Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What's next for Sergey Kovalev?

The year 2013 in the sport of Boxing has produced several classics. It has also been a year for fighters who are best described as knockout artists. Fighters such as Gennady Golovkin and Deontay Wilder have not only established themselves in their respective weight classes but have also garnered significant attention due to their ability to knock opponents out. Another fighter who has quickly risen to become one of the sport’s hottest rising stars is undefeated Light-Heavyweight Sergey Kovalev.

Much like Golovkin and Wilder, Kovalev has an extremely high career knockout percentage and has an exciting come forward seek and destroy mentality. One might argue that Kovalev’s first major test in the Light-Heavyweight division came in January this year when he faced former WBA Light-Heavyweight world champion Gabriel Campillo. Campillo entered into his fight with  Kovalev off a controversial decision loss to Tavoris Cloud in February 2012. Some including this observer, felt that if  Campillo were able to get by Kovalev that it would likely lead to a rematch with Cloud who was then the undefeated holder of the IBF World Light-Heavyweight championship.

Kovalev however would put a quick and definitive end to any potential plans for a Cloud-Campillo rematch. The undefeated Russian contender knocked Campillo down three times in route to a third round technical knockout. With a dominating performance in scoring a knockout over someone who some feel could have claimed status as an uncrowned champion of the Light-Heavyweight division, Sergey Kovalev became a rising star. In June Kovalev followed his victory over Campillo with an equally destructive third round knockout over contender Cornelius White. Due to certain circumstances regarding the cancellation of IBF world champion Bernard Hopkins’ scheduled title defense against then mandatory challenger Karo Murat due to Murat’s difficulty obtaining a U.S. visa, the International Boxing Federation (IBF) designated the Kovalev-White bout as an elimination fight to determine a new mandatory challenger for Bernard Hopkins.

Off his victory over White, Kovalev was designated as the number one contender for Hopkins’ title and the sanctioning body subsequently mandated the champion to face him. Kovalev however opted instead to challenge undefeated WBO Light-Heavyweight world champion Nathan Cleverly.
One might argue that although Kovalev was challenging for a world title, choosing to fight Cleverly may have been looked at as a gamble from an economic standpoint. After all, Bernard Hopkins is a two-division world champion and a legend of the sport. It could have indeed been a valid point that Kovalev would have made more money by facing Hopkins than he would in facing Cleverly. The flip side of the coin however is that if Kovalev were successful in winning a world title by beating Nathan Cleverly the prospects for a potential fight with Bernard Hopkins would be increased now not only in terms of financial incentives for both fighters but also, the potential for a unification bout in the Light-Heavyweight division.

It was interesting to see how Kovalev would respond to the atmosphere of being in his first world title fight and also how he would respond being in hostile territory fighting Cleverly in the champion’s home country. Going into this fight the question I had in mind in regard to Kovalev was how would he respond if Cleverly were able to take this fight into the late rounds? Kovalev has gone as far as an eight round distance only once in his career in his first fight with Darnell Boone in October 2010. Although it was clear that Kovalev had the edge in regard to punching power, questions regarding his stamina were indeed warranted if Cleverly were able to survive the early storm. The question of whether or not Cleverly would be able to withstand Kovalev’s power however was also warranted. Cleverly was after all defending his title against a fighter with a career knockout percentage of well over 80%.

Although the odds were seemingly against Cleverly, he had successfully defended his title five times prior to facing Kovalev, was unbeaten in twenty-six professional fights, and was not a fighter to take lightly. It was also clear that Cleverly had to establish the tempo of the fight from the outset. Kovalev has demonstrated in previous fights that he is a quick starter and is more than willing to bring the fight to his opponent. I wondered how Cleverly would respond to what was likely to be a fight fought at a fast pace from the opening bell. When the two fighters squared off this past weekend in Cardiff, Wales it was not surprising to see the fast pace that many expected this fight to be fought at, established immediately.

