HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney react to Eleider Alvarez's shocking seventh-round knockout of Sergey Kovalev and Dmitry Bivol's decision win over Isaac Chilemba in a light heavyweight doubleheader from Atlantic City.
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.”
Photos: Ed Mulholland
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In the center of the casino floor at Atlantic City’s brand-new Ocean Resort Casino, a bank of slot machines sits unused, covered in clear tarp. Given the recent history of both the city and of this property (opened to much fanfare as the Revel in 2012, only to declare bankruptcy twice before closing its doors in September 2014), that might be considered an inauspicious sign. Instead, it is for many a beacon of hope, of a new era dawning for casinos across the country and in this oft-benighted town; states are now free to permit legal sports betting if they so choose, and the empty space with the mothballed slot machines has been set aside as the site for the Ocean Resort’s sportsbook.
There was a time when Atlantic City was almost as synonymous with big-time boxing as was Las Vegas. This is where Mike Tyson flattened Michael Spinks in 91 seconds; where an ancient Roberto Duran recovered from being spun around in a near-circle by an Iran Barkley punch to the jaw to annex a middleweight belt; where Ray Mercer nearly decapitated Tommy Morrison; where Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward staged the last two bouts in their unforgettable trilogy; where, indeed, Gatti made his second home and fought his heart out for adoring fans so many times.
It was here, too, that Sergey Kovalev established his dominance over the light-heavyweight division when he outboxed Bernard Hopkins over twelve rounds at the Boardwalk Hall. By the time he did so, however, Atlantic City’s glory days had long since faded, and not just in the boxing realm. His victory took place two months after the demise of the Revel, which was the third of four casinos to close that year.
Big-time boxing has been absent from the World’s Most Famous Playground ever since; but it returns on Saturday, to a town that dares to hope of a renaissance. In what was either an example of either masterful planning or a case study in complete lack of coordination, Ocean Resort opened its doors five weeks ago on the very same afternoon that the ribbon was cut on the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, a ten-minute walk along the boardwalk. In an earlier incarnation, adorned with the name of a reality-TV star now seeking validation in other arenas, this was the venue that saw the first loss of Roy Jones’ career and the final fight of George Foreman’s. It is also the place to which boxing returns when Kovalev defends his light-heavyweight titles against Montreal-based Colombian Eleider Alvarez.
Kovalev has endured his own decline and fall in the 42 months since he was here last: even as he consolidated his grip on the 175-pound division, there was talk of too much drinking and too little training; there were signs of a fissure between him and trainer John David Jackson; there was a less-than-convincing title defense against Isaac Chilemba, and then back-to-back losses — the first of his career — to Andre Ward. There were mitigating factors in each of those defeats, to which his fans continue to cling; Kovalev himself, however, acknowledged that his life needed a reboot, and after too much alcohol and a car accident in his native land, he took to a Greek monastery to find himself and begin a rebuilding process. Outside the ring, he admits, that process is an ongoing one; inside the ropes, it is well underway, with a new trainer and two knockout wins.
He is favored to make it three victories on the bounce against Alvarez, although not overwhelmingly so; but should Saturday unfold according to plan, then he won’t have to look far for the next threat to his reign. That threat is called Dmitry Bivol; in the night’s co-main event he, like Kovalev did before him, defends his own title against Isaac Chilemba. Also like Kovalev during his own ascent, Bivol is being spoken of in an increasingly loud voice as the Next Big Thing, and if both come through their respective tests with flying colors, a clash seems inevitable sooner rather than later.
Kovalev will tackle that threat when the time comes. Until then, both he and the city that is hosting him will be hoping that any challenges that come their way can be dealt with, and that their respective resurgences prove enduring and not just one more false dawn.
Weights from Atlantic City:
Sergey Kovalev: 174 pounds
Eleider Alvarez: 174.4 pounds
Dmitry Bivol: 174.6 pounds
Isaac Chilemba: 175 pounds
By Eric Raskin
A sage man once said, “Never fall in love at the Jersey shore.” I didn’t listen. I fell in love with boxing at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
The date was October 4, 1997. It was my first live fight card after I started my first real job, as an editor at The Ring magazine. In the penultimate fight of the evening, Arturo Gatti, as he was wont to do, rallied from the verge of defeat to knock Gabriel Ruelas out with a left hook in the fifth round of what our magazine would soon name the Fight of the Year. I, like Ruelas, had been swept off my feet. More than two decades later, boxing and I are still together. And it all started in A.C.
