On Saturday evening, Madison Square Garden will host a light heavyweight championship sweepstakes (aired on HBO World Championship Boxing at 10:05 PM). In the main event, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) will defend his belt against fellow Russian, Igor Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs) and undefeated Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs) will face the formidable and exciting Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs).
In November 2016 the Krusher lost his titles in a hotly disputed decision to Andre Ward. Eight months later in a rematch, Ward worked Kovalev’s body to score a shocking eighth round TKO. But even the second tussle was not without its share of question marks about low blows and the ref possibly calling an early halt to the contest.
Make no mistake about it, Kovalev is a boxer with heavyweight ambitions of fistic greatness. Much to his chagrin, there will be no redemption from the embarrassing loss to Ward, since the S.O.G. announced his retirement a few months after their second fight. Far from being crushed, the Krusher, who is still ranked fifth on Ring’s pound-for pound list, seems to have learned something from that defeat.
This past November, Kovalev rebounded to reclaim his WBO belt with a spectacular second round stoppage of the Ukrainian power puncher, Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. On that night, Kovalev looked better than ever; his footwork was fluid and he mixed his punches up and jabbed to the body to set up his thermonuclear straight right.
Kovalev can crush ribs, to say nothing of a fighter’s confidence and alas, marketability. Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager noted, "It's still very difficult to find light heavyweights who want to fight Sergey.” He added, “Many thanks to Igor Mikhalkin, who is confident enough to take on The Krusher and get a big opportunity.”
A native of Russia now fighting out of Germany, Mikhalkin is ranked fifth by the WBO and is surfing a ten-fight win streak against less than stellar opposition. The most significant victory on his résumé is over Doudou Ngumbu, whom he has beaten not once but thrice. Mikhalkin is a southpaw. He has a snapping jab, good balance, and solid technique. He does not, however, pack a lot of pop. Worse yet, Mikhalken’s lack of head movement and his something less than flash-dance footwork does not make it difficult to find his inbox. The challenger has durable neural circuitry but it has never been tested by jolts from the likes of Kovalev, one of the hardest punching 175-pounders since Bob Foster.
Stranger things have happened in the world of the ring, but without elusiveness or the blows that could mire Kovalev’s relentless attack, Mikhalkin has an Everest to climb on Saturday night and he seems to know it: “This is most likely the most important fight in my career. This is the greatest opponent I've ever fought...I'm happy to make my debut in Madison Square Garden, and I'm making sure that I'm training really hard to keep this fight in my favor.”
In a bygone era, a boxer would not have dreamed of becoming a world champion in his twelfth bout, but that is precisely what Dmitry Bivol accomplished in November when he became the WBA light heavyweight champion with a first-round knockout of the unheralded Trent Broadhurst. The WBA has mandated that Bivol defend his title against number one contender Cuban-born Sullivan Barrera .
Both Bivol and Barrera boast long and celebrated amateur careers. Born in Kyrgyzstan but now residing in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Bivol began boxing at six and is a veteran of almost 300 amateur fights. Barrera, who defected to the US in 2009 and lives in Miami, was a world class amateur with a ledger of 285-27. He made his professional debut the same year he arrived in the U.S.
The thirty-five-year-old Barrera has faced far stiffer competition than Bivol. He went 12 rounds in a respectable but losing effort with Andre Ward in May 2016 but then went on to notch knockouts over Shabranskyy (17-0) Paul Parker (8-1), and decision wins over Joe Smith Jr.(23-1) and Felix Valera (15-1)
Understandably, many fighters today who are more concerned about cash than world titles, but Barrera craves a crown. He once turned down a big money meeting with Kovalev because there was no title on the line. Now, he says, “I have been waiting my whole life for the title fight, so that day is finally here. Very important fight for me, so I'm very happy for that.”
Like Kovalev, whom he much admires, Bivol packs a double barrel of a straight right, which he sets up nicely with a jab and then follows with a left uppercut or left hook. He has fast hands and is a focused finisher who will let fly gales of straight punches when he has his opponent hurt.
No doubt thanks to their extensive amateur experience, Bivol and Barrera are masters of the jab. Both brawl with science, making frequent use of a hard jab to the body. Bivol has a tendency to bring his left back low after he jabs, but the menace of his right hand might cause his opponent to hesitate to capitalize on that flaw.
The 27-year-old Russian champ is adept at cutting off the ring; however, that won’t be necessary with Barrera. Barrera attacked Ward and he will not be shy about exercising the same aggression against Bivol.
Though he has an orthodox style and is combination puncher who remains in the pocket, Barrera is also a gambler who will take his chances with wide left lead hooks. Sometimes his attempted surprise attack works. Sometimes not. Barrera moves his punches up and down but has been known to step back after a combo and drop his paws.
Ward had him down twice, and Barrera kissed the canvas in the first frames of his last two fights.
Bivol is a cool and collected combat artist who does not get intoxicated by the sleeping powder he possesses in his right hand. For all is talent, Bivol is not kidding himself. He knows that on Saturday in the mecca of mayhem, he will face the midterm exam of his blossoming career. The confident young champion acknowledges, “I am definitely aware that Barrera is probably one of the best fighters that I've ever faced, probably the best fighter. But to me, every fight is important…everything's on the line, so I need to go out and do my best and make sure that I show my best qualities and do my best fighting.”