Monday, February 4, 2019

The Kovalev Chronicles

During his bout on Saturday night an unexpected message was disseminated to Sergey Kovalev. Buddy McGirt, Kovalev's third trainer in less than two years, kept repeating the same mantra: "Just box 'em baby." And perhaps in an even more surprising development, Kovalev did just that. Kovalev used his boxing skills and punch activity to win a wide unanimous decision over Eleider Alvarez, who had knocked him out last August. With the victory, he reclaimed his light heavyweight title. 

Over the last half-dozen years, Kovalev embodied his "Krusher" moniker; he set out to destroy opponents. Since bursting onto the world-level, Kovalev had blasted out champions, contenders and pretenders, such as Cleverly, Campillo, Sillah, Pascal, and a handful of other fighters who will soon be forgotten. Bernard Hopkins and Isaac Chilemba may have achieved moral victories against Kovalev – they actually made it to final bell – but they never came close to winning. Kovalev was that dominant.

Kovalev has often been referred to as a bully in the ring, but that's not really an apt description. He actually doesn't like inside fighting and isn't one who enjoys wrestling or grappling with an opponent. He does his best work from range with a power jab and a straight right hand. 

When Kovalev was in true "Krusher" mode, he could more accurately be described as a sadist. He wanted to hurt people, to inflict serious damage. Carrying a large chip on his shoulder, he loved his knockouts, but he wasn't one who was in a hurry for the stoppage; he had nothing against loosening up an opponent more. He seemingly took as much delight from popping Hopkins's head back like a Pez dispenser for 12 rounds and carrying a finished Pascal into the seventh round in their rematch than he did the quick stoppages against over-matched foes like Blake Caparello and Cedric Agnew. 

An angry fighter, Kovalev held grudges before, during and after fights; he was always looking for slights. He could be classless in his victories and didn't respect his opponents. (He made a number of unfortunate statements about his foes, often on racial lines.) 

Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Coming into Saturday's fight, Kovalev had lost three of his last five fights – two of them controversially. He had dropped a pair of contests to Andre Ward. In each of those fights Kovalev had legitimate complaints regarding the final verdict. Most observers (but not the three judges) felt that Kovalev had done enough to beat Ward in their first bout. Kovalev scored a second-round knockdown and badgered Ward in the first half of the bout. Ward eventually came back into the fight. Scores for the match depended on how much credit Ward was given for neutralizing Kovalev's action instead of initiating his own. 

In the second bout, Kovalev was boxing well until the seventh round, when Ward started to land some vicious right hands. In the eighth, Ward went repeatedly to the body. Some of his shots were low, including a few in the final exchanges. Referee Tony Weeks should have stopped the action to give Kovalev time to recuperate from the fouls, but didn't. Kovalev succumbed later in the round. 

After both of those fights, Kovalev was essentially in denial. He didn't believe that he deserved to lose either. Again, it's true that Kovalev had some legitimate grievances, but he also failed to accept his part of the blame for the defeats. Ward's superior conditioning enabled him to be the fresher fighter in the back half of the match. And why didn't Kovalev hold when he was hurt or come back with his own fouls in the second fight? Not every bout will be officiated properly. Boxers have to protect themselves and when the ref won't do his job, a fighter needs to administer his own brand of rough justice. During the second Ward fight, Kovalev transformed from sadist into capitulator. 

After his knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez in August, Kovalev was fresh out of excuses. He wasn't beaten by a grand conspiracy or a personal vendetta from an official; he was bested by a boxing move. Alvarez landed a pulverizing overhand right in the seventh round to start the damage. Kovalev got up twice from knockdowns, but he couldn't recover. That night Kovalev was bettered by a superior boxer. 


Although Kovalev has a well-earned reputation as a knockout artist, consider some of the trainers that he has worked with during his time in America: Don Turner, perhaps one of the best of the old-school technical teachers; Abel Sanchez, a superior offensive-oriented coach; and John David Jackson, a trainer adept at teaching distance, movement and the value of a large offensive arsenal. Thus, even though Kovalev was knocking guys out with ferocity and regularity, he also was acquiring vital nuggets of boxing knowledge. (Let's put a pin in that for later.)