This Saturday night, the Boardwalk hosts big-time boxing for the first time in nearly four years when Sergey Kovalev headlines at the newly opened Hard Rock Atlantic City against Eleider Alvarez, with Dmitry Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba in the co-feature (HBO, 10 p.m.). There hasn’t been a fight of this significance in “America’s Playground” since Kovalev dominated Bernard Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall on November 8, 2014.
After some lean years, boxing is starting to make sense in Atlantic City again. Not only did the Hard Rock open its doors on June 28, in the space formerly occupied by the shuttered Taj Mahal, but on the same day, about a half-mile up the Boardwalk, Ocean Resort Casino opened for business, welcoming customers into the stunning space briefly known as Revel Casino Hotel. On August 18, Ocean will host its first boxing card.
In addition to two new casinos reversing the contraction trend in A.C. and pursuing boxing as a means of attracting publicity and foot traffic, regulated sports betting came to New Jersey in June after a May 14 Supreme Court ruling enabled individual states to pass legislation governing it. The correlation between sports betting’s legality and boxing’s popularity is a subject of speculation for now. But suffice to say that rare is the gambler who wagers on a contest and doesn’t then watch that contest.
The 1-2 punch of new casinos and sports betting puts the possibility of an Atlantic City boxing revival on the table. From 1982-’85, A.C. averaged 130 boxing cards a year. In 2006, there were six. Last year, there were 14. We’re a long way from the two-to-three-shows-per-week glory days, but it’s trending in the right direction.
My introduction to covering boxing came at an interesting point for New Jersey. Las Vegas had long been American boxing’s capital city, but Mike Tyson gnawing on Evander Holyfield’s ear in June 1997 — and the riot that followed — caused a temporary shift. The postfight madness at MGM Grand, which, according to some on the scene, included gunshots, led to the provisional locking down of the casino and millions in lost revenue. After that, many Vegas casinos temporarily shied away from hosting big fights, leading several major bouts that otherwise might have been earmarked for Sin City to land in A.C.
That aforementioned October Gatti-Ruelas card was headlined by a heavyweight title bout between Lennox Lewis and Andrew Golota. In November ’97, in the same arena that will host Kovalev-Alvarez, George Foreman took on Shannon Briggs in what would be the final fight of Big George’s legendary career. In December, a pay-per-view card headlined by Oscar De La Hoya vs. Wilfredo Rivera found a home at the shore. And early in ’98, Lewis and Briggs slugged it out on the Boardwalk. I was fortunate enough to attend all of these cards in my first few months on the boxing beat.
The major heavyweight fights migrated back to Las Vegas before long, though, and it soon fell on one man to carry Atlantic City boxing on his back: Gatti. After the Ruelas fight, he fought in A.C. a dozen more times, and I lucked into a ringside seat for all of them. The 1998 Fight of the Year against Ivan Robinson, and the almost-as-good rematch. The second and third bouts of his iconic trilogy with Micky Ward. The crowd-pleasing knockouts of Leonard Dorin and James Leija. Time and again, Gatti fans packed Boardwalk Hall, knowing that whether their hero won or lost, they were almost certain to see something violently dramatic.
Speaking of violently dramatic, Atlantic City played host to Kelly Pavlik’s off-the-floor middleweight championship win over Jermain Taylor. It was in Atlantic City that Derrick Jefferson made Larry Merchant profess his love for him and that Hasim Rahman landed in Jim Lampley’s lap — both on the same night. Holyfield’s head gave Rahman boxing’s all-time freakiest hematoma in Atlantic City. (Rahman must suffer PTSD every time Boardwalk Hall comes into view as he drives up the A.C. Expressway.) It was during the painfully short prime of the Revel that Darren Barker got up from a bodyshot from hell to outpoint Daniel Geale. I’ve seen Floyd Mayweather, Naseem Hamed, and Shane Mosley notch wins in Atlantic City.
But the truth is that Atlantic City boxing’s peak years came before my time. The 1980s were the golden age, powered first by an all-time great class of light heavyweights and then by an all-time great heavyweight attraction.
Matthew Saad Muhammad fought in Atlantic City eight times between 1979 and 1983, Michael Spinks had 11 fights in A.C. between ’80 and ’85, and Dwight Muhammad Qawi fought there 13 times that same ’80-’85 stretch. The Jersey shore was the epicenter of arguably the finest era in 175-pound history.