Despite the fast pace with both fighters letting their hands go, it was Kovalev’s aggression that was the difference. Cleverly was able to establish his jab early however Kovalev seemed to keep him on the defensive mixing his offense to the head and body of the champion. Cleverly was able to have some success when he threw his jab however did not seem to have an answer to keep Kovalev off of him.
Kovalev continued to press the action with an almost surgical precision. Although the challenger suffered a cut over the right eye in the second round, it did not seem to have any effect. A Kovalev left hook in round three began a barrage which saw the challenger knock the champion down twice and seemingly had Cleverly out on his feet at the end of the round. It seemed for a brief moment as though Referee Terry O’Connor had stepped in and stopped the fight in the closing seconds of round three and it appeared as though he actually saved Cleverly from going down for a third time in the round. The confusion of whether the fight was stopped came because O’Connor seemed to wave his arms to signify the end of the contest as he helped a badly staggered Cleverly back to his corner.

The brief confusion was a formality as O’Connor stopped the fight just seconds into round four. Kovalev had scored his sixth consecutive knockout dethroning Cleverly in devastating fashion to claim the WBO World Light-Heavyweight title. The question now becomes what is next for Sergei Kovalev?

There are a couple of interesting possibilities for the new WBO champion. One obvious possibility that is likely to be discussed is the potential for unification fight with either IBF champion Bernard Hopkins who’s fight with Karo Murat has been tentatively rescheduled for October 26th  or the winner of the upcoming WBC title fight between champion Adonis Stevenson and Tavoris Cloud on September 28th. Both of these options have the potential to be quite lucrative and generate significant interest among fans and experts alike. It is perhaps unlikely that Kovalev would face the winner of either of those fights in the remainder of 2013. It is certainly possible that either winner could be on the table for Kovalev in 2014 however, what if Kovalev wants to fight one more time this year?

With three victories in 2013, there are other options for Kovalev should he look for a fourth fight to close out the year.  The possibility of a rematch with a former champion Nathan Cleverly may not be in immediate plans but should also not be dismissed.

Although Cleverly was defeated decisively by Kovalev a champion almost always has a right to exercise a rematch clause. Whether or not Cleverly chooses to exercise that option if it is available to him remains be seen. Cleverly however has at least for the moment hinted at the possibility of retiring from the sport stating after the fight to BBC Sport “I will go away and live a normal life for a bit now. Just leave boxing for a bit - it has been an intense period. You know six weeks into that where you want to go. Your instincts tell you if you are missing boxing, or are you going to find another career path. Who knows where my heart is going to lie? If I continue, I will come back and give it a go. But the background I have got and the brain I have got, do I really need to continue? It could go either way, my career.”

With Cleverly for the moment out of the picture the World Boxing Organization (WBO) likely could mandate Kovalev to defend his title against former WBO world champion, current European Light-Heavyweight champion, and current number one contender Juergen Braehmer. Braehmer however is scheduled to defend his European title against Stefano Abatangelo on August 24th in Germany. Obviously, the WBO who’s International Light-Heavyweight title will also be on the line will likely wait until the conclusion of that bout before any mandate is made.
If the WBO were to allow Kovalev the option to make an elective defense for his first title defense while a mandatory challenger is determined, top contenders such as former longtime IBF Super-Middleweight champion Lucian Bute, Tony Bellew, and Andrzej Fonfara could all be in the mix. 
Fonfara who also fought last week scoring a ninth round knockout over Gabriel Campillo, ironically finds himself in a similar circumstance as Sergey Kavalov was in prior to facing Nathan Cleverly. Fonfara earned the number one ranking in the IBF’s Light-Heavyweight ratings with his victory over Campillo. With the Hopkins-Murat bout now rescheduled it will be interesting to see if Fonfara would elect to face the winner of the Hopkins-Murat bout or, if he would instead opt to fight another champion in the division if the opportunity were offered to him.

