Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Nat Gottlieb
The three-fight undercard on Saturday night's Kovalev-Ward Pay-Per-View event (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) doesn’t lack for drama or relevance. It’s headlined by a light heavyweight matchup between Isaac Chilemba and the highly-touted and unbeaten Oleksandr Gvozdyk. Both boxers will be fighting to stay in contention in the already crowded division. The undercard also features undefeated power-puncher Maurice Hooker, a junior welterweight with a freakish 80-inch reach, and a proverbial barnburner between rejuvenated middleweight Curtis Stevens and all-action fighter James De la Rosa.
Isaac Chilemba vs. Oleksandr Gvozdyk
Chilemba is coming off a loss to Kovalev in which he nevertheless showed he’s a legitimate contender. By going the distance with the fearsome Kovalev, Chilemba joined Bernard Hopkins as the Russian’s only opponents who remained on their feet at the final bell. But Chilemba (24-4-2, 10 KOs) will need more than a moral victory against Gvozdyk. He desperately needs to win if he wants another chance at a title fight.
Gvozdyk (11-0-9) is yet another talented fighter from the strong Ukrainian amateur system that has produced, among several others, current junior lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko. Like Lomachenko, Gvozdyk was a decorated amateur fighter who’s looking to make his mark as a professional, and to do it fast. While Gvozdyk is a technician, as Ukrainian fighters tend to be, he also possesses strong power in both hands.
What distinguishes Gvozdyk from other contenders is that he’s managed by Egis Klimas, who also counts Kovalev, Lomachenko, Evgeny Gradovich and many promising fighters in his prestigious stable. The tagline on Klimas is that he seems to have cornered the market on top fighters from Russia and Ukraine.
This bout will be a tough test for Gvozdyk, whose boxing skills and power will only carry him so far against a far more experienced fighter. Chilemba not only has an above-average chin, but possesses superb boxing skills. Nowhere was this more evident than in the July title fight with Kovalev, in which Chilemba's elusive defense and highly-effective jab frustrated the champion for much of the fight.
Like others who’ve faced Chilemba, Kovalev found the native of Malawi very difficult to hit. Gvozdyk will have to rely on his skill set to deal with Chilemba’s sometimes awkward style.
While Gvozdyk is known as a power puncher, so far he hasn’t looked like he’s in the same league as Kovalev. Even if the Ukrainian manages to tag Chilemba on the chin, there’s no guarantee he can knock him out. If Chilemba, who has never been KO’d, could survive 12 rounds with Kovalev, this fight might very well go to the cards.
The Ukrainian is aware of that possibility. “I will try to finish him if I can,” Gvozdyk said. “If I can’t, I will try to box him and get the decision.”
Gvozdyk’s own chin could be called into question. In his last bout, a sixth-round TKO of top light heavyweight contender Tommy Karpency, he was knocked down in the first round and was hurt, but got up to take his opponent out with a body shot to the liver.
Asked about the first-round knockdown, Gvozdyk tried to explain it away. “I came in without a game plan,” he said. “It was just my mistake. I learned from this experience.”
It wasn’t the first time Gvozdyk has tasted canvas. He was also knocked down in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing League.
Luckily for Gvozdyk, Chilemba doesn’t possess much power, with just 10 KOs in his 24 victories. What Chilemba does have -- which the Ukrainian lacks -- is vast experience in the pro ranks.
In his nine pro fights, Gvozdyk has never had to go beyond six rounds. In contrast, Chilemba has fought 12 rounds 10 times. Chilemba also owns a vast experience edge over Gvozdyk in rounds fought as a pro, 234 to 43.
Asked about the difference in experience, Gvozdyk said, “Maybe he has some edge in pro fights, but I also have 250 fights (220-30) in the amateurs. So I think it can be even.” It should be noted, however, that amateur fights consist of three rounds of three-minute length, with a full minute of rest in between each round.
One unknown factor in this fight is that Chilemba will be trained for the first time by four- division champion Roy Jones Jr., a boyhood idol of the Malawian.
“When I started boxing,” said Chilemba, “I wanted to be like Roy Jones. As far as movements and putting combinations together, I would sit at home and play Roy Jones DVDs and try to take his talent and make it into mine.”
The irony in Chilemba trying to mimic Jones’ style is that the future hall of famer in his prime had no real style in the traditional sense. Instead, he relied on his incredible speed and athleticism to overwhelm opponents. And even with Jones in his corner, Chilemba still figures to be pretty much the same fighter he has been during his career thus far, which isn’t bad. At stake for both fighters is that the winner could be in line to face the victor of the Kovalev-Ward fight.
Maurice Hooker vs. Darleys Perez
Hooker (21-0-2, 16 KOs) is a big-time puncher looking to make the leap from prospect to contender when he takes on 33-year-old Darleys Perez (33-2-1, 21 KOs), a rugged Colombian On paper, Hooker looks like the real goods, but he’ll have to prove it against a very tough and hungry Perez, who knows this could be the end of any hopes he has for a title fight.
Hooker will enter the ring with a big height and reach advantage. At 5-foot-11 with an 80-inch reach, he presents a major problem for Perez, who’s only 5-7 and gives up 10 inches in reach. With Hooker’s size and unusually long arms for a junior welterweight, he’s reminiscent of former champion Paul Williams, who stood at 6-1 with a 79-inch reach.
Word out of Perez’s camp is that they’ve been working with tall, long-armed sparring partners and doing very well. Trainer Joe Gallagher’s plan is for Perez to get inside and bust up Hooker with power punches to the body. Working against that strategy, though, is the fact that Hooker likes to fight from a distance and uses his long, stinging jab to prevent anyone from penetrating his personal space.
Curtis Stevens vs. James De la Rosa
Stevens (28-5, 21 KOs) is a rugged fighter with very good power who has been in the ring with far better competition than James De la Rosa (23-4, 13 KOs). Stevens even lasted eight rounds with the best middleweight in the world, Gennady Golovkin, which is no small accomplishment. With his all-action style and power, Stevens has long been a crowd favorite. In his last fight, Stevens raised some eyebrows when he destroyed unbeaten prospect Patrick Teixeira with a devastating second-round TKO. That fight, which thrust Stevens back into contention, was his first with top-tier trainer and former two-division champion John David Jackson.
It’s hard to make a case for De la Rosa, who has lost his last two fights and hasn’t faced top opponents. That being said, he’s one tough cookie. Overall, this fight has the earmarks of a fan-pleasing battle royal. While De la Rosa isn’t promising a victory, he expects fans to come away entertained. “With his style and my style, we’ll warm the fans up for Kovalev-Ward,” he said.