Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Eric Raskin
For seven years, for the first 31 fights of his professional boxing career, all Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev did was Krush. From Gabriel Campillo to Nathan Cleverly to Jean Pascal, one opponent after another got battered and/or bloodied and/or embedded in the canvas. Even Bernard Hopkins, who defied the trend by lasting long enough to hear the scorecards read, came the closest he’d ever come to that point in a 60-plus-fight career to getting stopped. Kovalev never took a backward step. He was the snowball rolling down the hill, rolling over every opponent in its path, and rolling up the pound-for-pound lists.
Two days after Thanksgiving, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (on HBO World Championship Boxing on Saturday at 10 PM ET/PT), we will be introduced to a different Kovalev. One who failed to dominate in his last two fights (three, if you count his uneven performance in decisioning Isaac Chilemba). One who was dominated last time out. One who has, simply put, lost his aura of invincibility. There are valid reasons and excuses, no doubt. But they don’t change the fact that, for a man who was undefeated and quite possibly the most intimidating boxer on the planet a year ago, rebuilding is now required.
“Right now, I feel all bad things are gone from my mind,” Kovalev (30-2-1 with 26 KOs) said as he prepared for his comeback bout against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. “Right now I concentrate and I focus for the future of my boxing career.”
While that may be the right approach, the recent past isn’t just going to disappear. Last November 19, the menacing Russian got off to a spectacular start in his light heavyweight title showdown with Andre Ward, flooring the unbeaten Olympic champ with a right hand in the second round. But slowly Ward chipped away at Kovalev’s lead until, at the end of 12 rounds, the three official judges each had Ward ahead by a single point. Plenty of observers, however, thought Kovalev had done enough to win, and certainly The Krusher himself did – other than the aesthetic effect of a zero turning into a one, there was no real damage done.
That wasn’t the case, however, after Kovalev and Ward’s June 17 rematch. Training camp was ablaze with controversy as Kovalev’s relationship with John David Jackson imploded – Team Ward even claimed Jackson approached them about switching sides – and in the ring, Ward took over a close fight in the middle rounds when Kovalev tired. Numerous low blows played a role, and the stoppage itself was curiously timed, but there was also a perfect right hand to the jaw that set up Kovalev’s demise and plenty of clean bodyshots that sapped his strength. Again, Kovalev lost to Ward with asterisks. But again, he did lose to Ward — this time, by eighth-round TKO.
Both a one-time Kovalev opponent and a partner in the company that promotes Shabranskyy, HBO on-air analyst Bernard Hopkins has unique insight into Saturday’s fight. He’s never tried to come back from a stoppage defeat, but Hopkins has certainly dealt with his share of setbacks and knows what it’s like to run into problems with a trainer. And he sees in Kovalev indicators of a fighter who won’t be diminished by this particular adversity.
“I don’t see any problems with him physically,” Hopkins says. “What I did see was confusion in his corner, how to adjust, what to do. Not taking anything away from Andre Ward, but when you go into a fight with distractions, and with a lack of trust in the man who’s giving you information, that’s a hard hump to get over. Physically, Sergey and Andre were on the same level, but Sergey had some stuff in the attic that hadn’t been cleaned out yet. He lost the mental battle before he even got in the ring. The rumblings of problems with John David Jackson started before the first fight, and it reached its climax in the second fight. Look, if you decide to change trainers just because you lost one fight after you won 30 fights, that’s usually a bad choice, an emotional choice. But for Sergey, based on the circumstances, it’s a good choice to make some adjustments.”
Specifically, the adjustment Kovalev made, after heading back to home Russia and contemplating his options, was to part ways with Jackson and hire as his new trainer Abror Tursunpulatov of Uzbekistan, who also works with Russian middleweight prospect Bakhram Murtazaliev and several Uzbek Olympians. Kovalev also brought in conditioning coach Aleksandr Sedov.
