With Mayweather-Pacquiao fast approaching, HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney count down the biggest fights in boxing over the past 50 years, and debate where this year's mega-bout fits in among them.
HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney discuss Sergey Kovalev's thrilling victory over Jean Pascal in Montreal this past weekend, as well as last week's press conference for the May 2nd Pay Per View bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
Because this is boxing, the ending had to be slightly strange and controversial, but despite the boos that rang out from the Montreal crowd, Sergey Kovalev was a worthy and emphatic winner over Jean Pascal on Saturday night, stopping the previously-unstopped hometown favorite in the eighth round of a brutal, back-and-forth battle. It was a powerful performance that not only underlined the Russian's crunching power but also showed us for the first time that the man known as "Krusher" also has the ability to absorb and recover from rocky moments of his own.
In the early going, Kovalev (27-0-1, 24 KOs) was in comfortable control, stalking forward and landing stiff jabs as Pascal slid away, shifting his upper body to evade Kovalev's blows without offering much in the way of return fire. By the second, Kovalev was already feinting and toying with his foe, summoning the spirit of Sugar Ray Leonard by winding up right-handed bolo punches only to pop left jabs over and over. The Russian's goal was clearly to land an overhand right behind his stiff jab, but for the first two frames, Pascal's shifting upper body enabled him to avoid the power punches that Kovalev launched his way.
That all changed in a dramatic third that at one point briefly promised to be the start of a renaissance for the Canadian. After Kovalev jabbed him to the ropes, Pascal landed with a big counter right hand to knock Kovalev backward; but then a Kovalev right finally landed flush and Pascal was immediately in trouble. Kovalev, aggressive but not reckless, unleashed measured violence, looking to do harm without expending himself, targeting each blow with maximum accuracy and wasting few punches. Pascal's legs were unsteady and his stance was wide as he sought to fend off his assailant; but a long left hook and a concussive right hand sent him crashing on to the third rope for a knockdown, his torso draped halfway outside the ring.
The bell rang to end the round and save Pascal, but the respite seemed unlikely to be sufficient. Pascal emerged from his corner uncertainly at the start of the fourth, but while the Kovalev assault continued, the Haitian-born challenger proved surprisingly resilient, and on a couple of occasions even managed to land some wild counter punches that presaged what would be a dramatic, if abortive, recovery.
In the fifth, a Pascal counter left, followed by a huge right hand, sent Kovalev backward; another right hand, delivered to the midsection as Pascal stepped out of the way of a Kovalev right, hurt him again. For the first time as a professional, Kovalev was in a dogfight, and the hometown crowd roared with every punch that Pascal (29-3-1, 17 KOs) fired. The comeback continued in the sixth, and one big right hand and then another scored for Pascal. Kovalev briefly looked tentative, but by the end of the round, Pascal seemed to have exhausted himself with his wild swings and Kovalev regained the air of a man confident in the bout's direction.
Indeed, the seventh took on the look of the earlier rounds, as Kovalev returned to jabbing Pascal's body and face, once more feinting with his feet and faking right hands. There was nothing fake about the right hand that hurt Pascal again at the end of that stanza or the left hook that preceded it – nor, for that matter, about the punches that brought the bout to its conclusion.
Another right hand hurt Pascal and a follow-up sequence of punches sent him into a corner. As Kovalev moved in for the kill, he slipped, and referee Luis Pabon added confusion to the conclusion by taking an inordinate amount of time to check on both him and the wounded Canadian, before waving them back into battle. In the delay, Pascal had remained rooted to the spot, where he was unable to escape first one and then another right hand, both of which landed flush and caused Pabon to stop the contest.
"I don't know why the referee stopped the fight, I was in the fight the whole time" protested Pascal. "This is the sport of boxing. To give some and get some. I am the people's champ. I wanted to give them a good fight."
Despite the ringside belief that this was as challenging an examination as Kovalev has yet endured, the Russian insisted that, "I was in tougher fights than this one" – albeit as an amateur. "He got me with some good punches, but I didn't lose control." As for the future battles that await? "I am ready for anything. I'm ready for any fight."
Vyacheslav "Czar" Glazkov scored a unanimous decision win over Steve "USS" Cunningham in the chief supporting bout. In the process, he retained his unbeaten record and also earned a spot as one of the mandatory challengers to heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko – who, on the basis of this performance, likely won't be losing any sleep at the prospect of facing his fellow Ukrainian.
In a frequently sloppy bout, Cunningham (28-7, 13 KOs) started the brighter, showing good footwork and scoring with more accurate combinations behind a stinging double jab. Glazkov, after demonstrating little urgency in the first half of the contest, began to rouse himself down the stretch, landing clubbing punches to his opponent's head and body and draining the strength out of his foe. Cunningham's work became more ragged, and his strategy less disciplined, as he abandoned his jab and began to fall forward into Glazkov's punches; several times in the final few rounds, those punches appeared to wobble the American. The twelfth and final frame saw both men swinging wildly at each other, with Glazkov (20-0-1, 12 KOs) again getting the better of the exchanges and earning a victory by scores of 116-112 (twice) and 115-113.
