HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney discuss what they learned from Sergey Kovalev's destructive second-round knockout win over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, plus they analyze Sullivan Barrera's hard-earned win over Felix Valera and Yuriorkis Gamboa's controversial triumph over Jason Sosa.
Photos: Ed Mulholland
By: Kieran Mulvaney
After defeating Sergey Kovalev in June, Andre Ward pondered his options — even going so far, in the adrenalin-fueled immediate aftermath of his stoppage win, as to kinda sorta almost call out heavyweight behemoth Anthony Joshua — before ultimately deciding that the best option was to walk away from the ring entirely. Among his considerations was the fact that, as he surveyed the landscape of the light-heavyweight in which he resided, he saw no possible matchup that enticed or challenged him, nothing that would make it worthwhile for him to stick around.
On one level, the fact that both the main event and principal supporting feature on Saturday night’s HBO World Championship Boxing broadcast (10 PM ET/PT) feature men whom Ward has dispatched — Kovalev and Sullivan Barrera — reinforces that notion. On the other hand, the irony is that the division as a whole is starting to heat up, with a growing armory of young guns who are blasting their way toward the top. Dmitry Bivol recently flattened Trent Broadhurst inside a round. Shortly afterward, Artur Beterbiev, highly touted early but of late sidelined by injury, made it 12 KOs in 12 career starts at the expense of Enrico Koelling. Oleksandr Gvozdyk may be the pick of the up-and-coming crop, although the likes of undefeated Eleider Alvarez and Marcus Browne and once-defeated Badou Jack are thoroughly in the mix. Waiting for them are Kovalev and Barrera (and, perhaps, Canada’s Adonis Stevenson, who is actually the lineal champion but who, unfortunately, seems to have permanently eschewed the notion of a real challenge). The Russian and the Cuban may face off against each other in the new year; but first, they will warm up against separate foes.
Barrera faces Felix Valera, a tricky and rangy native of the Dominican Republic who has fought 14 of his 16 pro bouts in his native land, with the other two — including a loss to Bivol — taking place in Russia. Barrera was first seen on HBO in a determined but ultimately one-sided loss to Ward in March 2016; since then, he has scored three emphatic wins, and his star is rising.
Kovalev’s star, however, has dimmed of late. That is largely because it had been situated so high, and had shone so brightly, in the firmament before the Ward stoppage, and also because it has now been 22 months since the Krusher has scored a knockout. For Kovalev, Saturday’s tussle with Vyacheslav Shabranskyy — a Ukrainian whose sole career loss came to Barrera — is a reboot, the start of a process to recover from the indignity of being stopped by Ward and to make himself anew into The Man at light-heavyweight.
In the five months following his defeat, Kovalev, by his own admission and in roughly chronological order, visited Russia, drank a lot, steered a speeding car off the road and into some trees to avoid an onrushing vehicle (while suffering nothing worse than a bloody nose in the process), visited a monastery in Greece, returned to the United States, curtailed (but did not stop) his drinking, altered his diet, and hired a new trainer. Through it all, he also apparently whipped himself into shape. Two months ago, he was only eight pounds above the light-heavyweight limit, and he was one pound under it when he stepped on the scale on Friday.
In the pre-Ward days, when Kovalev was blasting his way through the division, there was so little meaningful opposition that his manager Egis Klimas thought his client would find better opportunities at super-middleweight, seven pounds lighter.
“When I started, light-heavyweight was dead, and Egis was telling me I should make myself smaller,” as Kovalev put it earlier this week. “But now, everyone is coming here.”
If he overcomes Shabranskyy on Saturday, then Kovalev will be hoping that those newcomers will realize that the road to light-heavyweight glory will once again run through him.
Weights from New York City:
Sergey Kovalev: 174 pounds
Vyacheslav Shabranskyy: 174.8 pounds
Sullivan Barrera: 174.8 pounds
Felix Valera: 174.2 lbs.
