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.”
Watch highlights from Yuriorkis Gamboa's win by unanimous decision over Rene Alvarado on March 11, 2017.
Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
VERONA, N.Y. – Nine-and-a-half months remain in the year, but David Lemieux may as well already seize the award for Knockout of the Year right now and dare anybody to take it from him. There may be more claimants before 2017 is over, but so vicious and frightening was Lemieux’s one-punch obliteration of Curtis Stevens at Turning Stone Casino on Saturday night that they are almost certainly destined to be pretenders rather than contenders.
This was a knockout of such sudden ferocity that, for many minutes afterward, there was fear for the health of Stevens, who lay unconscious and unmoving on the ring apron as medical professionals attended to him with real urgency. He was awake and showing some responsiveness as he was stretchered out of the arena, but his mother, who had been sitting at ringside and rapidly made her way to her stricken son, will have undergone some of the most anxious moments of her life. It was a knockout for the ages, one that highlighted both the beauty and the feral brutality of boxing.
The middleweight clash had promised action from the beginning, because of the history of both combatants, each long renowned as a furious puncher, because of the bad blood that had brewed between them in the build-up, and because of the stakes that were at hand: a possible return to the championship picture for the winner, the threat of mediocrity or irrelevance for the loser. And from the opening bell, those stakes were apparent as Lemieux (37-3, 33 KOs) tore into Stevens (29-6, 21 KOs) with both fists. A furious first round saw Lemieux land a big right hand that appeared to hurt Stevens and back him to the ropes, only for Stevens to respond with a powerful hook as the Canadian sought to press his advantage. At round’s end, it was Lemieux’s turn to launch a hook, this one clearly hurting the Brooklynite, who ate another hook to the body as the bell sounded to end a frantic three minutes.
Lemieux continued to attack in the second, but Stevens appeared to have regained some solidity and was seeking to meet Lemieux’s fusillade with more selectively explosive artillery of his own. A straight right from Stevens landed cleanly on his opponent’s jaw, but Lemieux came back with a hook to the head and digging punches to the body once more.
Then came the third round, another fast-paced and furious two minutes and then Lemieux backing Stevens to the ropes, the two men uncorking hooks at the same time, but Lemieux’s landing first, detonating with nuclear force on his foe’s jaw and rendering him instantly unconscious. Stevens landed under the bottom rope, his right arm falling to one side and sending the timekeeper, fearing the entirety of the New Yorker’s muscular body was headed onto his table, scurrying backward. But Stevens did not move, even a little bit, other than for the rapid but shallow movement of his ribcage, until finally, as his neck was braced and he was loaded onto a stretcher, his eyelids flickered open, his hands showed some involuntary movement and he slowly came to consciousness.
Lemieux will receive the plaudits, and rightfully so, for he did what boxers are asked to do and in spectacularly emphatic fashion. But thoughts afterward turn to, and remain with, his fallen foe.
Yuriorkis Gamboa returned from a 15-month layoff, and a barren spell of four fights in over four years, to score a unanimous decision over Nicaragua’s Rene Alvarado in the co-main event. Aside from a called knockdown – which was really a slip – in the 10th and final round, Gamboa (26-1, 17 KOs) was comfortably in control throughout, but it was rarely if ever the kind of exciting outing that he would have wanted to announce his re-entry to a stacked junior lightweight division.
The Cuban émigré was fast and skillful enough to all but shut down Alvarado’s offense, but was unable to close the gap to his reluctant opponent to enable him to unleash combinations. As a result, he mostly pot-shotted from the outside, and found his punches being caught by Alvarado’s gloves, as the restive crowd began to boo. He did open up in the 8th, and appeared to floor Alvarado (24-8, 16 KOs) – although referee Benjiy Esteves ruled (correctly upon review) that the Nicaraguan had slipped – and was fortunate to escape a forfeiture of points or worse when he landed two rapid-fire punches with his foe still on the canvas.
Aside from that, however, there was little action to speak of, although Gamboa can at least satisfy himself that he came through his latest comeback with a victory, with the hope of greater and more exciting times in future. His problem is that, at age 35 and with what should have been the most productive years of his career having been largely wasted, the future is unlikely to be as long as he would like.
By Eric Raskin
Boxing sometimes goes by such alternative names as “the sweet science” and “the manly art of self-defense.” Do not expect to hear either of those phrases bandied about on the evening of March 11 at Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York.
Science? Art? Defense? Not when David Lemieux and Curtis Stevens start swinging.
In a way, the middleweight contender clash between Lemieux and Stevens on HBO Boxing After Dark (Saturday at 11:00 PM ET/PT) is the perfect appetizer for the middleweight title fight one week later between Gennady Golovkin and Daniel Jacobs. Golovkin and Jacobs are known for their punching power (they’re riding knockout streaks of 23 and 12 fights, respectively), but also for their world-class skill and technique. Lemieux and Stevens bring approximately the same pure power, but are significantly closer to average in their delivery systems — the skill and technique departments. So what we get is the “keep it simple, stupid” version of what follows one week later. It’s just power against power, and may the best punch and/or the best chin win.
