Monday, July 16, 2018

Kovalev's Third Act

In screenwriting parlance, the Third Act is the denouement, the conclusion, where the story arrives at its resolution. The final confrontation or conflict is resolved and the remaining threads of narrative and character are neatly tied up in a bow. After losing a pair of fights to Andre Ward at the biggest moment of his career, Sergey Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) is now firmly ensconced in his own Third Act. There is no longer the prospect of physical development. Any additional ring knowledge that he acquires might possibly be counterbalanced by an athletic decline that is common for fighters of his age. He once was one of the sport's great intimidators, now he is seen as a mortal. Although Kovalev has won his two return fights after the Ward debacles, one important question remains: Will he have one last triumphant moment in a big fight? 

On August 4th in Atlantic City (and headlining on HBO), Kovalev defends his 175-lb. title against Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs), a Colombian based in Montreal who had seemingly been Adonis Stevenson's mandatory since the Queensberry Rules were established in 1867 (way to go, WBC!). Although Alvarez is only a year younger than Kovalev, he could be much fresher in boxing years. While awaiting a title shot, Alvarez has fought just once in 17 months. In addition, he's been in few tough fights in his career. 



Alvarez comes will little fanfare or hype. He's a well-schooled boxer with a piston-like jab and an array of offensive weapons. Most comfortable from mid-range and farther, Alvarez has good legs and lateral movement. His most serious knocks are that he coasts during fights and he lacks a killer instinct. Sometimes he's content to win rounds with a few flurries instead of causing sustained damage. In addition, he's prone to letting opponents back into fights; he's not necessarily one to step on the gas.

As Kovalev patiently waits for big game in a loaded 175-lb. division, Alvarez will not be the trophy that Sergey seeks, but he represents an excellent barometer on what Kovalev's current level is in the boxing ring. Can Kovalev still pull the trigger like he once did? Can he finish off wounded prey? What happens if he becomes the hunted?  

After the Ward defeats, Kovalev parted ways with trainer John David Jackson. That relationship, which had significantly benefited both, became caustic as both parties slung nasty invective at each other. Kovalev subsequently selected Abror Tursunpulatov as his head trainer. Tursunpulatov has had a lot of success with Uzbek standout Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. Unlike Jackson, he speaks Russian and through two fights the new pairing has worked well enough.

Prior to his last bout, Kovalev acknowledged that he had been less than an ideal pupil under Jackson. Admitting to drinking (perhaps too much) and not staying in shape between fights, Kovalev vowed to take his profession more seriously. 

Still possessing considerable weapons with his jab, straight right hand and committed body attack, Kovalev maintains the offensive repertoire to punish any of the top fighters at 175. What he lacked against Ward, a fighter it should be noted who was one of the truly special talents of his time, was, surprisingly, self-assurance. In the Ward rematch, Kovalev lost his composure during a sustained body assault from Ward. Some of Ward's work was low, while other shots were legit, scoring punches. Kovalev was troubled by Ward's attacks and the confidence he displayed by jabbing his way to a lead suddenly evaporated. 

Kovalev, who was irate after the first Ward fight, believing that he had won (the majority of ringside observers favored his work), took a positive step after the second match to make needed changes in his camp and life. While one could legitimately say that Sergey should have won the first fight and was winning the second match until some illegal shots led to a knockout, Kovalev refreshingly took responsibility for his own career. 

Never known as a particularly humble fighter, Kovalev picked up the pieces, found a trainer he respected and vowed to rededicate his life to boxing. In two fights with Tursunpulatov, he scored stoppages over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Igor Mikhalkin. Shabranskyy was a smash job, offering limited resistance, but Mikhalkin wasn't there just as an opponent. He was cagey, dared Kovalev to find him in the ring and landed his fair share of off-angled shots. Although Kovalev won close to every round in the fight before it was stopped, Mikhalkin made Kovalev work for it. 

Alvarez represents a significant step up from the Mikhalkins of the boxing world. He knows how to defend himself in the ring and can put punches together. Kovalev will need to be mentally sharp against Alvarez, who can lull opponents to sleep and successfully bring down their punch volume. This fight will be the first real test of the Kovalev-Tursunpulatov pairing. It's unlikely that Kovalev will be able to win this fight solely on brute force; he's going to have to think his way through the match, gain little advantages, and eventually wear Alvarez down physically and mentally. Like Isaac Chilemba, Alvarez will not make things easy for Kovalev. 

Should Kovalev defeat Alvarez, big things could loom for The Krusher in '19. Dmitry Bivol, a 175-lb. titlist who possesses fantastic power and technique, fights on Kovalev's undercard and could make for a tasty unification bout. Although Bivol is rumored to be signing a deal with Eddie Hearn and DAZN after next month's fight, there's nothing that necessarily precludes a Kovalev-Bivol matchup from happening. 

With new money flooding into the sport via ESPN and DAZN, Kovalev will have opportunities for a big fight should he keep winning. Although he is currently aligned with HBO, we've seen the pieces on the boxing chessboard radically uprooted in the past 12 months. Who's to say what big fights might come his way? 

But for now, winning the next fight is the imperative. Kovalev is one of the few boxers that HBO continues to support. Receiving numerous headlining slots and their corresponding remunerative rewards, Kovalev needs to keep the drums beating and the trumpets sounding. He still carries a good name, a nifty record, a vicious streak and memorable knockouts. 

However, does he still have the goods? Is he mentally at a place where he wants to dominate in the ring, or has boxing transitioned to his vocation? Is he taking instructions in his corner or ignoring them? Is he putting in the roadwork? Does he still have the desire to be the best?

Alvarez will help answer these questions. Although Kovalev-Alvarez might not be the sexiest matchup of 2018, it's an honest one, one that asks much of both fighters, one that is not pre-ordained. 

Should Alvarez get up for the Kovalev fight, it will be his opportunity to make a real name for himself in the sport. No longer will he be the antagonist or foil in someone else's story. This is his chance to break through. Will Kovalev march toward another big event in 2019 or will Alvarez be able to write his own story? At this point, I'm not entirely certain, but I'm intrigued in the matchup and I think that next month's fight holds some compelling answers. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant read as always Adam. I am a Kovalev fan. I thought he won the 1st Ward fight. Kinda reminded me of the Froch / Groves matches. Groves doing so well in the 1st fight only to get stopped and again in the 2nd match.
    as well. Bitter sweet you could say.

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