Yuriorkis Gamboa: 130.6 pounds
Jason Sosa: 131.2 pounds
Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Eric Raskin
For seven years, for the first 31 fights of his professional boxing career, all Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev did was Krush. From Gabriel Campillo to Nathan Cleverly to Jean Pascal, one opponent after another got battered and/or bloodied and/or embedded in the canvas. Even Bernard Hopkins, who defied the trend by lasting long enough to hear the scorecards read, came the closest he’d ever come to that point in a 60-plus-fight career to getting stopped. Kovalev never took a backward step. He was the snowball rolling down the hill, rolling over every opponent in its path, and rolling up the pound-for-pound lists.
Two days after Thanksgiving, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (on HBO World Championship Boxing on Saturday at 10 PM ET/PT), we will be introduced to a different Kovalev. One who failed to dominate in his last two fights (three, if you count his uneven performance in decisioning Isaac Chilemba). One who was dominated last time out. One who has, simply put, lost his aura of invincibility. There are valid reasons and excuses, no doubt. But they don’t change the fact that, for a man who was undefeated and quite possibly the most intimidating boxer on the planet a year ago, rebuilding is now required.
“Right now, I feel all bad things are gone from my mind,” Kovalev (30-2-1 with 26 KOs) said as he prepared for his comeback bout against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. “Right now I concentrate and I focus for the future of my boxing career.”
While that may be the right approach, the recent past isn’t just going to disappear. Last November 19, the menacing Russian got off to a spectacular start in his light heavyweight title showdown with Andre Ward, flooring the unbeaten Olympic champ with a right hand in the second round. But slowly Ward chipped away at Kovalev’s lead until, at the end of 12 rounds, the three official judges each had Ward ahead by a single point. Plenty of observers, however, thought Kovalev had done enough to win, and certainly The Krusher himself did – other than the aesthetic effect of a zero turning into a one, there was no real damage done.
That wasn’t the case, however, after Kovalev and Ward’s June 17 rematch. Training camp was ablaze with controversy as Kovalev’s relationship with John David Jackson imploded – Team Ward even claimed Jackson approached them about switching sides – and in the ring, Ward took over a close fight in the middle rounds when Kovalev tired. Numerous low blows played a role, and the stoppage itself was curiously timed, but there was also a perfect right hand to the jaw that set up Kovalev’s demise and plenty of clean bodyshots that sapped his strength. Again, Kovalev lost to Ward with asterisks. But again, he did lose to Ward — this time, by eighth-round TKO.
Both a one-time Kovalev opponent and a partner in the company that promotes Shabranskyy, HBO on-air analyst Bernard Hopkins has unique insight into Saturday’s fight. He’s never tried to come back from a stoppage defeat, but Hopkins has certainly dealt with his share of setbacks and knows what it’s like to run into problems with a trainer. And he sees in Kovalev indicators of a fighter who won’t be diminished by this particular adversity.
“I don’t see any problems with him physically,” Hopkins says. “What I did see was confusion in his corner, how to adjust, what to do. Not taking anything away from Andre Ward, but when you go into a fight with distractions, and with a lack of trust in the man who’s giving you information, that’s a hard hump to get over. Physically, Sergey and Andre were on the same level, but Sergey had some stuff in the attic that hadn’t been cleaned out yet. He lost the mental battle before he even got in the ring. The rumblings of problems with John David Jackson started before the first fight, and it reached its climax in the second fight. Look, if you decide to change trainers just because you lost one fight after you won 30 fights, that’s usually a bad choice, an emotional choice. But for Sergey, based on the circumstances, it’s a good choice to make some adjustments.”
Specifically, the adjustment Kovalev made, after heading back to home Russia and contemplating his options, was to part ways with Jackson and hire as his new trainer Abror Tursunpulatov of Uzbekistan, who also works with Russian middleweight prospect Bakhram Murtazaliev and several Uzbek Olympians. Kovalev also brought in conditioning coach Aleksandr Sedov.
