By Eric Raskin
There's a firefighting technique known as "surround and drown," whereby an indirect attack is taken, with the end goal, of course, being to eventually extinguish the flame. In essence, Sergey Kovalev has taken a "surround and drown" approach to his pursuit of universal acclaim as the light heavyweight champion. If he can't land a fight with lineal kingpin Adonis Stevenson, he'll simply take the fights he can land with every other top 175-pounder, cleaning out the division until either (a) Stevenson has no choice but to fight him, or (b) public opinion settles more or less unanimously on Kovalev being the man to beat even without direct lineage on his side.
"The Krusher" doused Bernard Hopkins with cold water in Atlantic City last November to stake his claim to the title of "people's champion," and on Saturday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal, he aims to turn the hose on Jean Pascal. Stevenson flirted with fighting each of the above—Kovalev, Hopkins, and Pascal—in 2014, but ultimately defended against none of them. So while there's truth to Ric Flair's claim that "to be the man you have to beat the man," if the supposed man won't give you a chance, the best you can do is what Kovalev is doing.
For the undefeated 31-year-old Russian, however, there's still the task of having to beat Pascal, himself a former lineal light heavyweight champion of the world, in the Haitian-Canadian's backyard in front of some 20,000 fans pulling for the upset. Kovalev isn't looking past this challenge, by any means. When asked recently about the possibility of a showdown with Stevenson in the summer, he answered, "I don't care who I fight next. My next fight is against Pascal on March 14. That is the only thing I am thinking about right now. I am not thinking about anyone else."
The only blemishes on Pascal's record of 29-2-1 with 17 KOs came against a surefire Hall of Famer in Hopkins and a likely one in Carl Froch. His best victories thus far are a 2010 11th-round technical decision over then-undefeated Chad Dawson to claim the lineal crown and, 15 months ago, a lopsided win over Lucian Bute for Canadian bragging rights. The 32-year-old is the rare Hopkins victim to bounce back and score meaningful victories post-B-Hop. Pascal's recovery makes sense when you consider that he didn't take a physical beating against Hopkins, tends not to lack for confidence, and seamlessly integrated his idol, Roy Jones Jr., into his corner to supplement head trainer Marc Ramsay.
"Pascal is a very good fighter," said Kovalev's trainer John David Jackson (another one-time Hopkins victim). "He has good power. We can't take him lightly. Pascal's style is different. He is not one-dimensional. He throws punches from different angles. He is herky-jerky. He is unconventional. Sergey has to dissect him slowly."
That's exactly what Kovalev did against Hopkins, save for the first-round knockdown he scored that makes the "slowly" descriptor questionable. Kovalev, one of the sport's premier knockout punchers with 23 KOs on his record of 26-0-1, revealed himself to be a master of technical execution against the erstwhile "Executioner," limiting the reluctant Hopkins to just 65 punches landed over 12 rounds. It was Kovalev's fourth consecutive fight to feature a reduced punch output, as he threw about half of the 90-plus punches per round he averaged in 2013 fights with Gabriel Campillo and Nathan Cleverly.
The Russian's proficiency at both the extreme boxer and puncher ends of the spectrum is not lost on Hall of Fame HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley.
"The fly in the ointment turned out to be, Kovalev did have the boxing sophistication to stay with Bernard Hopkins," Lampley said of Kovalev's most recent win before turning his attention to Kovalev's next challenge. "There's a dark, sinister element of Sergey's character. He enjoys hurting his opponents. He enjoys taking the crowd out of the fight. Kovalev is a freight train. He's going to be looking to run Jean Pascal down on the tracks and flatten him."
So which Kovalev will we see at the Bell Centre? If you believe Pascal, neither version worries him terribly.
"Kovalev is a power puncher and I have never been knocked down in my life," he said, noting that Kovalev has tasted the canvas twice. "Kovalev did a great job against Hopkins. But nobody is perfect. Everybody has flaws. He showed that he can go 12 rounds. He is a great boxer. I am a man that loves challenges, and Kovalev is a great challenge for me."
You can't talk about the Kovalev-Pascal matchup without talking about their respective results against common opponent Hopkins. Pascal struggled mightily with B-Hop whereas Kovalev dominated him, but in Pascal's defense, Hopkins was "only" 45 and 46 years old for their two fights; he was 49 by the time he fought Kovalev, and it's reasonable to assume that made some difference.
"Any fight is different because opponents are different on different dates," the level-headed Kovalev reasoned. "I can [beat] somebody very easy but then they can be very hard for somebody else."
"In my mind, I won both fights with Hopkins," Pascal opined, a view shared by almost nobody. "Earlier in my career, I defeated Darnell Boone. I whooped him, and it took Kovalev two fights to defeat him."
The insertion of the Boone results is interesting, as Kovalev did escape with a split decision win over the tricky journeyman on the first try, then scored a second-round knockout in the rematch.
Also interesting about Boone is his status as the only man to hang a loss on Adonis Stevenson. Would Stevenson have more losses on his record if he'd taken on Kovalev or Pascal last year? It's impossible to say. What we can say is that, based on Kovalev and Pascal signing to fight each other, we know neither of them is afraid to take risks. The fans packing the Bell Centre and tuning in from their living rooms will be the direct beneficiaries of their mutual desires to fight the best.
Kovalev-Pascal headlines a tripleheader of boxing, with an intriguing heavyweight bout between Philly veteran Steve Cunningham (making his HBO debut at age 38) and unbeaten Ukrainian prospect Vyacheslav "Czar" Glazkov in the co-feature. On April 25 at Madison Square Garden, another Ukrainian heavyweight, Wladimir Klitschko, defends the world championship against another Philadelphian, Bryant Jennings; consider Glazkov-Cunningham an appetizer in which it's much harder to identify the favorite to win.
And before Glazkov and Cunningham step into the ring, another prospect from the former Soviet Union, Russian light heavyweight Vasily Lepikhin, meets his toughest test in the form of Malawi's Isaac Chilemba. If you like undefeated Soviet Bloc fighters—which are all the rage, for good reason, in this GGG era—there are a trio of compelling reasons to tune in on Saturday night.