Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK, N.Y -- The Krusher is back.
Three fights and 22 months since scoring his last stoppage victory, and five months after being stopped by Andre Ward, Sergey Kovalev returned to his explosive best, brutalizing Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, knocking him down three times and stopping him in the second round at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Shabranskyy (19-2, 16 KOs) started brightly enough, bouncing on his toes and coming forward behind sharp combinations, but Kovalev was the first to land a telling blow: a short right hand that thumped into his opponent’s jaw. Shabranskyy knocked Kovalev backward with a jab, of all things, but then Kovalev punished him for his impudence by knocking him down with a glancing right hand. Worse was to come for the Ukrainian, in the form of a booming Kovalev right hand that bent him over at the waist; Shabranskyy hung in that position for a second, not moving, not falling, until Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) sent him crashing down with another right and a pair of left hooks. Shabranskyy beat the count, but was in terrible trouble; fortunately for him, as he rose, the clapper sounded to signify that only 10 seconds remained in the round – 10 seconds that Shabranskyy spent clinging to Kovalev for dear life until the bell rang.
To his credit, Shabranskyy did not hide in the second round, choosing instead to fight fire with fire. This turned out to not be a good idea. Although he did steer Kovalev into a short counter hook, the Russian immediately responded with a right hand, another right hand and a further pair of rights that dropped Shabranskyy to his knees. Again, valiantly, he rose; Kovalev calmly turned his attention to his opponent’s body, landing a sequence of thudding right hands, then switched back upstairs with a combination that had Shabranskyy reeling anew and staggering backward to the ropes. As Shabranskyy’s corner climbed the steps to throw in the towel, referee Harvey Dock stopped it with 2:36 of the round elapsed.
“It is my goal to be the best in the division,” said Kovalev afterward. “I feel like in my last fight, I was not really stopped. It was a decision by the referee.” Asked by HBO’s Max Kellerman how he felt about a new crop of challengers – such as Dmitry Bivol and Artur Beterbiev – emerging, Kovalev responded with enthusiasm.
“This makes boxing more interesting. We can make good fights for boxing fans. It’s good for boxing history, so we know who is the best. I am ready for any champion. Let’s do it. I am ready. I’m back.”
The co-main event was able to have pretty much everything – an exchange of knockdowns in the opening round, a bad cut, and a total of four point deductions – and yet still wind up as an unsatisfying and frequently ugly mess. After ten rounds of light-heavyweight action, Sullivan Barrera secured a unanimous decision win over Felix Valera by the lopsided scores of 98-88, 97-90 and 97-89. The decision was a just one: Barrera was the one doing most of the work from beginning to end, and pressed the action despite being cut over the left eye in the second round.
Things started brightly when Valera (15-2, 13 KOs), dropped Barrera with a left hook to the head that immediately followed one to the body. Barrera landed with a thud but was up swiftly and immediately set about exacting retribution, which he secured when a right hand a hook dropped Valera to all fours at the very end of the same round.
Unfortunately, that was pretty much the high point of the entire contest, thanks largely to Valera, whose style was a combination of loosey-goosey defense interspersed with periods of wild swinging, specifically of punches that had a tendency to land below the belt. On three separate occasions, Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) recoiled violently from Valera low blows, and each time referee Michael Ortega docked the Dominican a point. Not that Barrera was entirely without blame, as some of his punches also strayed low during sporadic wild exchanges, and when Valera dropped to his knees from one of those south-of-the-equator shots in the ninth, Ortega inducted Barrera into the point deduction club, too. But it made no difference: while Valera spent much of the contest moving, slipping and showboating, Barrera consistently pressed ahead with the job at hand, walking Valera down, landing scoring punches and winning the bulk of the rounds.
In the opening bout, former featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa scored a controversial majority decision win over Jason Sosa in a fight that was frequently scrappy, and featured a lot of holding and mauling, much of it by the Cuban émigré. After a close and uneventful opening three minutes, Sosa (20-3-4, 15 KOs) had an effective second round landing some strong left hooks and a right hand that caught Gamboa cleanly on the chin. But Gamboa (28-2, 17 KOs), a late replacement for Robinson Castellanos, pulled away over the next several rounds, landing fast combinations and using footwork and upper body movement to evade Sosa’s responses. But Sosa’s constant pressure began to tell, and he was credited with a knockdown in the seventh when Gamboa’s glove touched the canvas. Gamboa was also docked a point in the tenth for constant holding; but at the end of ten rounds, the three judges ringside decided he had done enough, awarding him a majority decision by scores of 94-94, 95-93 and 96-92, a result that was met with loud disapproval from the crowd.