By Kieran Mulvaney
Sergey Kovalev was the picture of calm as he chatted backstage before the weigh-in on Sunday for his Monday battle with Isaac Chilemba on HBO World Championship Boxing at 10:15 PM ET/PT. As well he might: after five years of plying his trade in foreign shores, he is fighting in his native Russia, at the DIVS Sports Palace in Yekaterinburg, a mere 130 or so miles from his hometown of Chelyabinsk. His confident demeanor may also be a reflection on the fact that Chilemba – a perfectly fine prizefighter, who would be a worthy opponent for almost any other light heavyweight and a likely favorite against many – is not expected to provide much of a challenge, and in fact is expected to be swatted to one side as Kovalev marches toward a November 19 clash with Andre Ward.
In such circumstances, it might not seem a good time for Chilemba to split from his trainer Buddy McGirt, which signs suggest he has done, although he will not say so explicitly. His training camp was in South Africa, where the Malawi native lives, and under the supervision of Jodi Solomon, who will be in his corner on Monday night. Solomon, who is also his manager, naturally enough thinks the situation is no disadvantage at all – whatever it is, she would say with a smile only that she would discuss it “after the fight.” “He always does his best work with me,” she asserted on Sunday afternoon.
That best is going to have to be something exceptional if Chilemba is to defy the odds makers and derail the Kovalev train in front of Krusher’s family and friends. The Russian has yet to taste defeat as a professional and has barely been hurt; since his last fight here, he has demolished Nathan Cleverly, dominated Bernard Hopkins and twice bludgeoned Jean pascal – among other victories – to secure recognition as the best light-heavyweight fighter in the world (gathering three sanctioning body belts along the way) and become widely regarded as, at worst, one of the top half-dozen fighters pound-for-pound on the planet.
Compubox statistics show that Chilemba throws, on average, more punches per round than his opponent; he lands more, too. But not all punches are created equal, and it is the nature of Kovalev’s that are largely responsible for making him such a prohibitive favorite. He has scored knockouts in 87 percent of the bouts he has fought. He has more stoppage victories than Chilemba has wins. And the Malawian, unlike the champion, has suffered losses: three of them as a professional, most recently to Tony Bellew and Eleider Alvarez. And while the Alvarez reversal was controversial, and the loss to Bellew looks slightly better in light of the Englishman’s recent impressive win over Ilunga Makubu, neither are the level of foe to whom you should be even coming close to losing to if you harbor realistic hopes of dethroning Kovalev.
The unexpected is not the impossible; that’s why they fight the fights. But the very strongest of likelihoods is that Kovalev’s homecoming will be a happy one, and that the next time we see him will be ringside in Oakland, watching Ward take on Alexander Brand and hoping that he too will secure an expected win to set up the match everyone really wants to see.
Weights from Yekaterinburg:
Isaac Chilemba 174.8 lbs.
Sergey Kovalev 174.6 lbs.