For high-profile fighters like three-belt light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, fights like the one he will wage Saturday night against Nadjib Mohammedi are a nuisance. Mohammedi doesn't bring much to the table in terms of name recognition to the masses, and thus won't draw the money and attention his team wants. But Mohemmedi has one asset that forces "The Krusher" to pay attention to him -- his status as mandatory challenger. In order for Kovalev to keep the belts that give him the necessary status to command big purses (and major TV platforms), he must fight Mohammedi now or else be stripped of his crowns, as well as a chunk of his bargaining power for future fights.
How Kovalev handles this assignment will say much about him as a fighter. If he approaches it with his usual zest for combat he will show himself to be as formidable a mental force as he is a physical one. But if he treats it as a mere hurdle toward everything else he wants -- a unification match with Stevenson or other big-money bouts down the line -- he could fall victim to Mohammedi's chaotic unorthodoxy, which has netted the Frenchman 13 consecutive victories over foes that were left scratching their aching heads.
For Mohammedi, this is the chance of a lifetime and if he's on his game he could give the heavy favorite a migraine of a lifetime.
Evolution of "The Krusher": Kovalev originally burst onto the world scene with a volume-punching attack that drowned his opponents in leather and pain. In fights against Roman Simakov, Darnell Boone, Lionell Thompson, Gabriel Campillo, Cornelius White and Nathan Cleverly, Kovalev averaged a combined 81.6 punches per round and landed 40% overall, 33% jabs and 44% power, well above the light heavyweight norms of 32%, 23% and 39% respectively. Except for the Thompson fight (58.9 per round), Kovalev topped 80 punches per round in each and exceeded 90 against Campillo (90.8) and Cleverly (93.9).
But under the tutelage of the stylish two-division champion John David Jackson, Kovalev has become a well-rounded fighter who thinks as well as he punches. He's no longer the raging Russian that steamrolls opponents but rather a calculating and thoughtful strategist who only lowers the boom at the right moment. In his last five fights against Ismayl Sillakh, Cedric Agnew, Blake Caparello, Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal, Kovalev has averaged just 48.5 punches per round and his offense has been almost perfectly balanced (23.5 jabs and 25 power shots per round). In fact, Kovalev threw more jabs (269) than power shots (202) against Pascal, something that would have been unimaginable three years ago.
The threat of the bomb has cowed his last five opponents into averaging just 19.3 punches per round, which offers sufficient cover for the narrow plus-minus gaps during that stretch (opponents led 29.5%-28% overall and 22.2%-20.9% jabs but Kovalev led 34.8%-33.9% in power accuracy).
But one can't argue Kovalev's success because he's still undefeated and winning impressively. He out-boxed and out-thought the professorial Hopkins, out-landing him 166-65 overall, 45-25 jabs and 121-40 power while throwing 48.8 punches per round and limiting "B-Hop" to just 16.2. Against the equally frugal Pascal (27.2 per round), Kovalev surged to 64.1 per round and dominated in the raw numbers (122-68 overall, 61-14 jabs, 61-54 power) but trailed in the percentages (34%-26% overall, 41%-30% power). That said, Kovalev has traded raw numbers for scientific success, especially with the jab (3.8 connects per round vs. Hopkins and an impressive 7.6 vs. Pascal). If Kovalev can land his improving jab against Mohammedi, his height, reach and intelligence will rule the day.
Mohammedi's Madness: At his best, Mohammedi is a quirky, unpredictable volume puncher that chips away at an opponent's mind and body from first bell to last. His array of off-kilter combinations may well be the tonic against Kovalev's increasingly textbook approach and that method was on full display in his last fight against journeyman Lee Campbell on the Kovalev-Pascal undercard.
Averaging an insane 112 punches per round -- more than double the 53.2 light heavyweight average -- Mohammedi dazzled with the jab (53.5 thrown/15.2 connects per round) and struck with accuracy in all phases (36% overall, 28% jabs, 43% power) while being hit rarely (243-40 overall, 91-11 jabs, 152-29 power). Campbell was limited to 32.7 punches per round as well as 20% overall, 15% jabs and 24% power. A similar scenario unfolded against the favored Anatoliy Dudchenko; while his output wasn't nearly as severe (57.5 per round), his ability to wear opponents to a frazzle was in peak form. In the final four rounds Mohammedi out-landed Dudchenko 107-15 overall and 69-11 power en route to massive gaps of 137-28 overall, 590-8 jabs and 87-20 power and percentage gulfs of 38%-14% overall, 32%-7% jabs and 43%-23% power).
Prediction: If Mohammedi is allowed to find his rhythm he can be a real menace for Kovalev. He's not a threat in terms of one-punch power but his funky punching angles and freakish volume could create chaos if allowed to take root. The guess here is that Kovalev will not permit Mohammedi to have his fun; his size, science and power will prove too much once Kovalev gets accustomed to his environment. Kovalev by eighth-round TKO.