Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
The undercard fighters stole the show at the Friday weigh-in for Saturday’s World Championship Boxing card in Las Vegas, Jean Pascal striding up to Yuniesky Gonzalez for the obligatory staredown and locking his gaze on his opponent as the Cuban returned the favor.
Nothing inherently unusual in that; but while there is no defined time that the ritual is supposed to last, there is a moment beyond which the tension becomes palpable, and the boxers’ handlers become uncomfortable. Each man has become too invested in the challenge and neither can afford the appearance of weakness that would come from being the first to break the gaze. That’s when the aforementioned handlers generally step in, and turn the fighters away from each other; and that’s what began to happen between Pascal and Gonzalez. But the two men tore up the usual script, and instead of breaking away when given the chance, continued to lock eyes. So the handlers pushed a little harder, and the fighters resisted a little more fervently, each determined to remain rooted to the spot. The teams pushed harder yet, and Nevada commission officials became involved, but even as they finally found themselves forced apart, Pascal and Gonzalez continued to glare at each other until enough people stepped between them that they could do so no longer, at which point each camp finally went its separate way.
The intensity of the staredown highlighted what the two men have at stake in tomorrow’s co-main event: For the little-known Gonzalez, it is an opportunity to carve a spot for himself as a legitimate challenger in the light heavyweight division; while for Pascal, a former champ whose most recent outing was a stoppage loss to Sergey Kovalev, victory is essential if he is to remain relevant at the top of the division. Indeed, given the Cuban émigré’s power punching and the possibility that Pascal might be reaching the end of what has been a quality career, there is no shortage of prognosticators who feel theirs is almost certain to be the more entertaining clash on Saturday’s televised card.
That is not meant necessarily as a knock on Nadjib Mohammedi, the Frenchman who challenges Kovalev in the main event, as much as it is an acknowledgment of the fact that the Russian is sitting at the very pinnacle of the sport. After a career spent blasting through a succession of overmatched opponents, Kovalev stepped up to the highest level last November and showed that he was more than a slugger when he comprehensively outboxed veteran Bernard Hopkins. He followed that up with an exciting knockout of Pascal in Montreal in March; in contrast to those two most recent opponents, Mohammedi, a mandatory challenger for one of Kovalev’s world title belts, does not exactly set the pulse racing. But he knows a glorious opportunity awaits him, and is determined not to yield without a fight; equally, Kovalev knows that the relatively low esteem in which his foe is held makes it all the more important that he avoid an embarrassing defeat. If he wins, a potential superfight with American Andre Ward beckons; if he loses, his dreams crash down around him in a heap. He may not have demonstrated it publicly to the extent of Pascal or Gonzalez, but Kovalev knows full well that, for all that he is expected to cruise to victory on Saturday night, he too has an enormous amount at stake.
Sergey Kovalev 174.5 lbs.
Nadjib Mohammedi 173 lbs.
Jean Pascal 178 lbs.
Yuniesky Gonzalez 177 lbs.W