In the first televised bout of the evening, previously-undefeated light-heavyweight Vasily Lepikhin (17-1, 9 KOs) spent six rounds being befuddled by the fast hands and fluid combinations of veteran Isaac Chilemba (24-2-2, 10 KOs), and the final four rounds retreating into a non-combative shell. After proving unable to find an answer to Chilemba's punches, and in particular his uppercuts and straight right hands, Lepikhin simply backed to the ropes, covered up behind a high guard, and spent rounds 7 and 8 allowing Chilemba to tee off on him at will. While he was marginally more active in the closing two frames, his will and spirit appeared to have been broken, and his effort was perfunctory. The scores of 99-91 (twice) and 100-90 were a formality.
Bernard Hopkins will serve as the expert commentator on the World Championship Boxing telecast on Saturday, March 14. Hopkins, having faced both fighters and their trainers, provides his thoughts on the Kovalev vs. Pascal light heavyweight championship fight:
"March 14 is going to be a great night for the light heavyweight division and boxing in general with a strong overall fighter in Jean Pascal taking on THE light heavyweight champion in my opinion, Sergey Kovalev. Both guys are going to lay it all on the line but only one is going to walk away with a victory. Having fought both, I know how tough they both are...in their own ways.
"Jean Pascal is a tricky guy to fight because he's going to throw punches from unorthodox angles and in non-traditional ways. You can get hit all over with shots because he delivers them in very deceiving ways. He's not a guy who's going to sit in the pocket. You have to be careful because he can sneak up on you and put you on the canvas. You have to outthink him and outwork him. That's the only way to beat him. Not everyone is going to have to the IQ to beat him, but you need to have a solid game plan to have a chance.
"Sergey Kovalev's biggest strength is his size, but he's also capable of moving quickly and it's unexpected. His talent is tremendous but he also has the accuracy and foot movement to subsidize the talent. He also has a great coach in John David Jackson, a former world champion who's seen every style you can mention. You have to give some credit to the teacher who's giving him a big edge outside of the ring through the way he coaches. Now that Kovalev has that experience on the championship level, he's going to take that and improve on all the aspects of his game.
"This is going to be a great light heavyweight battle with two guys who are going to have to dig deep into their arsenals to come out victorious. Make sure you're watching HBO on Saturday, March 14 for a great night of boxing and some special insight from yours truly commentating ringside. I look forward to returning to Canada and breaking it down for the fans watching at home. I know these guys are going to fight with everything they've got and I'm excited to see the outcome."
The tripleheader (starting 9:45 p.m. ET/PT) is headlined by light heavyweight champ Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev defending his title belts against the formidable Jean Pascal. The HBO telecast opens up with a light heavyweight bout between Isaac Chilemba and Vasily Lepikhin followed by the evening's co-feature, an important heavyweight tilt between Vyacheslav Glazkov and Steve Cunningham.
Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
If asked, Nathan Cleverly and Bernard Hopkins would likely be among those who would offer any prospective Sergey Kovalev opponent one piece of advice: don't poke the Russian bear. Cleverly, in the midst of taking a pounding and surrendering his light-heavyweight belt in August 2013, at one point waved Kovalev in, as if challenging him to up his game. Kovalev halted his assault for a quick, taunting hip thrust, and then proceeded to launch a fusillade of even harder punches in Cleverly's direction. The contest was stopped, and the Russian declared the victor, shortly afterward.
In the twelfth round of their contest in Atlantic City late last year, Hopkins – who had lost every minute of the previous 11 frames – stuck out his tongue. As Kovalev admitted recently, his immediate thought was, "Awww, why did you have to do that?" Having outboxed and out-thought the veteran all evening to that point, he promptly tried to take his head off. Hopkins made it to the final bell, but it was the closest he has come in a long and distinguished career to being stopped.
So, the evidence seems pretty clear. Facing off against Kovalev is a hard enough task. Don't make it worse by provoking him.
Somebody forgot to tell that to Jean Pascal.
On Wednesday, at the final pre-fight press conference for Saturday's light-heavyweight clash at Montreal's Bell Centre, Pascal first of all taunted his opponent by implying that Kovalev was a sheep, whereas Pascal was a wolf. Which, in and of itself is no big deal; trash talking is part of the sport. Hat removal, though, is a different matter. As the two men faced off for the cameras, Pascal – his efforts to press his nose as close as possible to Kovalev's thwarted by the brim of his opponent's baseball cap – moved to rip the Russian's hat from his head. Kovalev responded by shoving him backward, and his features took on a mean mien as Pascal shouted at him while team members kept the two men separate.
The scowl remained when the fighters weighed in on Friday at the Casino de Montreal, although this time Pascal chose to evade a face-off and walk off the stage after stepping on the scales, leaving Kovalev to flex solo for the cameras. Instead, the champion turned his ire toward Pascal's loud hometown supporters, in whose baying direction he extended a firm middle finger.
Perhaps it is Pascal being Pascal, or perhaps it is a deliberate attempt at provocation with the aim of getting underneath Kovalev's skin, but the former champion would do well to recall that Kovalev tends not to get mad but to get even. Cleverly or Hopkins know as much. By the end of Saturday night, Pascal very possibly might as well.
Official Weights from Montreal:
Sergey Kovalev: 174.3 lbs.
Jean Pascal: 175 lbs.
Vyacheslav Glazkov: 218.4 lbs.
Steve Cunningham: 209.6 lbs.