Then as that was petering out, a wrecking ball named Mike Tyson swung into town. He fought eight times in A.C. before winning his first title, then fought there five times between ’87 and ’90, turning back Tyrell Biggs, Larry Holmes, Carl “The Truth” Williams, Alex Stewart, and, in the biggest fight Atlantic City has ever hosted, Michael Spinks. For 91 seconds, New Jersey’s glitzy, seedy casino town was the center of the sports universe.
More huge heavyweight fights followed: Foreman vs. Gerry Cooney, Holyfield (whose Real Deal Boxing now promotes in Atlantic City) vs. Foreman, Ray Mercer vs. Tommy Morrison, Riddick Bowe’s second fight with Golota. There was also the last great night of Roberto Duran’s career, when, as Old Man Winter raged with a snowstorm outside, the clever old man staved off winter inside and upset Iran Barkley.
Now, after a big-fight hibernation of nearly four years, Kovalev and company are kicking off a new era.
“It’s a great fight that’s got some marquee to it,” Hard Rock Vice President of Entertainment Bernie Dillon recently told the New York Post. “It’s a good start of us. I’m born and raised in Atlantic City and being a boxing fan it makes me feel good we can do something not just for Hard Rock in Atlantic City, but the city. Hopefully it is just the first step to getting more boxing back in this city.”
Before Kovalev, Alvarez, Bivol, and Chilemba step in the ring, fans will, for the first time, be able to walk into a New Jersey casino and place a bet on the outcome. At Borgata, at Ocean, at Bally’s, and at Harrah’s, sports betting windows are open.
Times change, but one thing is constant: Money talks. And that means that over the next few years, odds are I’ll be extending the list of great fights for which I’ve been ringside in Atlantic City.
Light-heavyweight king Sergey Kovalev has a heavyweight mindset to go with
his heavyweight punching power. That said, the fact that the “Krusher” will never get a chance to reverse his losses to the now retired Andre Ward has to feel like a liver shot. Equally troubling, Kovalev has an ardent desire to unify the title and Adonis Stevenson, who owns one of the 175-pound title belts, and whom Kovalev refers to as “Chickenson,” has been avoiding the Russian destroyer for years.
On Saturday, Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) will defend his crown against another light-heavyweight whom Stevenson seems allergic in top contender Eleider “Storm” Alvarez.
Born in Columbia, Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs) won a gold medal in the 2007 Pan American Games. Now residing in Montreal, “Storm” made his professional debut in 2009. Since then, he’s notched impressive victories over the likes of Jean Pascal, Lucian Bute, Isaac Chilemba, Ryno Liebenberg, and Edison Miranda. Despite his ledger against tough opposition, the 34-year-old Alvarez is the first to acknowledge that, “The man I am going to be fighting with. . . is the best in the category of 175 pounds.”
Ward aside, Kovalev has dominated his division to the point that he has had a difficult time landing competitive fights. However, he recognizes that this challenger is a real challenge. Assessing Alvarez, Kovalev said, “It’s a big test for me. He is very motivated. He’s hungry for this fight and for a victory. He’s undefeated. It’s not an easy fight... He’s dangerous. I cannot say whether I can knock him out or get a victory by points. It’s a good fight for the boxing fans.”
There are similarities in the styles of Kovalev and Alvarez. Both combatants boast five-star jabs. Alvarez says, "My jab is my best weapon so I am going to use it against Kovalev."
Though at six feet he is two inches shorter than the champ, Alvarez enjoys a reach advantage and has a quicker trigger. Still, Kovalev has a pulverizing lead left and has even registered knockdowns with his jab.
Both fighters specialize in explosive right hand counters over their opponent’s lead. In fact, it is with this return shot that Alvarez has set up most of his knockouts. There should be plenty of opportunities for Alvarez to answer a left with a zinging right on Saturday night. After all, Kovalev is always pumping his jab and often brings his left back just above the belt line. And yet, Alvarez had best be mindful that the low left might be one of the traps Kovalev sets to bait his prey into the danger zone.
In nearly every one of his tiffs, Kovalev’s first goal has been to cut off the ring on fighters trying to stay on the safe side of his juggernaut right. In this, the first boxing event at the Atlantic City Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Kovalev might not have to work so hard to find his man.
While Alvarez has excellent balance and respectable footwork, he almost stubbornly stays in the pocket and he does not move his head. Pressed on whether or not he fears Kovalev’s vaunted power, the Columbian native shot back, "If I was scared then I wouldn't be boxing.”
