by Kieran Mulvaney
Before Saturday night's light-heavyweight double feature, the talk was of the prospect that the two favorites, Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson, could be on a collision course in a mouth-watering light heavyweight clash for the ages. After both men disposed of their foes with consummate and concussive ease, the talk turned to shouting.
Kovalev's turn was first, and it was the briefer of the two outings. Whether for reasons personal or geopolitical, Ismayl Sillakh, the Ukrainian challenger for the Russian's world title belt, seemed from a distance to have gotten under Kovalev's skin, as evidenced by the way the defending champion taunted him verbally in the first round as he stalked him around the ring. The rangier Sillakh sought to keep his opponent at a distance -- a fine strategy in principle against a knockout artist who goes by "Krusher," but difficult to pull off for long. Indeed, shortly after hearing the bell to begin the second round, Sillakh was likely hearing a lot more of them, courtesy of Kovalev's right hand.
The first right made its mark about 30 seconds into the second frame, and looked to have landed somewhere around Sillakh's left ear, scrambling his equilibrium and depositing him on his back. Sillakh was swiftly to his feet, but even as referee Marlon Wright completed the mandatory eight count, Kovalev was like a pit bull straining on an invisible leash, snorting and growling and desperate for an opportunity to rip apart his prey. As soon as Wright waved them back together, Kovalev flew across the ring, landed another right hand that effectively ended the fight and nearly decapitated Sillakh in the process, and somehow found time to land two straight follow-up lefts to help his falling opponent to the canvas, where he then lay, under the ropes and wondering where he was for a while.
Wright didn't even bother to count; he could have started reading "Moby Dick" and Sillakh wouldn't have been vertical before Ahab disappeared beneath the waves. It was a frighteningly impressive performance for the Chelyabinsk-born Floridian, who moves to 23-0-1 with 21 knockouts. Asked by HBO's Max Kellerman whom he would like to fight next, Kovalev initially proffered the "whoever my promoter wants me to fight" stock answer until, after Kellerman gently pressed, he smiled and said, "Adonis."
A few minutes later, Stevenson made his own way to the ring. He too could be forgiven for having some personal beef with his opponent, given that Liverpool's Tony Bellew had head-butted him at Friday's weigh-in (and even called Stevenson a "dwarf", the champion later revealed), sparking a full force melee on the stage. But, displaying the calm and poise that he had demonstrated when dominating Tavoris Cloud two short months ago, "Superman" remained composed and patient as Bellew, not entirely unlike Sillakh, adopted a strategy of keeping out of harm's way.
Strictly speaking, what Bellew was doing was boxing and moving, but there was a lot more moving than boxing. That movement was sensible, and clearly thought through: Bellew glided around the ring's edges to his left, forcing Stevenson to reach with his powerful southpaw left hand. Stevenson patiently stalked, firing a right jab to the body and a straight left whenever possible, but Bellew did little to dissuade him from doing so. The Englishman's plan was evidently to land a counter as Stevenson moved in, but every time he sought to throw a counter right over the top, Stevenson displayed superior defense alongside his offensive skills, slipping underneath it and moving back into position.
By the third, the Haiti-born Quebecer had found his range, and was strafing the Briton with stiffening straight lefts, including one that snapped back his challenger's head as his back was to the ropes. Feeling increasingly comfortable, Stevenson opened up his attack in the fourth, and briefly seemed to have fallen into Bellew's trap when he went down after an exchange of punches; replays, however, showed that their feet had been tangled while Bellew had cuffed him in the back of the head with his arm and that referee Michael Griffin was right to call it a trip.
Normal service was swiftly resumed, Stevenson stalking a foe who was finding it increasingly difficult to move out of the way and was therefore feeling ever greater impact from the defending champion's punches. Finally, in round six, a Stevenson left hand landed with full authority and Bellew went down. As did Sillakh before him, Bellew beat the count, and he didn't visit the canvas again; but he didn't need to. The Englishman retreated to a corner where another straight left to the jaw melted his femurs, causing him to slump sideways into the ringpost. Stevenson managed to land one more solid straight left before referee Griffin stepped in with a perfect stoppage.
In the aftermath, Stevenson was perhaps the only person in the house who wasn't salivating over a Kovalev battle, expressing greater interest in meeting Carl Froch or Bernard Hopkins -- either of which would undeniably be tasty matchups. But at the same time, he continued, if the money was right, he "wouldn't have a problem" with a Kovalev fight.
Neither would anyone else.