By Nat Gottlieb
Like the fierce middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev is one of those fighters nobody seems to want to step into the ring with. Not only does Kovalev possess a thunderous right hand that hits like an anvil, he can also be one of the meanest fighters in boxing if you cross him.
Give major kudos then to Isaac Chilemba, who not only has the guts to fight the unbeaten Russian, but will do so in a city just 144 miles from Kovalev’s hometown of Kopeysk. This light heavyweight title bout will take place in DIVS Arena in Ekaterinburg on July 11 and will be shown on HBO World Championship Boxing at 10:15 PM ET/PT.
In Kovalev (29-0-1, 26 KOs), Chilemba will be facing a world champion who has knocked out 12 of his last 13 opponents in brutal fashion. The only boxer in that nearly five-year span who was able to survive 12 rounds with him was the notoriously iron-chinned Bernard Hopkins, who has never been knocked out in 64 fights and barely made out of that one.
Chilemba (24-3-2, 10 KOs) is a slick and at times awkward boxer, who fights very much like Hopkins. His style is also similar to the undefeated Andre Ward, which is one of the main reasons Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events, is putting on this fight. Both Kovalev and Ward have already signed an agreement to meet for a major showdown if both get by preliminary opponents.
“One thing that sticks out to me when comparing the styles of Chilemba and Ward is their defense,” says Duva, who promotes Kovalev and Chilemba. “Both fighters are incredibly difficult to hit, and they both show great patience in the ring.”
Duva compares the 33-year-old Russian, who will be making his 8th title defense, with the undefeated knockout machine, Golovkin. “I think that both Kovalev and Golovkin have done a tremendous job of letting their fists do the talking,” she says. “The fans love knockouts and that is exactly what the two of them deliver almost every time they step into the ring.”
While Chilemba is an excellent boxer with a strong chin, Kovalev is more of plodder. “Kovalev’s style is simple,” Duva says. “He comes forward and does everything he can to finish his opponent. Other than his power, I think his biggest strength is his obsession with being the best fighter in the world.”
That obsession is one of the reasons Kovalev bypassed taking an easy fight to prepare for Ward and agreed to fight Chilemba, who has never been knocked out and is a top-10 light heavyweight.
“He does not want easy fights,” Duva says. “He is well aware that Isaac is a dangerous fight for anyone and he welcomed the challenge with open arms. Many fighters in his position would have opted for an easy tune-up fight but Sergey doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”
Chilemba is a hard-luck boxer who’s been on the wrong end of controversial decisions. In his last fight against top contender Eleider Alvarez, Chilemba lost a debatable majority decision on Alvarez’s home turf in Canada. Still, the Malawi native who fights out of South Africa seems unfazed by the tough challenge Kovalev presents.
“I thank Sergey and his team for putting their titles on the line to face me,” Chilemba says. “All I want to say to them is they are in for a surprise. They gave the wrong guy an opportunity. He has never fought someone like me.”
In their press conference for this bout, either by design or just by his nature, Chilemba showed proper respect for Kovalev, which was a smart thing to do. Go ask Jean Pascal, who didn’t. In a rematch with Kovalev in January, Pascal retired on his stool in the 7th round after being battered and bloodied by the Russian, whom he had apparently upset before the fight.
“I don’t like rematches,” Kovalev said after inflicting the beat-down. “But this was a personal fight because Pascal was a special person. I mean he’s not polite with anybody and doesn’t respect fighters.”
Kovalev showed his mean streak when he said, “I would fight more rounds and make him more pain and punish him more,” clearly implying he could’ve knocked out Pascal earlier but was having too much fun clobbering him.
Chilemba hasn’t aroused Kovalev’s ire, but the Russian understands the stylistic problems his opponent presents and is confident he can overcome them. “Chilemba is like a spoiler,” says Kovalev, who has earned the nickname is “Krusher” due to his destructive power. “It’s not an easy fight. He’s not fighting you directly. He’s more of a defensive boxer who moves and does his wrestling moves. His style is uncomfortable for anybody and he’s never been stopped. It’s going to be my goal to solve this problem and stop him early.”
It won’t be so easy, Duva says. “I think Sergey has never faced an opponent with the patience of Chilemba. Isaac is always thinking and waiting for his opponent to make a mistake he can capitalize on.”
One thing’s for sure, with just 10 knockouts in his 24 victories, Chilemba’s not likely to put the Russian down on the canvas. Asked what Chilemba has to do to beat Kovalev, Duva says, “That is a formula no one in the division has managed to figure out yet. However, I believe to be successful, Isaac needs to stick to his game plan. He’s a very intelligent fighter and has the ability to give Sergey a run for his money.”
One possible wrinkle in the fight for Kovalev is this homecoming has a haunting aspect to it. In 2011 Kovalev knocked out Roman Simakov in the same ring where he will fight Chilemba. Simakov was taken to a hospital where he lapsed into a coma and died three days later.
The Russian has been reluctant to talk about that fight, and while historically some boxers are never the same after an opponent has died, Kovalev has given no indication it has affected him. Since the Simakov tragedy, Kovalev has knocked out 11 of his 12 opponents, won a trio of world title belts, and defended his titles seven straight times.