Patient and Punishing: The Fighting Style of Sergey Kovalev

Photo: Ed Mulholland

By Carlos Acevedo

Among the most feared punchers in boxing, Sergey Kovalev – who faces Andre Ward on Nov. 19 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on HBO PPV in one of the marquee matchups of the year – has scored 26 stoppages in 31 fights. Despite his jaw-dropping 84 percent KO rate, however, Kovalev is more than just a free-swinging slugger. In fact, Kovalev, somewhat in defiance of his “Krusher” nickname, possesses plenty of sinister savvy to go along with his crippling firepower. His extensive amateur background, ending in 2009 with a reported record of 193-22, laid the foundation for his calculating yet ruinous style. It’s true that, Ward, who captured a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, has the edge in amateur pedigree, but Kovalev won a pair of junior championships to go along with a slew of Russian national titles. 

What is it that separates Kovalev from the average plodding banger? Veteran trainer John Scully points to a rare mingling of ring IQ and malice. “I don't think people give him enough credit for his ring intelligence but he definitely is no reckless banger in there,” Scully told Inside HBO Boxing. “He is very calculated and intelligent in his approach to getting things done. Kovalev is much more of a thinker than I believe some may realize. He also has one of the best power jabs in the game today. The way he sets up his power shots and the way he controls distance and his opponent’s offense with his own jab are of the highest order.”

In addition, Kovalev has shown some versatility against a variety of styles over the last few years. He floored the southpaw Blake Caparello with a lead right to the body, demonstrated a bit of finesse on the outside against Nathan Cleverly in his title-winning effort in 2013, and fought patiently against Bernard Hopkins, aware that “B-Hop,” with more than a quarter century of experience, was still a cagey threat. Kovalev also compensates for a lack of blinding hand and foot speed by using a variety of feints, further proof of an analytical mind at work between the ropes. 

Most important of all, perhaps, is the fact that Kovalev sets up his power shots behind a thudding jab. Not only does Kovalev alternate jabs to the head and body, but he also steps with it, a technique gradually fading away among contemporary fighters who seem more interested in flashy theatrics. Instead of throwing a flicking, flickering jab that acts merely as a distraction, Kovalev shoots a trip hammer left that scores points, raises welts and jars opponents into position for a thunderous follow-up right. 

And if there is one factor that sets Kovalev apart from his peers, it is unquestionably his otherworldly power, particularly in that right hand, which is one of the most potent weapons in boxing. Even when he fails to score a knockout, Kovalev manages to drop his opponents. Bernard Hopkins and Isaac Chilemba, two sturdy pros who have never been stopped, both hit the canvas en route to lasting the distance and each man withstood late barrages that had them on the verge of a TKO loss. 

The Russian’s straight right is thrown with a precision that would make a knife-thrower proud. Kovalev fires his right hand straight from the shoulder and often doubles its force by corkscrewing his fist at the moment of impact. “He sits down on his punches just enough to where he is able to generate extra leg power into each shots,” Scully notes. “He also seems to land a lot of shots at the very end of the punch, meaning he gets just the right snap into his power shots. Being able to control distance is very important for a boxer in order to set up his shots and know when to let go for maximum power. Kovalev seems to be very in-tune with that aspect of the game.”

Finally, Kovalev seems to enter the ring with a pronounced psychological advantage against most opponents. Few contemporary fighters are as intimidating as Kovalev, whose dark edge has manifested itself more than once inside, as well as outside, the ring. Any fighter answering the bell against Kovalev does so cognizant of the fact that a single blow may be enough to bring out the smelling salts. “Physical pressure is obvious to see,” Scully says, “but that mental pressure is just as important. Whoever is in the ring with him, from bell to bell he is made to be aware that Kovalev is there and that he is dangerous for all 180 seconds.”

When Andre Ward answers the opening bell against Kovalev on Saturday night, he will be facing a man whose style is both patient and punishing, a combination as distinctive as it is destructive.