For psychological reasons, many fighters leave the film study to their trainers, but Alvarez has been scrutinizing the Ward fights and claims to have picked up some tricks from the S.O.G. One of Ward’s greatest virtues was his unpredictable movement and punch sequences. Alvarez is predictable. Still, from watching the Ward tussles, Alvarez may have noticed that when Kovalev jabs, he often drops his right hand. Ward took advantage of this mistake and pasted Kovalev with sharp left hooks that had to make the Russian a little hesitant about letting his Susie Q fly. And yet, while Alvarez has been able to pull the trigger on his left hook inside, he has not been particularly adept at letting it go from mid to long range.
No doubt, Alvarez also took note of Ward’s effective straight rights and left hooks to the midsection. Effective body work requires breaking the perimeter and bending at the knees on the inside. However, Alvarez tends to straighten up when he is chest-to-chest and that could negate his ability to douse Kovalev’s fiery attack.
Knockout artists often have underestimated boxing IQs. George Foreman is a case in point. Though a wrecking ball of a puncher, Big George was a sweet scientist. Likewise, don’t be misled by Kovalev’s knack for putting people to bed. He is patient and knows his craft as well as how to decipher his opponent’s style.
After a recent workout, Kovalev confided, “Some fights, I don’t like myself – I mean my fights. I didn’t like my last fight. I didn’t like my performance. Right now, I am trying to delete these mistakes and do better every fight. Every fight, something happens. I thought I knew a lot, but something always happens new. I get a new experience from each fight and each preparation.”
In other words, don’t look for the Krusher to wilt or get flustered if Alvarez manages to add some upgrades to his boxing hard drive.
Boxing is often a reflection of life, and in the light heavyweight division one nation -- Russia -- boasts an extraordinary amount of influence. Three of the four belts are owned by Russians and two of them will be fighting on this double-header -- WBO titlist Sergey Kovalev (who will fight longtime WBC mandatory challenger Eleider Alvarez) and his WBA counterpart Dmitry Bivol, who will compete against onetime Kovalev opponent Isaac Chilemba. Left out of the mix -- for now -- is IBF king Artur Beterbiev, who is set to fight Callum Johnson in October to snap an 11-month hiatus.
While Kovalev hopes to maintain his nation's "Iron Curtain" over the 175-pounders, Alvarez, just a year younger than the 35-year-old champion, is finally getting a title opportunity after the mandatory challenger for WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson failed to nail down a match for nearly three years. Yes, Alvarez fought multiple mandatories to cement his status, but he also accepted step-aside money to allow "Superman" to fight others for more money. When it became clear Alvarez wasn't going to fight Stevenson, he jumped at the chance to fight Kovalev. Unfortunately for Alvarez, he'll be doing so following a career-long 14-month layoff.
Resurrecting the Beast
After spending several years under the cerebral John David Jackson — where he learned to diversify his offense while sharpening his defense — Kovalev broke away from the former 154-pound titlist and rekindled his inner beast under Artur Tursunpulatov, who not only speaks his language verbally, but who also speaks his language inside the ring. The results have been impressive -- and destructive: Three knockdowns scored during a title-winning second-round TKO over Ukraine's Vyachslav Shabranskyy and a seven-round beat-down of countryman Igor Mikhalkin, who never hit the canvas but probably should have. Against Shabranskyy, Kovalev was still economical with his output (56.5 per round) but he made them count as he landed 44% overall, 26% jabs and 62% power, jabbed extremely well (27.5 attempts/7.0 connects per round) and amassed connect leads of 50-16 overall and 36-8 power.
In fight two under Tursunpulatov, more of the old "Krusher" re-emerged as the volume that marked his early years came back in tremendous style. He averaged 77.1 punches per round to Mikhalkin's 40.3, pretty much put the jab to bed (he landed just 13% and landed 21 for the fight), and out-landed his compatriot 186-43 overall and 165-32 power while also producing excellent percentage gaps of 35%-16% overall and 46%-19% power. Moreover, Kovalev tied a career-high with 98 punch attempts in round two (he had thrown 98 in round two against Roman Simakov, who died following their bout), and set new personal bests with 70 attempted power shots in round two, 165 landed power shots for the fight and 362 power punch attempts for the bout. Not many fighters can claim to be reborn at age 35, but, based on these performances under Tursunpulatov, Kovalev has a strong case for stating just that.
Living on the Edge
Alvarez is a careful stylist who is capable of producing a shocking display of out-of-the blue power. Against Lucian Bute, Alvarez broke open a rather boring contest in round five by flooring the longtime 168-pound titlist with a booming counter right to the jaw and a shocking burst ended his rather tentative fight with Nicholson Poulard (the half-brother of common opponent Jean Pascal) in round three. Also, his lashing punches opened three different cuts on Ryno Liebenberg's face before adding a knockdown in the sixth and the stoppage in the seventh.