“My training camp is going really good,” Kovalev said on a prefight media call. “I’m happy to work right now with my new coach, Abror Tursunpulatov. He’s doing a great job and we understand each other because we speak and understand one language. We understand each other and I feel comfortable.”
Between finding a new trainer with whom he isn’t actively feuding and fighting an opponent who isn’t Andre Ward, the likelihood of Kovalev getting back on track seems promising. And with Ward now retired, rising to the very top of the light heavyweight division again appears well within The Krusher’s reach. There’s talk of a showdown next year with undefeated mega-prospect Dmitry Bivol or proven contender Sullivan Barrera – provided Kovalev can get past Shabranskyy first.
The 6’3½” Ukrainian has height and reach advantages over Kovalev, plus at 30, he’s younger by four years. With 16 knockouts on his 19-1 record, Shabranskyy is a legit puncher, and he’s busy, throwing an average of 70.2 punches per round, according to CompuBox. It must be noted, though, that those gaudy figures were achieved without anyone as scary as Kovalev punching back at him.
“I have a wife and two kids. I’m scared of nobody,” Shabranskyy quipped recently when asked if he fears the power-punching Kovalev. Shabranskyy believes that with his Ukrainian amateur background and more North American techniques learned in the pros, he has the style to give Kovalev fits. But he’s not kidding himself about what he’s up against. “He’s actually much more dangerous after a loss,” Shabranskyy says of Kovalev, “because he has everything to look forward to in this fight.”
Hopkins agrees completely with that assessment. “Sergey Kovalev right now is even more dangerous that when I fought him,” the future Hall of Famer says. “He’s coming for revenge. He’s coming to erase that ‘L’ that he got, to put everyone on notice. It’s going to take a perfect Shabranskyy to be able to win. He can not make mistakes. He has to be mentally strong, not mentally cocky. You can’t go in there cocky, thinking, ‘He just had a loss, I’m tall, I can punch, I’m going to go in there and beat him.’ You think that way, you’re getting knocked out in three rounds.”
“You gotta fight Kovalev with a little bit of fear, a little bit of courage, a little bit of pressure, a little bit of everything,” Hopkins says. “You can’t be too brave, but you can’t be too scared. Shabranskyy can crack. This is a fight that is definitely not going the distance.”
Especially when you consider that Shabranskky was dropped three times in his lone loss, against Barrera, and twice against Paul Parker, but also scored a knockdown of Barrera and rallied to beat Parker by third-round stoppage, this does indeed smell like it’s ending inside 12 rounds. Shabranskyy also has shown a tendency to cut. It’s like Hopkins says: He needs to be perfect.
If he is, we’ll find out whether Andre Ward took more from Sergey Kovalev than just his undefeated record.
On the televised undercard, a potential future Kovalev opponent and the only man to hang a loss on Shabranskyy, Sullivan Barrera (20-1, 14 KOs), takes on Dominican tough guy Felix Valera (15-1, 13 KOs), the only fighter to go 12 rounds with Dmitry Bivol. The 10-rounder is Barrera’s follow-up to an impressive July victory on HBO over Joe Smith Jr., and the 35-year-old Cuban is poised for big opportunities if he can run his winning streak to four straight.
“Felix Valera is a tricky and tough fighter,” Barrera said when the fight was announced. “He is just another obstacle in my way towards fighting for a world title.”
“I am warning Barrera that I am not going to New York for a vacation,” Valera, 29, responded. “I am going to score that upset.”
Also on the card, former next big thing Yuriorkis Gamboa (27-2, 17 KOs) gets what might be his last big chance when he takes on junior lightweight contender Jason Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs) as a late sub in a 10-rounder. The 29-year-old Sosa was scheduled to face Robinson Castellanos, but a back injury forced Castellanos out, and Gamboa – who suffered a shocking upset loss to Castellanos in May – got the call.
“This is probably his last chance,” Golden Boy Promotions President Eric Gomez said of the 35-year-old Gamboa. “This is do or die for him.”