By Kieran Mulvaney
Three days before Sergey Kovalev defeated Bernard Hopkins last November to achieve widespread acclaim as the best light-heavyweight in the world, the man who to some extent made that fight possible was undergoing a crisis.
When Nadjib Mohammedi stopped Anatoliy Dudchenko in June 2014, he became the mandatory challenger for one of the belts that Hopkins then owned; but it was his first fight in the United States in a career that had largely taken place in front of small crowds in France, and he did not know where to solicit advice on what to do next. So the fighter and his closest adviser Jon Ali turned to the camp of the man they had just beaten. Dudchenko’s booking agent Vince Caruso opined that, candidly, the new number one contender wasn’t ready for a wily veteran like Hopkins.
“I saw what Hopkins did to Karo Murat, and I didn’t want Nadjib to be another European fighter who came to the States, lost and was forgotten,” says Caruso. So he advised stepping aside, allowing Hopkins to fight Kovalev and then taking on the stronger but less tricky Russian should he dethrone the old master. In the meantime, he could fight on the Kovalev-Hopkins undercard.
When Mohammedi and team landed at Newark Liberty International Airport, there was a problem. His long-time trainer had procured only a visitor’s visa, and after taking a look at his bag full of hand wraps, pads and other equipment indicative of a man who was coming to the country to work a corner, immigration officials promptly put him on a flight back to Paris.
Panicked, Mohammedi called Caruso, who knew that Gennady Golovkin trainer Abel Sanchez would be in Atlantic City working with his light-heavyweight Sullivan Barrera on the same card, and who called Sanchez to ask if he was amenable to taking a look at Mohammedi with a view to stepping in on fight night.
With Sanchez in his corner, Mohammedi dispatched opponent Demetrius Walker inside a round, putting him in line to become the first opponent of Kovalev, who outpointed Hopkins in the main event. But once more, Caruso – who is now the Frenchman’s co-manager – urged patience.
“I knew that HBO wasn’t at that stage interested in putting Kovalev in against Nadjib, and that they were much more interested in Jean Pascal. I knew that Pascal would be able to bring a big crowd in Montreal, and that he had only fought two rounds in 16 months. So I figured Kovalev would swat him aside and become even bigger in the process, and meanwhile we could fight on the undercard in front of a ton of people,” he explains.
So Team Mohammedi accepted a quite possibly unprecedented second successive step-aside agreement in the interests of further exposure, which came in the form of a sixth-round stoppage victory over Lee Campbell before Kovalev halted Pascal.
Now, finally, Mohammedi is the main eventer, taking his long-awaited turn against the transplanted Russian at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on July 25. The delay – and the border control drama last November – has already yielded one apparent advantage: not only did Sanchez work his corner in Atlantic City, he did so again in Montreal and will be there a third time in Las Vegas. In between, Mohammedi has been training at The Summit Gym, alongside Barrera, Golovkin and others – experiencing, says Caruso, “a structured training camp like he’s never had before.”
But when Kovalev finally stands across the ring from his Algerian-born opponent, what will he be faced with?
“What do I know about him? Believe me, not much,” Kovalev said recently, and he is hardly alone. Neither of Mohammedi’s last two bouts were featured on the HBO broadcast, and a YouTube search reveals mostly his win over Dudchenko or a long-ago loss to Britain’s Nathan Cleverly in a fight he took on just a few days’ notice. “But I do know he's very dangerous. He's fast. He has stamina. He's not stupid; he's an intelligent fighter,” Kovalev added.
Certainly, Mohammedi is a voluminous puncher. In his win over Campbell, CompuBox tracked him as throwing a remarkably high 112 punches per round – more than double the 53.2-per-round light heavyweight average – and landing at an impressive 36 percent. In total, he landed 240 punches while Campbell found the target just 40 times, and many of the Frenchman’s blows came with an awkward delivery that he has used to befuddle plenty of opponents on his way to compiling a record of 37-3, with 23 KOs. In his coming-out performance against Dudchenko, Mohammedi started as the underdog but steadily took over the contest, leaving his opponent looking as perplexed as he was battered by the time the referee stepped in with the Frenchman administering a beating along the ropes.
But Kovalev is an entirely different class of opponent than those Mohammedi has faced thus far. It is one thing to take apart someone like Walker, with just 15 career contests and as many wins as losses; it is another entirely to impose himself on the undefeated Kovalev, who has knocked out 23 of his 27 career victims while establishing himself as one of the hardest punchers, and top overall fighters, in the sport. Kovalev seems to feel that way himself, predicting confidently, “I will kick his ass.”
Caruso knows that most observers are expecting Kovalev to starch his man as effortlessly as he dispensed with the likes of Blake Caparello and Cedric Agnew. But, he insists, willingly delaying his title shot – and, as it turns out, his trainer being deported days before a fight – has made Mohammedi stronger and better prepared for the biggest moment of his career.
“He’s fighting in Las Vegas instead of a gymnasium in France, and on HBO. He’s made more progress in a year than anyone I’ve seen,” the manager says. Whether that progress will be enough for him to conquer the challenge of Kovalev is another matter, but Caruso is bullish.
“He’s gone through a long and tedious road to get here,” he says. “He hasn’t come this far just to give it all away as soon as he gets hit.”