeting.
“I know who are my real friends and are still friends, before the belts and after the belts,” he says. “I understand when you have belts, it’s like a magnet. Everyone wants to take a picture, everybody wants to help you. When you lose them, the only people still with you are your real friends, the ones I can count on ten fingers.”
But all of that, he insists now, is in the past. He is ready to learn from it, draw a line under it and to move on. “I made a lot of mistakes with this last fight,” he says philosophically. “It’s good experience for me again. Every fight, I get something new for myself and my team.” Yes, some of the blows were low. Maybe the stoppage was early. Perhaps the advice in the corner was not everything he wanted or needed. But not long ago, he was a dominant champion, and at the end of the day, his fall from grace is on him. And it is up to him to do what needs to be done if he is to recapture what he had in the past and to exceed it in the future.
“I’m ready to get new belts, new fights,” he says. “Believe me, I’m feeling good. I’m looking forward to being the best for myself, not for anybody else. I want to show my best boxing. I want to return my best shape. Next step in my career, I want to come back stronger and be Krusher, how I was before Chilemba. What happened has happened. I already throw it away. I am not broken mentally. I am strong inside. Everything is good.”