By Hamilton Nolan
More: HBO Boxing Podcast
Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev (23-0) is always extremely well conditioned. He is aggressive. He comes to rumble. He shoots in and out, he strikes at weaknesses, and -- his defining quality -- he can punch. He can knock you out with either hand, particularly with his straight right, violent enough to make the crowd wince when it lands. He is a fun, and fearsome, fighter to watch.
It’s a damn shame he’s not a heavyweight.
If Sergey Kovalev were a heavyweight, he would singlehandedly rejuvenate a moribund division that has long lacked a good supply of everything that he possesses. A heavyweight with the sort of knockout power, aggression, and the tiny bit of recklessness that Kovalev has would potentially be the biggest attraction in all of boxing. He would light up a legendary division that has spent decades languishing in the doldrums. He would be a crossover star.
Alas, Sergey Kovalev is a light heavyweight. This takes nothing away from his power or skills, but it does complicate his position in the grand scheme of things. At 200 pounds, Kovalev would be the next great hope; at 175 -- despite being one of the most thrilling fighters in the sport -- he stands as the third man in his division’s ruling triumvirate. Kovalev, for all of his Krush Groove, is probably a small notch below Adonis Stevenson on the light heavyweight prestige list. If the two men -- both explosive punchers coming off strings of impressive knockouts -- were to meet this year, it would be the single biggest fight of 2014. Beyond that (although it almost seems absurd), even the winner of that fight would not truly get to declare himself the world’s premier light heavyweight until he beat the ageless Bernard Hopkins, who is still plugging along, cutting a swath through the division’s top ten at the age of 98 (roughly). That makes Sergey Kovalev at least two steps removed from the top of the mountain. And that, no doubt, makes Sergey Kovalev very frustrated.
What does this mean for Kovalev’s opponent, Cedric Agnew? It means that Cedric Agnew is in a very, very dangerous position. Though Agnew is 26-0, his opponents (with the exception of Yusaf Mack) have been so lackluster that you can hardly even find his fights on YouTube, the world’s greatest repository of lackluster boxing. Agnew’s boxing skills seem good enough, but he is not a notable power puncher (only 13 KOs), and to say he is taking a step up in competition is like saying that a space shuttle takes a step up from the launchpad to orbit. It is dangerous enough for Agnew to find himself as the hand-picked opponent for a top contender who must win in order to set up a huge money fight in the near future; it’s even more dangerous when that top contender is Sergey Kovalev, whose last five opponents -- all of whom are arguably better fighters than Cedric Agnew -- lasted an average of three rounds before going to sleep. One need only gaze upon Ismael Sillakh’s limp, wasted body slumped over the edge of the ring apron after a Kovalev right hand last November in order to grasp the sheer physical peril in which Agnew is placing himself. A "scouting report" press release issued by the fight's promoter, Main Events, hilariously comments, "[Agnew] has never been on the big stage and fought under the bright lights so there is no way to know how he will respond to the pressure."
The only pressure that he needs to worry about is that of Kovalev’s right fist concussing him. The stage and lights are the least of Cedric Agnew’s worries. If this fight goes more than four rounds, Agnew can take that as a sort of moral victory. But he will almost certainly end the night peeling himself off the floor either way.
The undercard offers a more competitive and downright thrilling matchup between two of the scariest young 140-pound punchers in the world. Karim Mayfield (18-0), a Californian, is the cruder of the two, pawing constantly with a placeholder jab before sending a huge overhand right crashing in after it. One-dimensional, but effective. Thomas Dulorme (20-1), his opponent, is one of the best pure young boxer-puncher prospects in the sport, with terrifying hand speed and fast feet. It is only his own overeagerness in the ring -- jumping in too far, smothering his own punches, and occasionally exposing his own chin in his rush to hit something -- that holds him back from becoming a champion. If he can tame that, there will be no limit to his rise.