Photos: Ed Mulholland
By: Kieran Mulvaney
After defeating Sergey Kovalev in June, Andre Ward pondered his options — even going so far, in the adrenalin-fueled immediate aftermath of his stoppage win, as to kinda sorta almost call out heavyweight behemoth Anthony Joshua — before ultimately deciding that the best option was to walk away from the ring entirely. Among his considerations was the fact that, as he surveyed the landscape of the light-heavyweight in which he resided, he saw no possible matchup that enticed or challenged him, nothing that would make it worthwhile for him to stick around.
On one level, the fact that both the main event and principal supporting feature on Saturday night’s HBO World Championship Boxing broadcast (10 PM ET/PT) feature men whom Ward has dispatched — Kovalev and Sullivan Barrera — reinforces that notion. On the other hand, the irony is that the division as a whole is starting to heat up, with a growing armory of young guns who are blasting their way toward the top. Dmitry Bivol recently flattened Trent Broadhurst inside a round. Shortly afterward, Artur Beterbiev, highly touted early but of late sidelined by injury, made it 12 KOs in 12 career starts at the expense of Enrico Koelling. Oleksandr Gvozdyk may be the pick of the up-and-coming crop, although the likes of undefeated Eleider Alvarez and Marcus Browne and once-defeated Badou Jack are thoroughly in the mix. Waiting for them are Kovalev and Barrera (and, perhaps, Canada’s Adonis Stevenson, who is actually the lineal champion but who, unfortunately, seems to have permanently eschewed the notion of a real challenge). The Russian and the Cuban may face off against each other in the new year; but first, they will warm up against separate foes.
Barrera faces Felix Valera, a tricky and rangy native of the Dominican Republic who has fought 14 of his 16 pro bouts in his native land, with the other two — including a loss to Bivol — taking place in Russia. Barrera was first seen on HBO in a determined but ultimately one-sided loss to Ward in March 2016; since then, he has scored three emphatic wins, and his star is rising.
Kovalev’s star, however, has dimmed of late. That is largely because it had been situated so high, and had shone so brightly, in the firmament before the Ward stoppage, and also because it has now been 22 months since the Krusher has scored a knockout. For Kovalev, Saturday’s tussle with Vyacheslav Shabranskyy — a Ukrainian whose sole career loss came to Barrera — is a reboot, the start of a process to recover from the indignity of being stopped by Ward and to make himself anew into The Man at light-heavyweight.
In the five months following his defeat, Kovalev, by his own admission and in roughly chronological order, visited Russia, drank a lot, steered a speeding car off the road and into some trees to avoid an onrushing vehicle (while suffering nothing worse than a bloody nose in the process), visited a monastery in Greece, returned to the United States, curtailed (but did not stop) his drinking, altered his diet, and hired a new trainer. Through it all, he also apparently whipped himself into shape. Two months ago, he was only eight pounds above the light-heavyweight limit, and he was one pound under it when he stepped on the scale on Friday.
In the pre-Ward days, when Kovalev was blasting his way through the division, there was so little meaningful opposition that his manager Egis Klimas thought his client would find better opportunities at super-middleweight, seven pounds lighter.
“When I started, light-heavyweight was dead, and Egis was telling me I should make myself smaller,” as Kovalev put it earlier this week. “But now, everyone is coming here.”
If he overcomes Shabranskyy on Saturday, then Kovalev will be hoping that those newcomers will realize that the road to light-heavyweight glory will once again run through him.
Weights from New York City:
Sergey Kovalev: 174 pounds
Vyacheslav Shabranskyy: 174.8 pounds
Sullivan Barrera: 174.8 pounds
Felix Valera: 174.2 lbs.
Yuriorkis Gamboa: 130.6 pounds
Jason Sosa: 131.2 pounds