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Sergey Kovalev: Belt of a Titlist, Hunger of a Contender

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By Gabriel Montoya


At age 30, WBO light heavyweight titleholder Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev has turned a corner professionally that few fighters ever do. Seemingly, all at once, he is dawning on the public consciousness and delivering as his competition level raises. On Saturday night, the Main Events-promoted KO artist plies his trade and defends his title for the second time against unheralded Cedric Agnew, 26-0 (13), live on HBO from The Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The fight was supposed to be a prelude to a showdown with WBC titleholder Adonis Stevenson on HBO later this year but that is clearly not in the cards. Stevenson signed with adviser/manager Al Haymon and has decided against a multi-fight deal with HBO that would include a fight with Kovalev. He has opted to go to Showtime and potentially fight the 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins.
 
When asked about this development on Tuesday, Kovalev declined to address the issue, preferring to remain focused on his fight at hand.

“After the fight, I will discuss it,” Kovalev said.
 
The more opponents he knocks out, the more boxing fans continue to wake up to the 23-0 (21) pure puncher from Chelyabinsk, Russia. The last time Kovalev went the distance in a fight was in a six-rounder back in Russia in December of 2010. Since then, Kovalev has gone on an 11-fight KO streak with one technical draw due to an accidental foul in the midst. His last four fights, meant to be tests of various sorts that should have gone longer than a few rounds, merely resulted in “Krusher” hitting his opponents and everything going out the window from there.
 
“We want to go rounds but the deal is, once he hits [his opponents], they going into a survival mode,” said Kovalev’s trainer, John David Jackson. “But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t improved since I have begun working with him.”
 
Sometimes it’s not who you beat but how. And while some will point out that Kovalev faced an untested titleholder in Nathan Cleverly (Kovalev stopped him in four) or Ismayl Sillakh (over and out in two), the fact is Kovalev devastates fighters or makes them fight uncharacteristically before dispatching them in highlight reel-fashion. In Agnew, Kovalev meets an undefeated fighter with athleticism but not terribly blinding speed or punishing power. Agnew possesses decent boxing skills and a penchant for switching from orthodox to southpaw. In the former stance, he is a conservative boxer who uses his jab and, when confident that his foe poses no threat, a lead right hand. As a southpaw, Agnew is much more aggressive, tripling the jab to set up his left rear cross.
 
While Kovalev does not watch tape to prepare, Jackson does.
 
“I’m ready to go to the ring,” said Kovalev. “I’ll see what [Agnew] brings in the ring. If he switches from right to southpaw, it won’t matter.”
 
“When he switched, [Agnew] didn’t do it well and it depended a lot on the opponent in front of him,” Jackson observed. In the tape I watched, the opponent, Mikel Williams, was 8-25-4 coming in. Agnew got him out of there in two one-sided rounds.
 
With so little tape of Agnew to study, Jackson instead took the time to polish the raw edges of Kovalev’s game.
 
“There was very little tape of him but that gave me just a chance to work more on Sergey, adjust a few things, correct a few mistakes he makes,” said Jackson who trains Kovalev out of his Florida gym. “I figured I would just get him to do what he does best, work on those things, correct them if we can.”
 
Agnew is also facing a near-yearlong layoff leading into the Kovalev fight, a bit of Russian Roulette for a fighter in terms of the mental and physical aspects of the sport.
 
“The nice thing about Agnew is that he hasn’t fought in a year. He will be nervous, no matter how confident he looks. When you take that long off as a fighter, you have questions especially facing a guy of Sergey’s level,” explained Jackson, adding that Agnew didn’t possess speed or power of note to worry about.
 
That said, Jackson, Main Events head Kathy Duva and Kovalev all understand that no fight is a gimme and every fight from here on out is tantamount to their overall success. While Kovalev may not be a big draw at the gate or have Al Haymon as his manager, what he does have is a smart promoter in Duva, a solid trainer in Jackson, a strong work ethic and a style that is pleasing to any boxing fan’s eye. In the end, that should work out in his favor.
 
“I talked to him the other day and he seemed frustrated [at being unable to land a marquee match-up],” explained Jackson, who did agree that Kovalev is hungry for bigger fights in a healthy way. “He is not letting the frustration eat at him.”
 
To Jackson, the ceiling for Kovalev’s development, even at 30, is high. But in order to find out how great he can be, he will need high-level opposition. The lack thereof is not coming from his side but rather reluctance from others to face the “Krusher.”
 
“When your fighter is of this level, you need other top-level guys to bring it out,” said Jackson of Kovalev’s potential greatness. “I think he needs a bigger-name fighter to show of how good a fighter he can be. [Once he gets bigger fights] against top-notch fighters and champions, I think Sergey will rise to the top and show what he is truly made of. He can box; he just hasn’t had a chance to showcase that part of his game because he is knocking guys out rather quickly. In time, when he fights these guys, I think he will showcase his talents and prove that he is the best light heavyweight in the world.”
 
The time is now for the big fights but in lieu of them, Kovalev expressed an interest in staying busy. It is a policy Jackson also believes in: stay busy, stay sharp and stay in the public’s eye. The rest should take care of itself.
 
“I told him, ‘You keep knocking guys out,’” said Jackson. “I told him, ‘As long as you [keep winning in exciting fashion], you will be on everybody’s lips. You will be the one everyone wants to see.  Keep doing your job and you have leverage. You’re the one that people want to see.’”
 
“I would like to fight four or five times this year. When I fight often, the weight’s no problem but when it’s a long time between fights, it is much harder,” said Kovalev. “Right now, I feel really good. I’ve no problems with my weight or my shape. I don’t worry about nothing. I just worry about going to the ring to get my next win. I will fight any champion this year to get my next title.”
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him every Monday on “The Next Round” with Steve Kim, now at its new home, www.blogtalkradio.com/thenextround or via iTunes subscription at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/leave-it-in-ring-radio-blog/id316004573?mt=2. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show www.Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 p.m., PT.
 
 
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