“My training camp is going really good,” Kovalev said on a prefight media call. “I’m happy to work right now with my new coach, Abror Tursunpulatov. He’s doing a great job and we understand each other because we speak and understand one language. We understand each other and I feel comfortable.”
Between finding a new trainer with whom he isn’t actively feuding and fighting an opponent who isn’t Andre Ward, the likelihood of Kovalev getting back on track seems promising. And with Ward now retired, rising to the very top of the light heavyweight division again appears well within The Krusher’s reach. There’s talk of a showdown next year with undefeated mega-prospect Dmitry Bivol or proven contender Sullivan Barrera – provided Kovalev can get past Shabranskyy first.
The 6’3½” Ukrainian has height and reach advantages over Kovalev, plus at 30, he’s younger by four years. With 16 knockouts on his 19-1 record, Shabranskyy is a legit puncher, and he’s busy, throwing an average of 70.2 punches per round, according to CompuBox. It must be noted, though, that those gaudy figures were achieved without anyone as scary as Kovalev punching back at him.
“I have a wife and two kids. I’m scared of nobody,” Shabranskyy quipped recently when asked if he fears the power-punching Kovalev. Shabranskyy believes that with his Ukrainian amateur background and more North American techniques learned in the pros, he has the style to give Kovalev fits. But he’s not kidding himself about what he’s up against. “He’s actually much more dangerous after a loss,” Shabranskyy says of Kovalev, “because he has everything to look forward to in this fight.”
Hopkins agrees completely with that assessment. “Sergey Kovalev right now is even more dangerous that when I fought him,” the future Hall of Famer says. “He’s coming for revenge. He’s coming to erase that ‘L’ that he got, to put everyone on notice. It’s going to take a perfect Shabranskyy to be able to win. He can not make mistakes. He has to be mentally strong, not mentally cocky. You can’t go in there cocky, thinking, ‘He just had a loss, I’m tall, I can punch, I’m going to go in there and beat him.’ You think that way, you’re getting knocked out in three rounds.”
“You gotta fight Kovalev with a little bit of fear, a little bit of courage, a little bit of pressure, a little bit of everything,” Hopkins says. “You can’t be too brave, but you can’t be too scared. Shabranskyy can crack. This is a fight that is definitely not going the distance.”
Especially when you consider that Shabranskky was dropped three times in his lone loss, against Barrera, and twice against Paul Parker, but also scored a knockdown of Barrera and rallied to beat Parker by third-round stoppage, this does indeed smell like it’s ending inside 12 rounds. Shabranskyy also has shown a tendency to cut. It’s like Hopkins says: He needs to be perfect.
If he is, we’ll find out whether Andre Ward took more from Sergey Kovalev than just his undefeated record.
On the televised undercard, a potential future Kovalev opponent and the only man to hang a loss on Shabranskyy, Sullivan Barrera (20-1, 14 KOs), takes on Dominican tough guy Felix Valera (15-1, 13 KOs), the only fighter to go 12 rounds with Dmitry Bivol. The 10-rounder is Barrera’s follow-up to an impressive July victory on HBO over Joe Smith Jr., and the 35-year-old Cuban is poised for big opportunities if he can run his winning streak to four straight.
“Felix Valera is a tricky and tough fighter,” Barrera said when the fight was announced. “He is just another obstacle in my way towards fighting for a world title.”
“I am warning Barrera that I am not going to New York for a vacation,” Valera, 29, responded. “I am going to score that upset.”
Also on the card, former next big thing Yuriorkis Gamboa (27-2, 17 KOs) gets what might be his last big chance when he takes on junior lightweight contender Jason Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs) as a late sub in a 10-rounder. The 29-year-old Sosa was scheduled to face Robinson Castellanos, but a back injury forced Castellanos out, and Gamboa – who suffered a shocking upset loss to Castellanos in May – got the call.
“This is probably his last chance,” Golden Boy Promotions President Eric Gomez said of the 35-year-old Gamboa. “This is do or die for him.”
HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney preview Saturday night's light heavyweight showdown pitting a comebacking Sergey Kovalev against Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, plus they examine undercard bouts Sullivan Barrera vs. Felix Valera and Yuriorkis Gamboa vs. Jason Sosa.
Former unified featherweight champion Yuriorkis “El Ciclon de Guantanamo” Gamboa (27-2, 17 KOs) will step in to fight Jason “El Canito” Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs) in a 10-round super featherweight fight at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in the televised opener to Kovalev vs. Shabrankskyy. The event takes place Saturday, November 25 and will be televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing beginning at 10 PM ET/PT.
Gamboa is replacing Robinson “Robin Hood” Castellanos, who pulled out of this fight due to an injury.
Gamboa, a 35-year-old native of Guantanamo, Cuba, is an Olympic Gold Medalist who shot to the top of the Featherweight rankings to win two world titles, defeating the likes of Orlando “Siri” Salido and Daniel Ponce De Leon before officially moving up to 130 pounds. Gamboa has also faced stiff competition as a super featherweight, with wins against Darleys Perez and Rene “El Gemelo” Alvarado under his belt.
“I’m excited for this great opportunity to fight Sosa on the undercard of Kovalev-Shabranskyy,” said Gamboa. “A win over Sosa on HBO could push me back into title contention. I’m a fighter with many aspects and dimensions, and that’s what I’ll bring in my fight against Sosa. For my last fight, I wasn’t prepared well. This time I will be very much prepared, so I can walk away with my hand raised.”
“I’m excited for Gamboa,” said Zeferino Ramirez of ZR Entertainment. “This is the fight we wanted. And I expect big things in 2018. He’ll be ready for any 130-pound champion if he is successful on November 25.”
The 29-year-old Sosa, of Camden, NJ, is the former WBA World Super Featherweight Champion. He earned his title by handing Javier "El Abejon" Fortuna his first loss as a pro with an 11th-round knockout in Beijing, China in June 2016. Sosa successfully defended his title with a 12-round decision win over Stephen Smith in Monte Carlo in November 2016 before returning several months later in a tough fight against Vasyl "Hi-Tech" Lomachenko in April 2017. Sosa is also known for fighting to an impressive majority draw against former WBA Super World Featherweight Champion Nicholas "Axe Man" Walters and for stopping former world title challenger Jerry "The Corpus Christi Kid" Belmontes in only one round.
"People think we have an easier opponent in Gamboa since Castellanos beat him, but we're not buying into that,” said Sosa. “Maybe Gamboa didn't take Castellanos seriously. We expect to see the very best Gamboa on Nov. 25. Having said that, this is not about who we are fighting; this is about why. We are fighting to make Puerto Rico proud after what all the people who live there have been through recently."
“This should be a solid fight between two guys, the same size, who like to hurt people,” said Russell Peltz, Hall of Fame Promoter of Peltz Boxing Promotions. “It's a better matchup, style-wise, than the one between Jason and Robinson Castellanos.”
Photo: Ed Mulholland
Two of the most experienced fighters in the stacked 130-pound division will continue the heated Puerto Rico vs. Mexico rivalry when Jason “El Canito” Sosa (20-2-4, 14 KOs) takes on Robinson “Robin Hood” Castellanos (24-13, 14 KOs) in a 10-round super featherweight fight at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on the televised undercard for Kovalev vs. Shabranskyy. The event takes place Saturday, November 25 and will be televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing beginning at 10 PM ET/PT.
Although the competition between Puerto Rico and Mexico runs deep in the ring, Latinos come together and support each other in times of need. In light of the natural disasters affecting Mexico and the Caribbean, a portion of the proceeds of the ticket sales from this event will be donated to relief efforts for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the earthquake in Mexico City when ticket buyers use the code LATINOSUNIDOS to purchase their tickets through Ticketmaster.