Following a three-fight sojourn working with Abror Tursunpulatov (which ended with the defeat to Alvarez), Kovalev selected Buddy McGirt to train him for the Alvarez rematch, a choice that didn't necessarily resonate within the boxing industry. Why did he choose McGirt, who hadn't worked with many high-profile fighters in the last decade? Was Kovalev just playing out the string? 

McGirt has never had the reputation as a taskmaster. He doesn't run his camp like it's a quasi-military outpost. He's not moving in with fighters, or cooking for them. With Buddy, a fighter puts his time in the gym, does a professional job and goes home. For Kovalev, a fighter who has admitted to lax training in earlier periods of his career, McGirt didn't seem like a natural fit to get the best out of him. 

Nevertheless, McGirt does have his virtues. Unlike many trainers, he works well with veteran fighters, those who were formed by others, and even boxers considered reclamation projects. He also understands his strengths and weaknesses. He's not there to break boxers down to their essence so they can be remade in his visage; he's a tweaker. He doesn't seem to live and die with boxing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but there's value in that too. Who has time to create an assembly line of boxing robots? He takes what he has and works with it. Having success with talents as different as Arturo Gatti, Antonio Tarver and Paulie Malignaggi, there's no such thing as a "Buddy McGirt fighter." He assesses what he has and makes a suggestion here or there. McGirt's relaxed personal demeanor is a big reason why he clicks with a fighter, and also why others choose not to work with him. He's there to calm, to instill confidence, and to focus on only the essentials. 

The Kovalev and McGirt pairing was not one that I expected to work. Kovalev had given countless interviews prior to the first Alvarez fight regarding how happy he was with Tursunpulatov. Finally, Kovalev exclaimed, he had found a trainer who spoke Russian, and that shared heritage provided him with comfort. In addition, Kovalev already had the reputation of preferring loose training camps. Back when he was with Jackson, Kovalev at times would ready himself for the first part of training camp and then Jackson would work with him for just a few weeks. Abel Sanchez didn't think that Kovalev had the required dedication needed and that partnership quickly dissolved. Thus, Kovalev and McGirt seemed like a doubling down on some of Kovalev’s worst tendencies.  

For good or for bad Buddy McGirt sees boxing differently than other trainers. Where many trainers were infatuated with Kovalev's ability to knock opponents out, McGirt saw a fighter with significant boxing skills. Perhaps all that was needed was a reorientation of Kovalev's priorities in the ring. Instead of expending maximum effort to beat guys, McGirt insisted that less is more. He understood that Kovalev had enough power that even when he touched an opponent, it would be enough to hurt his foe, or at least keep him honest. 

The final part of the equation was Kovalev himself. Unlike earlier in his boxing career where he often had adversarial relationships with his trainers, Kovalev decided to buy into McGirt's system. Instead of running 15-20 miles at a time (he used to do this with a former strength and conditioning coach), the regimen was significantly curtailed. Whereas he used to spar hundreds of rounds, now he was doing a fraction of that. Before, he would go into a fight guns blazing, now he was there to touch and tap. 

Kovalev had to accept significant changes for the relationship with McGirt to bear fruit. He needed to believe that McGirt's approach could work for him. He had to buy in to less is more. He also had to trust that Buddy's approach might have him make it to the final round against a determined foe, and better yet, have the strength to win the championship rounds. For a former sadist, what was required was a paradigm shift. Kovalev would no longer be the baddest hombre of boxing, the Krusher. Now, his main goal was to stay on his feet, to win, to keep his career viable. 

Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

All of this isn't meant to glorify Kovalev the person, who it should be noted was arrested last year for assault and faces legal proceedings later this year. There is no way of knowing whether Kovalev has matured, as he has claimed, or if these charges will be affirmed by the court system (he has denied them). These issues should not be sugar-coated or downplayed. 

After the Alvarez loss last August, Kovalev had to swallow some bitter medicine. He was no longer invincible. He was bettered in the ring. His punching power couldn't always save him. Ultimately, he found an unlikely partner to help him, and through one fight they far exceeded expectations.

With Kovalev, it's anyone's guess as to whether he will remain content professionally. He's not one who has easily accepted authority and has pointed fingers when the going has gotten tough. But for now, in today's issue of the Kovalev Chronicles, all is well. There is peace. Tomorrow could bring a knockout loss to one of the other champions at light heavyweight, or even imprisonment. But now is not the time to dwell on such unpleasantries. For Kovalev, today is a day worth savoring. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe'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.

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