“The sweet science” is for connoisseurs; Lemieux-Stevens is for everyone.
“He comes to fight. I come to fight,” Stevens (29-5, 21 KOs) said plainly when the bout was announced. “You are going to want to see this.”
“We’ll see who is stronger, who takes the punches better. It’s going to be exciting,” echoed Lemieux (36-3, 32 KOs). The Montreal-based slugger also mixed in some trash talk in that unmistakable French-Canadian accent of his: “Curtis Stevens came knocking on the wrong door … It’s not going to end well for him … I’m going to be victorious. I’m going to be vicious. It’s a fight that all the fans will want to see.”
It’s a fight that fans were frothing at the mouth for last May, when, on the Canelo Alvarez-Amir Khan card in Las Vegas, both Lemieux and Stevens turned in dynamic, destructive performances. Lemieux, fighting for the first time since his gutsy but one-sided defeat at the hands of Golovkin in a pay-per-view main event, got back in the win column with a four-round blowout of Glen Tapia. Stevens, four fights removed from his own TKO loss to Golovkin (just like Lemieux’s, it ended in the eighth round), obliterated previously unbeaten Patrick Teixeira in just over four minutes of action.
But, this being the boxing business, the parties involved waited to strike until the iron had gone lukewarm. Lemieux marked time with a shutout 10-round decision over Cristian Fabian Rios last October, while Stevens injured his left hand en route to a tepid points win over James De La Rosa in November. After that, there was no sense in tuning up any further. It was time to make the most natural, attractive available fight for both warriors.
Former sparmates Lemieux, 28, and Stevens, 31, both harbor dreams of another shot at the elite of the division, but since both fell considerably short against Golovkin, there’s no clamor for it – at least not until one of them separates himself by blasting through the other. What there is clamor for is two offense-minded veteran contenders meeting in a fight that either man can end with one punch at any time.
“It’s close to a 50-50 fight,” says Abel Sanchez, who, as Golovkin’s trainer, has studied Lemieux and Stevens’ strengths and weaknesses as carefully as anyone. “And by the way, Lemieux can’t be in a bad fight. They’re different kinds of fighters. Lemieux is very strong, but he’s not as technical – Curtis has better balance, a better method of punching than David does. I think they’re equal in power, but David is more crude in how he delivers it than Stevens is.”
At a perhaps generously measured 5’7”, Stevens gives away height to nearly every opponent (officially, three inches to Lemieux). That means he needs to work his way inside to get in range to land his power punches, the battle within the war that should go a long way toward determining this outcome.
“Curtis looks very ordinary when he doesn’t let his hands go,” says Sanchez. “He can’t be too selective with his shots. He needs to let his hands go and not try to do it all with one punch. Curtis can make it a fun tactical fight and make Lemieux have to think about both hands coming at him, but if he doesn’t do that, if he isn’t throwing enough, I think that David’s got the edge.”
Of the two, Stevens undoubtedly gave Golovkin more problems. “The Cerebral Assassin,” who is trained by former 154- and 160-pound titleholder John David Jackson, won a round on a couple of the official scorecards against GGG – something Lemieux didn’t do – and he checked Golovkin’s chin a few times. But Lemieux’s trainer, Marc Ramsay, doesn’t seem overly concerned.
“It’s more about what David Lemieux can bring to that ring, not Curtis Stevens,” Ramsay said on Feb. 28 on the final prefight media conference call. “Curtis is a good boxer. Curtis is a powerful boxer, like everybody knows. But at the end of the day, I don’t focus that much about Curtis Stevens because the result of the fight is not in the hands of Curtis. I think David is the more complete fighter, and we’re going to show it.”
Stevens wasn’t in the mood to talk smack when the fight was first announced, but on that Feb. 28 media call, he found himself firing back. “Tell the doctor to bring smelling salts,” he told Lemieux directly. “They’re going to need to wake your ass up.”
The same medical attention will not be required for the fans at Turning Stone. This one has “manly art of straight-ahead offense” written all over it.
In the televised co-feature, often electrifying Cuban lightweight Yuriorkis Gamboa ends a 15-month absence from the ring and begins what might be his last big push at age 35. Fighting for the first time under the Golden Boy Promotions banner, Gamboa takes on Nicaraguan journeyman Rene Alvarado, who is coming off the biggest win over his career, an upset split decision over Jayson Velez last July. The blur-fisted Gamboa has let some of his prime years pass him by – he turned 30 in December 2011 and has fought only five times since. If he’s going to realize his potential, his last chance to do so begins Saturday night.