By Kieran Mulvaney
Sergey Kovalev did what he needed to do on Monday night, if not quite in the manner he would have wanted to do it.
Five years after he last fought in his native land, he returned to Russia, defeated Isaac Chilemba, and kept alive his much-anticipated clash with Andre Ward. But for a man who has built his reputation on destructive knockouts and complete domination, his path to victory on this night was comparatively underwhelming.
Most of the credit for that goes to Chilemba, who entered the ring as a sacrificial lamb and exited it as a beaten man, but one whose stock rose considerably in defeat. His awkward, spoiling style rarely threatened to carry him to victory – although there was a period in the middle rounds when an upset didn’t seem quite so absurd – but it forced Kovalev to dig deep, and exposed some fissures in the Russian’s normally granite façade.
Some of those fault lines, Kovalev confessed, were self-inflicted. Of the many words he spoke after his unanimous decision win, one of them – “pressure” – came up time and again. The pressure of fighting in Yekaterinburg, a mere 130 miles from his home town, five years after he last boxed here. The pressure of returning, not as the prospect he was in 2011, but as one of the very best fighters in the world. The pressure of performing in front of family and friends, of carrying a promotion, of training in a different way and different place.
Chilemba did all he could to ruin the party. He fired his jab as he retreated and circled, landing effectively but preventing Kovalev from chasing him down, let alone cornering him. He showed adept upper body movement that neutralized the Russian’s vaunted right hand. He launched long range shots to the body to keep Kovalev honest.
Though Chilemba made the first three rounds closer than anyone thought they'd be, he couldn't do enough to win any of them, nor prevent Kovalev from stalking forward, making the fight and landing the higher number and percentage of punches. At some stage during that first quarter of the fight, Kovalev, realizing that his right hands weren't proving an accurate or effective weapon, focused on his jab and began to experience greater success. The Kovalev jab is a de facto power punch, and when it did land it did so with a jolting effect that was not evident in Chilemba's efforts.
In the fourth, however, the still-energized Chilemba found a home for his jab against the usually defensively-adept Kovalev with surprising efficiency, landing 15 of the 37 he threw. He may have won that round, and he probably won the next two. Kovalev had his moments in those rounds: a right hand in the fifth, a hook and right hand in the sixth. But Chilemba, increasingly emboldened, was now turning his own jab into a hook and was catching Kovalev with it repeatedly.
As the raucous crowd grew increasingly nervous, and an upset no longer appeared inconceivable, Chilemba’s relative success led to a slackening of his guard; presented with the slimmest of opportunities, Kovalev took it. A body shot in the seventh froze Chilemba, leaving him in place for a straight right that sent him stumbling backward into the ropes, where Kovalev launched another right into the side of his head that sent him crashing to the canvas. The man from Malawi beat the count—barely—and survived to the end of the round, but in the next frame seemed on the verge of defeat. A stiff jab hurt him again, as did a hook that followed immediately after. He backed to the ropes, Kovalev thudded an uppercut into his jaw, and again Chilemba would have been happy to hear the bell.
The challenger recovered a little in the ninth and tenth, but he was once more on the retreat, and his fight now was to survive more than to win. The degree to which Kovalev’s punches were taking their toll was evident when, after a left hook hurt him at the end of the eleventh, Chilemba draped himself over a neutral corner, seemingly attempting to catch his breath and regain his senses and maybe decide for sure if he wanted to reenter battle for three more minutes.
He did so, and Kovalev battered him for the last of those three minutes in one last desperate attempt to finish the fight inside the distance. He could not do so, however, and instead had to settle for scores of 116-111, 117-110, and 118-109 in his favor. Chilemba was a moral victor, but Kovalev was the actual winner; and as he held his infant son Alexander as the scores were announced, the pressure was finally off.