“With the terrible natural disasters that have impacted Puerto Rico and Mexico recently, it was incredibly important to us that we find opportunities in boxing to give back to those affected,” said Oscar De La Hoya, Chairman and CEO of Golden Boy Promotions. “Though Puerto Rico and Mexico are rivals when it comes to boxing we stand together united to help these communities recover and rebuild their lives.”
The 29-year-old Sosa, of Camden, NJ and of Puerto Rican descent, is the former WBA World Super Featherweight Champion. He earned his title by handing Javier “El Abejon” Fortuna his first loss as a pro with an 11th-round knockout in Beijing, China in June 2016. Sosa successfully defended his title with a 12-round decision win over Stephen Smith in Monte Carlo in November 2016 before returning several months later in a tough fight against Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko in April 2017. Sosa is also known for fighting to an impressive majority draw against former WBA Super World Featherweight Champion Nicholas “Axe Man” Walters and for stopping former world title challenger Jerry “The Corpus Christi Kid” Belmontes in only one round. Sosa’s aggressive style should produce fireworks against Castellanos.
"Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico,” said Sosa. “I have been living there for the last few months and I opened a business there. Now to see the destruction and devastation that my people are going through, it breaks my heart. It was very difficult for me to leave and begin my training camp back in New Jersey to get ready for the fight against Castellanos. This fight is important for many reasons. It is the beginning of the road to becoming champion again and it is my way of giving Puerto Rico a reason to smile and be proud. They are my biggest supporters and that little island shows me so much love. I can't do much but I can show them that this win is for them. I want to thank Castellanos and HBO for this opportunity.”
Castellanos is a battle-tested warrior who is coming off a spectacular performance against current WBA Super World Super Featherweight Champion Jezreel “El Invisible” Corrales in July of this year. The 35-year-old native of Guanajuato, Mexico also handed super bantamweight contender and world title challenger Ronny Rios his first career loss, stopping him by TKO in October of 2014. Before challenging for a world title, Castellanos stopped Cuban former unified WBA and IBF Featherweight Champion Yuriorkis “El Ciclon de Guantánamo” Gamboa on the May 5 edition of Golden Boy Boxing on ESPN. After having been so close to winning a world title in his last outing, Castellanos will look to make sure that he gets another crack at the top of the division with a victory on Nov. 25.
“What has happened in Mexico and Puerto [Rico] has been devastating,” said Castellanos. But it has also reminded us that we are strong and united. The crisis won’t be resolved from one day to another, but however long it takes we will lift ourselves up. I know little about Jason [Sosa], but I know that he was a world champion. He has already accomplished a dream that I am still looking to accomplish. I know that I’ll need a victory to fight for a world title again. Both of us will have to leave everything in the ring, and I hope that the people in New York really enjoy our fight.”
HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney look back on Vasyl Lomachenko's ninth-round TKO win over Jason Sosa and discuss his pound-for-pound status and what opponent he should face next. Plus, they assess undercard victories for Oleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk, and weigh in on the signing of the Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev rematch June 17 on HBO Pay-Per-View.
The HBO Boxing Podcast is nominated for a Webby Award for best sports podcast. To vote, click here.
Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
OXON HILL, Md. -- Three different men will act as chief consultants in the corners of the Ukrainians who are contesting the televised bouts on Saturday’s edition of HBO World Championship Boxing (10 p.m. ET/PT). Marco Contreras will be piloting light heavyweight Oleksander Gvozdyk, who takes on tough Yunieksi Gonzalez; Russ Anber will be giving instructions to cruiserweight champion Aleksandr Usyk, who tackles tricky American Michael Hunter.
But the sage whose spirit guides them all is the man who will physically be in the corner for the main event, taking care of his peerless son Vasyl in his junior lightweight bout against Jason Sosa: Anatoly Lomachenko, the man who, more than any other, has been behind the tremendous recent success of Ukraine’s amateur boxing program. The fact that, for the first time in history, a US boxing broadcast features three Ukrainians is a result of his early and ongoing influence on their careers, as is the fact that each of those Ukrainians is regarded as, at worst, a legitimate contender or, at best, a potential great.
