Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK, NY -- Sergey Kovalev scored his second consecutive stoppage victory at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but whereas his previous opponent, Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, offered little resistance before being battered into submission in the second round, Igor Mikhalkin proved to be a more stubborn proposition.
Not that Kovalev’s compatriot ever threatened to defeat his fellow Russian: he had neither the skill nor, importantly, the power to spring the upset. But his awkward, herky-jerky southpaw style proved something of a conundrum for Kovalev to solve. Kovalev, however, seemed fully resigned from the opening bell to the fact that this was a fight that he just needed to win, but should not expect to win prettily.
Mikhalkin was not exactly elusive, but he kept his guard high and swung his upper body from side to side, lunging in with unorthodox lead left hands and then stepping to his right, making it hard for Kovalev to land cleanly. The tone was set early, as Mikhalkin swarmed Kovalev to the ropes, not so much with punches as with his whole body, only for Kovalev (32-2-1, 27 KOs) to drive him back with short punches on the inside. Knowing that his former fellow national amateur team member was going to prove a tough out, Kovalev was clearly keeping something in reserve, not over-committing to his punches, not attempting to land with power but just looking to land with whatever he could.
Mikhalkin did score with some southpaw lead lefts in the third, which appeared to briefly fill him with the courage to stand and fight, allowing Kovalev to land some clean counter lefts and sharp rights in the fourth. By the sixth, Kovalev was fully dialed in. He walked Mikhalkin (21-2, 9 KOs) into a right hand in the sixth, and then cracked him with a left hook that sent him lurching across the ring.
By the end of the sixth, Mikhalkin’s face was a mess, his right cheek cut and swelling and his eye closing. Sensing the end was near to start the seventh, he did his best to fight his way out of trouble, but a Kovalev right hand hurt him, and now the Krusher knew he had his prey where he wanted him. But before he could finish him off, referee Steve Willis halted the action for Mikhalkin’s battered visage to be examined by the ringside physician, who immediately told Willis to stop the contest, at 2:25 of the round.
A smiling Kovalev, after scoring his second straight win following his defeats by Andre Ward smiled and said, “Yes, I’m back. But not against southpaws. He’s not an easy fighter. He’s a good boxer. He showed stamina and movement, he’s a great boxer.” Asked if he was now ready for a bigger fight, he smiled again. “I’m always ready, but not against southpaw. If it’s big money fight, yes I’m willing.”
That fight could be against non-southpaw Dmitry Bivol, who took a major step up in opposition against Sullivan Barrera in the co-main event and passed the test impressively.
Barrera had the option to fight Kovalev on Saturday night but, arguing that the pay being offered was insufficient, opted instead to take on the young undefeated Bivol. That gamble backfired as Bivol outboxed and outfought him before scoring a knockout victory with a thumping right hand in the twelfth and final round to retain a light-heavyweight title and continue his march to the very top of the division.
Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs) was in control from the outset, firing a stiff jab that backed up Barrera in the opening round. Known to this point primarily for his knockout power, Bivol rapidly established that he was faster of hand and foot than his opponent, bouncing on his toes to move in and out, taking a half step back and out of range whenever Barrera set to punch, and then sliding back in to fire off rapid combinations. By stepping back, Bivol forced Barrera to lean in with his punches, which not only negated any power they might have had by the time they landed, but also left the Cuban-born Miami resident in perfect range for Bivol’s counters.
Still, Barrera (21-2, 14 KOs) is a cagey and skilled veteran, and was keeping a tight enough defense and throwing enough offense to prevent Bivol from landing a truly clear shot until the fourth, when a flurry was followed by a hook that had Barrera in some trouble. He survived the Russian’s follow-up assault, but then a three-punch combination was followed by a straight right to Barrera’s head that sent the spray flying. Another three-punch Bivol combination in the sixth was punctuated with a clean left hook.
Barrera was by now wearing the expression of a man who was beginning to regret his life choices – and certainly this particular one – but he refused to go away quietly, offering enough offense to keep Bivol honest. But whereas the Russian’s punches were sharp, snapping and frequently throw in combination as part of a planned assault, Barrera’s were largely one at a time, reactive and thrown as if to merely to keep Bivol at bay.
Bivol almost broke through again in the eighth, hurting Barrera and forcing him to hang on to ride out the storm of a follow-up assault. By the tenth – the one round that all three judges scored for Barrera – and the eleventh, Bivol was in cruise control, bouncing on his toes, moving in and out and throwing his stiff jab and, whenever he sensed an opening, right hand. But he began the twelfth in seek-and-destroy mode, to concussive and conclusive effect. Bivol fired a jab, thought about a follow-up right, paused when he didn’t have a clean shot, fired another jab, and another, and then saw an opening for a right hand, which exploded on Barrera’s temple and sent him crashing to his back along the ropes.
Somehow, the Cuban hauled himself to his feet, but slowly and unsteadily, and referee Harvey Dock, seeing he was in no condition to continue, called a halt at 1:41 of the round.
CompuBox statistics underlined Bivol’s dominance. He landed 243 of 778 total punches, compared to 75 of 606 for Barrera; his power punch stats were even more lopsided in his favor, landing 146 to just 65.
Even so, his face showed he had not had things entirely his own way: he was cut over the right eye by a head butt, and another clash of heads raised a nasty welt on his forehead. And the fighter appeared to give himself a passing grade but not much more.
“It was a really great opponent,” he said. “Sullivan Barrera showed me a lot of things tonight that I have to work on. Thank you, Sullivan. In the first few rounds, I was a little bit reserved. I was thinking about how much I needed to go the rest of the fight. In the 12th round, I knew I could stop him, and I stepped on the gas and got the knockout.”