By Eric Raskin
“If you make that move ever again, the next time, when you come back to the corner, I won’t be here. I’ll be home.” If your first guess for a boxing trainer to whom to attribute that quote is Teddy Atlas, you’re thinking sensibly and going with the chalk. But it is in fact something Freddie Roach, not typically known for being overly dramatic in talking to his charges, said recently to Jean Pascal.
When Pascal first came to the Wild Card Boxing Club and asked Roach to train him for his rematch with Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev, Roach was “a little doubtful”—both about whether he’d take the job and about Pascal’s chances of winning. But the Hall of Fame trainer thought about the mistakes he saw Pascal make in the ring last March 14 (for strategic security reasons, he wouldn’t reveal what those mistakes were), believed he could fix them, and found himself immediately impressed by the Haitian-Canadian’s ability to follow his commands and make the requested adjustments.
With the exception, of course, of that one time Pascal forced Freddie to go Teddy on him.
On January 30 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, the same arena in which 10 months ago Kovalev stopped Pascal in the eighth round of what had been the toughest test of the rampaging Russian’s title reign, the baddest man in the light heavyweight division and arguably the baddest opponent available to fight him will meet again. Their first fight provided edge-of-your-seat thrills and, at least according to Pascal's camp, an inconclusive finish. Despite this, not every observer is on board with a rematch because they wonder if the outcome is preordained—especially given how Pascal, now 33, struggled in his next fight, a controversial decision win over Yunieski Gonzalez. Why would a rematch be any different? Isn’t the historical pattern that in a rematch to a fight that ended in a knockout, the same fighter tends to win faster the second time?
If you’re looking for a counterpoint, well, that’s where Roach, the most successful trainer of this century, comes in.
“If anyone can get something new out of Pascal, it’s probably Freddie,” opined HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley. “He has to get credit for what he did with Miguel [Cotto], and even in losing to Canelo [Alvarez], Miguel was a lively, committed, creative fighter, doing the best he could within that style matchup, I thought. So Freddie has a proven track record of helping guys to find new answers in the middle of their careers. If you’re going to bet on any trainer to produce a brand new Pascal at this moment, you would bet on Freddie.”
Roach believes the stoppage in the first fight was premature, and he said of the rematch, “I honestly think that if there’s a stoppage in this one, it’s going to be the other way.” On the one hand, Roach always expresses supreme confidence going into a fight. On the other hand, at this stage of his life and career, why would Roach elect to work with any boxer he doesn’t believe can win?
While Pascal and Roach seek to prove the doubters wrong, it’s the 32-year-old Kovalev (28-0-1, 25 KOs) who is under the serious pressure. He has to keep living up to his hype, hold onto his undefeated record, and stay on track for the major opportunities that await later this year. Specifically, a showdown with fellow undefeated pound-for-pound entrant Andre Ward is in the works.
“Everything down to the ring size has been agreed to,” explained Kovalev’s promoter, Kathy Duva, who noted that the fight will be at the 175-pound limit, no catchweight. “We were told Ward would not be available to fight Sergey until the fourth quarter [of 2016], so that’s the plan and we are ready. Sergey would have taken the fight in March. When they said they need more time, that’s one of the reasons we moved on the Pascal fight and made it very early in the year, so that we could get Sergey in the ring at least once more before the fight with Ward. Our plan is if he beats Pascal, then we will certainly have him fighting in June.”
He must first get past former lineal light heavyweight champion Pascal (30-3-1, 17 KOs), and one potential hurdle there is the threat of Kovalev not being properly motivated for a fight he won once before. Lampley calls it “an obvious trap fight for Kovalev.” Duva had similar misgivings—until Pascal began trash talking, providing bulletin board material for The Krusher. “Motivation was my main concern going into this fight, and Pascal’s talk erased that,” she said. It also can’t hurt that Pascal and Kovalev made a $50,000 side wager (winnings go to charity) on whether Kovalev can knock Pascal out more quickly than he did the last time.
That brings us back to the stoppage in the first fight. Kovalev, who seems predictable at first glance with his jab/right hand approach but mixes up speeds and angles in a way that seems to surprise opponents, controlled the first three rounds and sent Pascal to the canvas at the tail end of the third. Pascal came back and had his moments in the next two rounds, even doubling Kovalev over with a body shot in the fifth. But the Russian soon regained full command and rocked the local favorite with a left hook just before the bell to end the seventh. In the eighth, things got weird. The Krusher hurt Pascal along the ropes, but slipped to the canvas as he pursued him. As referee Luis Pabon wiped off Kovalev’s gloves and prepared to reset the fighters, Pascal careened across the ring untouched. The fight continued, Kovalev landed two punches, and Pabon waved it off at 1:03 of the round. Pascal and the Montreal faithful protested the stoppage, and though Pascal was clearly balance-impaired at that moment, there was something aesthetically unsatisfying about the way the shootout ended so abruptly.
So they’re doing it again. Kovalev is the same beast he was 10 months ago, his knockout rate now up to 86 percent and his pound-for-pound rating higher than ever. Pascal may or may not be a diminished fighter, and he may or may not have an enhanced corner. Roach says an upset knockout is coming. Kovalev put $50,000 behind a knockout win of his own in fewer than 22 minutes of action. The popular expectation seems to be that Kovalev will win that bet.
And unfortunately for Pascal, Kovalev has yet to step into the ring for a significant fight and perform below expectation.
For those fight fans who can’t get enough of undefeated Russian pugilists, the co-feature at the Bell Centre offers the HBO debut of Dmitry Mikhaylenko, whose nine knockouts among 20 wins and “The Mechanic” nickname suggest he’s not exactly a carbon copy of Kovalev. The 29-year-old welterweight prospect does fight out of the same stable as Kovalev (promoter Main Events, manager Egis Klimas), and observers who’ve seen him easily handle the likes of Ronald Cruz, Sechew Powell, and Johan Perez certainly have high hopes for him.
However, Mikhaylenko faces a curveball in his first premium-cable plate appearance. Ray Robinson (no, not that Ray Robinson) pulled out of the fight on short notice due to injuries suffered in a car accident and has been replaced by Karim “Hard Hitta” Mayfield (19-2-1, 11 KOs). So Mikhaylenko went from preparing for a 5’10” southpaw to facing a 5’7” righthander. We’ll get a sense on Saturday night of just how stocked this Mechanic’s box of tools is.