Gvozdyk is the man who perhaps has yet to prove himself more than his compatriots, although that is due primarily to how scary good those compatriots already are – as well as the fact that Gvozdyk is the only one who has shown genuine vulnerability at any point so far in his brief professional career. The 2012 Olympic bronze medalist was dropped and seemingly hurt in the opening round against relatively limited Tommy Karpency last July, although the Ukrainian came back to score a sixth-round stoppage. But on either side of that underwhelming outing he impressed; last April, Gvozdyk annihilated Nadjib Mohammedi in two rounds and, last November, looked good against tricky veteran Isaac Chilemba before the Malawian retired with an injured shoulder. At just 12-0 with 10 KOs, Gvozdyk has by most standards barely had time to get his feet wet in the professional ranks, but is already diving in to the deep end.
So, too, is Usyk, who won gold at those same Olympics and won a cruiserweight title in just his 10th professional outing. After making his US and HBO debut with his first defense of that title last December, he takes on the undefeated Hunter – whose late father, heavyweight Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, scored wins over the likes of Frans Botha, Oliver McCall and Tyrell Biggs.
But both Gvozdyk and Usyk are positively pedestrian compared to Lomachenko, who not only won gold in 2012 but did so four years previously, and who already has won world titles at two weights despite being just eight fights into his pro career. The fact that he is the only one of the three to have tasted defeat as a professional is testament, not to his relative lack of talent, but his precociousness: Not only did he challenge for his first title in just his second pro fight, but the man he tackled, Orlando Salido, is ring-savvy and brutally tough. Not only that, but the Mexican missed weight, landed numerous unsanctioned but unpunished blows to Lomachenko’s groin during the course of their bout, and still had to hang on to avoid being knocked out in the 12th and final round. It is perhaps significant that Salido, whom few potential opponents would willingly face unless they had to, has shown little to no inclination to grant Lomachenko a rematch.
Jason Sosa’s last appearance on HBO saw him awarded a draw in a bout with Nicholas Walters that most observers felt he lost. Nonetheless, his performance won him admirers, and subsequent victories against Javier Fortuna and Stephen Smith have underlined his credentials as a legitimate player in the 130-pound division, someone who is certainly in the top 10 in that weight class and perhaps among the upper half of those 10. And yet few outside of the fighter, his family and friends, and his promoter Russell Peltz, give him a prayer of winning more than a round or two against Lomachenko, if that, on Saturday night.
That is a testament to just how good Lomachenko appears to be, a feeling bolstered not just by the subjective “eye test,” but by the cold, hard facts of his results, especially of late. Last year, for example, brought a fifth-round annihilation of Rocky Martinez that was capped with a picture-perfect knockout punch, and a drubbing of Walters so complete that the hitherto undefeated Jamaican simply chose not to fight any more.
But that aforementioned eye test adds an extra dimension, for it reveals a man with sublime defense, blazing fast hands, and perfect footwork that enables him to maintain almost perfect balance at every stage of every contest, whether jabbing in from distance or working in close. The roots of that perfect balance are buried in soil laid by Papa Lomachenko many years ago, when in order to improve Vasyl’s future prospects in boxing, he took him out of the ring and instructed him to learn how to dance.
There is an Odessa-on-the-Potomac feel about Saturday’s card, which takes place in the shadow of the Beltway at the new MGM National Harbor – an impressive property which seems destined to join the roll call of regular boxing venues. These are tumultuous times in the nation’s capital, but for one night at least, expect a peerless Ukrainian to remain the king, his countrymen his courtiers, and his father, standing outside the limelight as the power behind the throne, but enjoying the sight of a lifetime’s work coming to fruition.
Weights from MGM National Harbor:
Vasyl Lomachenko: 129.6 pounds | Jason Sosa: 130.0 pounds
Aleksandr Usyk: 199.4 pounds | Mike Hunter: 198.0 pounds
Oleksandr Gvozdyk: 174.2 pounds | Yuniesky Gonzalez: 174.8 pounds