Much more often than not, however, one must sit through long stretches of pedestrian boxing, which has resulted in Alvarez being out-hustled -- but not yet beaten -- by busier opponents. His decision victory over Argentina's Isidro Ranoni is one such fight; Ranoni averaged 70 punches per round to Alvarez's 40.2, and the Canadian-based Colombian was stunned in rounds one, seven and nine. But Alvarez dug deep enough to stem Ranoni's rallies; he was the stronger man in round 12 (26-20 overall, 17-11 power), was the more accurate hitter throughout (38%-26% overall, 30%-20% jabs, 48%-31% power) and was able to get within striking range in terms of connects (199-195 overall thanks to his 134-130 lead in power shots) so that his home-ring advantage in Canada could kick in (an outrageous 117-111 on all three cards).
Against Issac Chilemba -- from whom he won a majority decision -- he did just enough to survive and advance on his home ground. Chilemba led 151-147 overall, 53-50 jabs and 98-97 power, but his better shot-for-shot power and the fact the output was similar (49.8 per round for Chilemba, 45.3 for Alvarez) helped his cause. One judge scored Alvarez a 118-110 winner -- a confounding score -- but the two other jurists saw it 115-113 for Alvarez and 114-114.
His most recent victory over Jean Pascal — another common foe with Kovalev — was much more convincing, though, in an interesting reversal, Alvarez won only by majority decision. Alvarez's razor-sharp jab (26.4 attempts/8.3 connects per round) recorded five rounds of 10 connects or more and his modest pace (42.3 per round) was more than enough to best the notoriously low-volume Pascal's 30.8. Thus, Alvarez led 174-104 overall thanks to his 99-26 lead in landed jabs (Pascal prevailed 78-75 in landed power shots, but Alvarez led 34%-28% overall, 31%-19% jabs and 39%-34% power).
Inside The Numbers
Kovalev (last 9 fights) landed/threw around the light heavy. avg. in all categories, while opponents, respectful of his punching power, landed just 7.9 punches per round- half the light heavy avg. and just 4.7 power shots per round- also half the light. heavy. avg. & #3 on the CompuBox Categorical Leaders list. Alvarez (last 4 fights), is not busy (42 thrown per round), but did land 38.8% of his power shots. Opponents landed a healthy 33.8% of their power shots. Only 21.5% of Kovalev's landed punches are body shots, while 33.7% of Alvarez's landed punches are body shots. (CompuBox avg.: 24.2%)
If this fight were taking place in Canada (where Kovalev has fought three times) and if he were fighting the more cerebral Kovalev who tried to match brain cell for brain cell with Andre Ward under John David Jackson, Alvarez might have been able to finagle his way to a close victory in a slow-paced thinking-man's fight. Unfortunately for Kovalev, this fight is taking place in a revitalized Atlantic City (close to the headquarters of Main Events) and he'll be facing a revitalized Kovalev who wants nothing more than to crush whatever stands in his path. On this night, a ring-rusty Alvarez will be standing in his path and Hurricane Sergey will score yet another convincing KO victory.
By Sarah Deming
It’s a fight promoters are calling a clash of “Super Men” — an appropriate description given the power expected when the “Krusher” collides with a “Storm.”
On Saturday, August 4, two-time world champion Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) defends his title against undefeated Colombian-Canadian Eleider “Storm” Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs). In the co-main, rising star Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs) of St. Petersburg puts his own title on the line against Isaac “Golden Boy” Chilemba (25-5-2, 10 KOs) of Malawi. Both light heavyweight bouts will be televised live from the new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City on HBO World Championship Boxing, beginning at 10 PM ET/PT.
Given the theme of the event, one could well wonder, if there were a Krusher comic book, what would the story be?
“He would have come from nowhere,” says promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events. “He would be someone who, everything has gone against him his whole life. And then he got his superpowers, and he crushed all his enemies.”
She describes watching him fight for the first time, at the urging of manager Egis Klimas, who bankrolled Kovalev’s early fights in small venues off TV: “Sergey gets in the ring and it was like he had lasers coming out of his eyes. It reminded me of Ray Leonard’s eyes before he fought Hearns.”
“I believe we were meant to meet each other,” says Duva.”I always needed to find that fighter who could go out and dominate his division. I knew what to do with a guy like that.”
