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Kovalev vs. Campillo: Contrition, Drive and the Light Heavyweight Crossroads

A Russian and a Spaniard walk into an American Indian casino looking for a fight…Yes, it sounds like the beginning of a comedy routine but this light heavyweight clash between Sergey Kovalev and Gabriel Campillo is far from a joke. The winner emerges a considerable step closer to a title shot and given the intriguing matchup of veteran skills against youthful promise, the victor will have earned a spot in the top 10 at 175 pounds. The pair meet tonight (9 p.m. Eastern Time) on the NBC Sports Network’s first “Fight Night” show of the year, a quality kickoff to a series whose strong ratings enabled the return of boxing to NBC’s regular network late last year. If this headliner is a harbinger of quality match-ups to come, boxing fans are in for a stellar year of fights on NBC Sports.

The duo was scheduled to meet last September but Campillo was forced to pull out with a back injury, allowing Sergey Kovalev to gain more experience and destroy replacement foe Lionell Thompson in three rounds. Hall of Fame matchmaker J. Russell Peltz sees the making of a classic crossroads clash, which will not rely on the boxers’ nationalities or even popularity to create an intense atmosphere, “This is a classic boxer-puncher fight between world-class fighters. On paper, it doesn’t get any better than this. In person it could be even better.” Although both boxers have fought and been featured on American television (Versus, FOX, NBC Sports and Showtime), displaying their very different but winning styles,
Kovalev has a chance to become a new face in a stagnant division, currently represented by a 48-year-old Bernard Hopkins, uninspiring safety-first Chad Dawson and inactive Tavoris Cloud. Kovalev and his 85% kayo ratio would be a welcome addition to shake up the status quo. The Russian is not a typical import, debuting in America (17 of 19 bouts took place in the USA) and is better traveled than many of his American counterparts fighting in 10 states and the District of Columbia! There’s a tragic backstory with Kovalev, however. In 2011, fellow Russian prospect Roman Simakov died of injuries (three days after surgery to stem head trauma) suffered in a bout against Kovalev.
In that highly anticipated domestic battle, one of only two that Kovalev traveled back to Russia to engage in, Kovalev was much more dominant than expected, producing a horrific ending. The bout lasted seven rounds; a case could be made that Simakov won two rounds, ending with Simakov knocked down twice and counted out. Soon after the winner’s announcement, Simakov collapsed again, was carried out of the ring on an improvised stretcher (no oxygen was available as is the practice in most countries) and rushed to a nearby hospital. Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu and a stunned crowed looked on helplessly as the frenzied scene played out before them. Simakov was only 27 years old.
The aftermath left a young fighter visibly affected by the death of a comrade in boxing. When talking to writer Alexey Sukachev, Kovalev tried coming to grips with the incident and the heartbreak it generated, “May his spirit rest in peace. Me and my manager tried to speak with Roman’s parents but they don’t even want to hear about us. I understand it perfectly as they lost their beloved one. That’s a horrible tragedy. If I ever step in the ring again, I will dedicate my next fight to Roman.” Kovalev did just that six months later, scoring a stoppage victory over Darnell Boone and donating his entire purse to Roman’s family with a simple message: “Forgive me, Roman. Rest in Peace, warrior.”
Gabriel Campillo is a hard luck case of another sort, a sly boxer in search of judges who appreciate and score his skills accordingly. The Spanish world traveler is not shy about accepting challenges, entering hostile rings in Germany, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Denmark and America in search of wins. Those experiences have turned Campillo into a hardened warhorse, both on the physical and mental level, refusing to back down or change in the face of questionable judging. Campillo’s record is dotted with a couple setbacks and a draw, though only bested once with his other losses coming via split and majority decisions on the road. The latest split decision setback came courtesy of Texas judges, though the majority of ringside press, live audience and television viewers were of the belief Campillo outboxed IBF champion Tavoris Cloud.
The veteran southpaw has shown plenty of merit, talent and accomplishments over 11 years in the ring despite starting boxing late at age 20. Campillo is a former European champion, first coming to my attention traveling to Argentina and befuddling former champ Hugo Garay with movement and accurate counterpunching. The lanky stylist won the European title on the road as well, outpointing Lolenga Mock in Denmark. Is a tough-minded sort who does not mind hearing boos from fans wanting more excitement or their hometown favorite to emerge with a win. Calls himself a pure boxer and he has the mental strength to stick with his plan and slowly draw foes into his traps. Opponents falter mostly at Campillo’s sense of timing and accuracy, deftly defusing leads with slight lateral or upper body movements that set up short counters. Like a great coach, Campillo spots tendencies and mistakes and has just enough speed to capitalize on them.
They have been respectful opponents in the run-up to the fight, looking forward to the challenges the other presents them. Kovalev told that he appreciates Campillo and his accomplishments, “He is the strongest, most talented opponent in my professional career. In my opinion, he should be the champion after his last fight,” though Kovalev sees Campillo’s style and stance as playing in his favor, “Southpaws have the stronger left hand but I have the stronger right. The only problem with fighting left-handed fighters is getting good sparring partners. Everything else is the same.” Campillo was complimentary as well but sees victory in his future thanks to his past. “He’s a dangerous boxer with a very good right cross. But he has never fought a world-class boxer like me. I am great at bobbing and weaving and counterpunching. If we go to the scorecards, I have no doubt I’ll win by a huge margin. But just maybe one of my counterpunches will end the fight.”
I am torn on who will win this fight, which is one of the reasons I am so attracted to it. I lean slightly toward Kovalev given Campillo’s history of getting shorted by judges and fighting just hard enough to win rounds closely but never pulling away. Kovalev is really good at using his length and is very judicious with his punches, throwing when he sees openings and not wasting punches. That is usually where Campillo gets to opponents, letting them make mistakes and going after them when they veer off balance. Going into this fight, it seems a 50/50 pick ‘em fight. That is what fans crave and with any luck, NBC will be rewarded with high ratings (live and replays) for delivering this little feast.
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