Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Eleider Alvarez began the night with a career record of just 11 stoppage wins in 23 career victories. He ended it with 12 from 24, and no matter how many knockouts he scores over the rest of his career, it’s hard to believe any will be as big as the seventh-round explosion that sent Sergey Kovalev crashing to the canvas three times and to a shocking defeat.
Alvarez (24-0, 12 KOs) had been inactive for 14 months, waiting forlornly for the opportunity to fight for the light-heavyweight belt held by Adonis Stevenson, the belt for which he had been the mandatory challenger for two years. He was the heavy underdog to take the title for which he instead ended up fighting, held by a Kovalev whose last two knockout victories suggested he was once more approaching the form that had made him such a feared force as he tore his way through the division on the way to the top. But Alvarez started brightly, showing fast hands and a willingness to throw flurries to the body and head. Over the first couple of rounds, Kovalev looked uncertain, trying to feint his way in but being kept at a range that suited his challenger. A stiff jab from the Colombian snapped back Kovalev’s head in the second, and a hard right hand afterward caught the Russian’s attention.
Alvarez began the third continuing to land snapping jabs, but about halfway through the frame the narrative looked to be on the verge of changing. Kovalev (32-3-1, 28 KOs) began stalking forward with greater purpose, as if comfortable that Alvarez could not hurt him, seemingly finding his range and timing.
If the third marked a comeback of sorts from Kovalev, the fourth threatened to be decisive. Kovalev now was moving forward with energy, firing punches in volume, working Alvarez to head and body. A right hand appeared to hurt the challenger, as did a left/right combination. A hook landed behind the Alvarez jab, and another. Alvarez landed a right hand at the bell, but the fourth was clearly Kovalev’s round.
So were the fifth and the sixth, although Alvarez made adjustments to limit the damage, circling at a distance, limiting Kovalev to one punch at a time, aiming to catch the champion as he came forward. Kovalev used a constant jab to set up power punches, which he was now throwing with variety as well as menace: an uppercut, a hook, a right hand. By the end of the sixth, Alvarez was looking slightly ragged, a sense accentuated by a nasty cut on his left cheek.
Then came the seventh, and an ending that seemingly came from nowhere. Alvarez uncorked a huge right hand that detonated with atomic force on Kovalev’s jaw. Kovalev shuddered as he crashed to his haunches, sat on the canvas for several seconds, and hauled himself up with no great conviction. He attempted to reenter the fight, but the fight had been knocked out of him with that one punch. Alvarez landed more to be sure: a left hook and a right hand sending him down on to his knees and then onto his side, his left arm bent awkwardly beneath and behind him. Referee David Fields would have been justified halting the action there and then, but he allowed Kovalev one last chance to prove himself able to continue. It took Alvarez just one more punch – another right hand – to send Kovalev down again and convince Fields to step in and stop the action. Time of the stoppage was 2:45.
So decisive was the knockout, coming a little over a year after a stoppage loss to Andre Ward that first punctured the veneer of invincibility that had long surrounded him, that one wonders whether it marked not just a loss but the end of Sergey Kovalev’s career. He will need to ponder his options, with a putative clash with compatriot Dmitry Bivol now off the table. Bivol may end up finding himself dancing with Alvarez, who could barely contain his joy afterward.
“I can’t even describe how I feel,” he said to HBO’s Max Kellerman in the ring. “I wanted to show that I am strong, I have a good chin, and I’m ready for big things. I’m ready for the best in the world. Whoever comes, I’m ready.”