Where do Kovalev’s powers come from? Maybe it’s something in the water in Chelyabinsk, Russia, or in the old tank factory where his mother worked. It can’t have been the 2013 meteor explosion. By that time, Krusher was already beating Nathan Cleverly to win his first world title.
But he hasn’t crushed all his enemies. This will be Kovalev’s third fight after the pair of losses to pound-for-pound great Andre Ward that sent his storyline into an alternate universe. Kovalev claims he grew so depressed after the second loss that he pursued a graduate degree, totaled his car in a forest, and made a pilgrimage to a Greek monastery.
He also switched trainers. Abror Tursunpulatov is an old school Uzbek who coached 2016 Olympic light welterweight champion Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. Their shared Russian language and cultural similarities seem to be making for better chemistry in the corner.
“We understand each other,” Kovalev says. “I feel comfortable. And right now I’m the passenger in our team. He’s the driver and says everything I should be doing, and I do it.”
Kovalev is not an easy man to coach. He feuded with longtime trainer John David Jackson and even rubbed Abel Sanchez the wrong way during a brief stint at Big Bear.
“Sergey wants to be the boss,” Sanchez said. “And it’s like wanting to be your own brain surgeon. It doesn’t work.”
So far, it seems to be working with Tursunpulatov, who has led Krusher to two easy wins against overmatched foes. Last November, Kovalev knocked out Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in two rounds to claim the vacant belt vacated by Ward after his retirement. In March, he defended against Igor Mikhalkin, stopping him in seven. But Alvarez, a classy, undefeated boxer, should prove a tougher test.
“Alvarez is dangerous,” Kovalev says. “I am sure that it's not gonna be easy to fight, because he is undefeated and he is a number one in WBC. Stevenson avoided him already like two or three times and he's the proof that he is scared. But I'm not scared of him.”
Eleider Alvarez’s origin story begins in Apartado, a small Colombian city rich in bananas and plantains and plagued with a violent history. Little Eleider had dreams of being a rapper, but his mother dragged him to a boxing gym to keep him off the streets.
When she died suddenly from complications related to her diabetes, her 11-year-old son vowed to become champion for her sake. He was one of Colombia’s most decorated amateurs, winning Pan-American gold before emigrating to Canada in 2009 to join the promotional stable of Yvon Michel.
“Every single dollar he makes, he sends back home to Colombia,” says his trainer Marc Ramsay.
“He bought a little piece of land over there when he beat Lucian Bute. And he’s very proud because his daughter is the only kid in their neighborhood going to a private school.”
Alvarez’s signature mohawk gets him stopped for autographs on the streets of Montreal, but thus far his boxing career has been a waiting game, as brighter stars from the same stable got the spotlight. Adonis Stevenson, Jean Pascal, Lucian Bute: All bigger name light heavyweights, all promoted by Michel.
Since 2015, Alvarez has been the mandatory for Adonis Stevenson’s world title, stepping aside twice as Stevenson chose other opponents, most recently Badou Jack. Rather than keep waiting, Alvarez and company jumped at the chance to challenge Kovalev, who has had his own trouble making a date with the lineal light heavyweight champion he tauntingly dubbed “Chickenson.”
Now 34, Alvarez finally gets that world title shot.
“Eleider is a complete fighter,” Marc Ramsay says. “He doesn’t have any big weakness. He has very good speed and the best jab in the division.”
The jab game is key. Kovalev’s is notoriously heavy, but Ramsay believes Alvarez’s edge in speed and reach will be the difference.
“Both of them have a great, great jab,” he says. “Kovalev also has a great right hand. But he needs to touch with the jab first. He never throws the right hand first. We think we will win the battle of the jabs.”
Ramsay has had ample opportunity to study Kovalev doing what he does best; he was in the opposite corner when the Krusher twice stopped Jean Pascal, but he does not think Kovalev is the same fighter now. Certainly the 35-year-old Kovalev is older in ring years than Alvarez, a relatively untested 34.
“I don't feel that I am old or something like that,” Kovalev says. “It's just a number for me, 35. God blessed me and gave me an opportunity as still fighting on this level, like a champion, and I'll be fighting, I hope, 'til I get all four titles.”
“He’s still the man in the division,” Duva says. “He’s still must-see TV.”
HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney preview Saturday night's light heavyweight doubleheader, Sergey Kovalev vs. Eleider Alvarez and Dmitry Bivol vs. Isaac Chilemba, and share their predictions for the outcomes.