Following his second consecutive loss to Andre Ward — a eighth-round TKO loss — it would have been easy to believe that Father Time was eroding the 34-year-old "Krusher." But after his sensational second-round TKO of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy to reclaim the WBO title — the first of the three belts he won the first time around — one can say that Kovalev, in a way, is reliving his fistic youth.
In his second fight apart from longtime trainer John David Jackson, Kovalev will face Igor Mikhalkin, a fighter who shares Kovalev's nationality (Russian) but who definitely does not share his style — a stick-and-move southpaw who holds the lightly-regarded IBO light heavyweight title and who has scored only one first-round knockout in his career, which took place in his second pro fight more than 10 years ago. Who will emerge victorious in this Russian turf war that will be staged thousands of miles away from Moscow?
The Krusher Returns
While the Ward fights forced Kovalev to go brain cell for brain cell, his most recent bout against Ukrainian Shabranskyy enabled a rededicated Kovalev to bring out the inner beast that defined his rise. He scored two knockdowns in round one and added a third in round two with a right to the side of the head. While Shabranskyy managed to rise once again, a follow-up flurry persuaded referee Harvey Dock to intervene. While Kovalev didn't generate the extreme volume of years past — his 56.5 per round against Shabranskyy paled to the 91.7 he fired against Nathan Cleverly, the 90 he logged against Gabriel Campillo and 80.2 he generated against Cornelius White — he brought back his excellent accuracy (44% overall, 26% jabs, 62% power) while also producing better defensive numbers (23% overall, 18% jabs, 30% power).
Kovalev’s jab, always an underrated weapon given his power displays, was excellent against Shabranskyy (27.5 thrown/7.0 connects per round). Not that his jab had been horrible before (he averaged 23 attempts and 5.6 connects per round in the Ward rematch), but, for Kovalev, it must be comforting to know that his table-setting punch remains exceptional, at least against less-than-elite competition. Given Mikhalkin's southpaw stance and defensive-minded ways, however, Kovalev's jab may be less of a factor. No matter -- if the jab fails, the power is still available.
In his two most recent fights against Thomas Oosthuizen and Doudou Ngumbu, Mikhalkin's fast-twitch punching and excellent mobility helped set the stage for dominant stretches in rounds 7-12 that ultimately resulted in lopsided decision victories. Against the 6-foot-4 Oosthuizen, the 6-foot-1 Mikhalkin increased his work rate from 73.8 punches per round to 99.8 in rounds 7-12 while Oosthuizen's output dropped from to 61.5 to 59.8. During that stretch, Mikhalkin led 166-69 overall, 55-7 jabs and 111-62 power, extending his final leads to 277-113 overall, 94-18 jabs and 183-95 power.
The same scenario unfolded against Ngumbu in the third of their three bouts (all of which Mikhalkin won). There, Mikhalkin's work rate was remarkably consistent (377 punches, or 62.8 per round, in rounds 1-6, and 378, or 63 per round, in rounds 7-12) while Ngumbu's output plummeted from 48.5 in the first six to 28.5 in the last six. Mikhalkin prevailed 75-25 overall, 17-1 jabs and 58-24 power in the second half, resulting in connect leads of 167-58 overall, 55-4 jabs and 112-54 power.
The key to Mikhalkin's ability to tire out opponents is his frequent body jabbing in the first half of fights. Against Oosthuizen, 17 of his 34 body connects were jabs but in rounds 7-12 the body jab accounted for only three of his 26 body connects. Meanwhile, in the first six rounds against Ngumbu, body jabs accounted for 23 of his 42 body connects. When he sufficiently wore out Ngumbu he shelved it as just six of his 27 body connects in rounds 7-12 were jabs. Thus, once Mikhalkin feels that he has sufficiently worn down his opponent, he shelves the body jab to concentrate on driving power shots to the belly. While the body jab proved an effective wearing-down punch against Oosthuizen and Ngumbu, will he be allowed to apply that strategy against Kovalev?
Inside The Numbers
Like all great punchers, Kovalev's (last 8 fights) offense is his defense. His offensive numbers are not overly impressive (although he did land 6.5 jabs per round, slightly higher than the light heavy. avg.), it's his defense. Yes, opponents landed 36.7% of their power punches, but only 4.7 per round, good for a #4 ranking on the CompuBox Categorical Leaders list and half the light heavyweight avg. Kovalev opponents landed just 8.1 total punches per round-#6 on the CompuBox Categorical Leaders list and half the light heavy avg. Mikhalkin is busy (74.9 thrown per round vs. Ngumbu & Oosthuizen) and technically sound (37.3 jabs thrown per round), but will he stay as active once he feels The Krusher's power?
He will try, but he won't succeed. Mikhalkin is an athletic lefty who moves well, punches quickly and has ring intelligence. His fatal weakness, at least against Kovalev, will be his profound lack of shot-for-shot power. Even while dominating Oosthuizen and Ngumbu, his power shots landed with pillow-like impact, and that simply won't do against Kovalev. Mikhalkin's best hope is that Kovalev will get frustrated by his movement and pesky punching but the guess here is that Kovalev's overwhelming power will negate all of Mikhalkin's best-laid strategies. Kovalev by KO, probably within six rounds.