One possibility that should also be discussed is a possible unification bout with World Boxing Association (WBA) Light-Heavyweight champion Beibut Shumenov. Shumenov, a world champion since 2010 has made four successful defenses of his world title however has not fought in over a year and would likely welcome the opportunity to unify the title with Kovalev and in doing so generate significant interest as well.

No matter what option Sergey Kovalev chooses to take for his first title defense it will almost certainly grab the attention of the Boxing world. We will have to wait and see what happens next.
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

The Boxing Truth® is registered trademark of Beau Denison All Rights Reserved.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Deontay Wilder Emerges As A Top Contender

When the topic of current prospects turned contenders in the Heavyweight division is discussed and or, debated it is hard not to argue that fighters such as Tyson Fury, David Price, and Bryant Jennings have been at or near the top of the list. While Fury, Price, and Jennings have seen much attention shined on them; there is another hot rising prospect that has gradually been carving his own path through the Heavyweight division. The prospect’s name?  Deontay Wilder…
Wilder, the 2008 Olympic Bronze medalist has been quietly building one of the more impressive records you are likely to ever see out of a prospect turned contender.  Undefeated in his professional career Wilder compiled twenty-eight wins from when he turned pro in November of 2008 to April of this year.  What makes Wilder’s record intimidating for any would be opponent is not one of those twenty-eight opponents have been able to go the distance with the 6’7 American Heavyweight. Perhaps more intimidating than Wilder’s consecutive knockout streak is only one fighter, journeyman Heavyweight Marlon Hayes was able to extend Wilder beyond three rounds before being stopped in the fourth round of their fight in February of last year. 
When an undefeated Heavyweight prospect begins his career with a streak of knockouts it is hard not to remember another Heavyweight who began his career with his own consecutive knockout streak, Mike Tyson who scored eighteen consecutive knockouts to begin his career. Tyson’s streak of knockouts created somewhat of a debate as to how quickly Tyson was moved along up the ranks by his handlers.  Over the years when discussing this topic this observer has stated that despite debate and criticism of how Tyson was moved along that it is my opinion that the strategy of Tyson’s managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton in managing Tyson was brilliant. 
Much like Tyson had to deal with questions regarding his stamina and what happens when a fight goes into the middle and late rounds, so too does Deontay Wilder. Unlike Tyson however one could argue that Wilder’s progression has been slower.  Tyson after all climbed to the top of the Heavyweight division and won his first world title in just a year and a half after turning professional. One could say that Tyson’s rise up the Heavyweight division although quick and devastating was not necessarily the norm.
As we have recently seen with the setbacks of David Price who suffered back to back losses to top contender Tony Thompson in his last two fights it was too much and too soon. Price had only fought thirteen fights as a professional prior to his two fights with Tony Thompson.  Although it can be a delicate task in determining when a fighter should move along and step up in the quality of opposition for a fighter’s management and promoter, this observer believes that in light of what has happened with David Price that it was probably a smart move by those who handle Deontay Wilder to progress him at a slower but steady rate.
After seeing Wilder’s knockout win over former world title challenger Audley Harrison, I began to wonder who Wilder would be put in against for his next fight and, whether or not that fighter would be able to extend Wilder deep into a fight.  The opponent  that Wilder would face would be former WBO Heavyweight world champion Sergei Liakhovich.  
This to me was an interesting choice of opponent for Wilder. Despite Liahovich coming into this fight having lost his last two fights, suffering knockout losses to contenders Robert Helenius and Bryant Jennings, Liakhovich was after all a former world champion. Although Liakhovich frankly suffered two brutal beatings at the hands of Helenius and Jennings, he was not a fighter to take lightly.
It was also an arguable point that Liakhovich was a fighter who was in decline. Liakhovich however had been able to take fights into the middle and late rounds.  Going into the fight I wondered whether or not Liakhovich would be able to withstand Wilder’s punching power and whether or not he could take this fight beyond the early rounds. 
When the two fighters entered the ring on August 9th in Indio, California the fight came to a sudden and frankly scary end midway through the first round.  Wilder floored Liakhovich with a right hand that knocking the former world champion down on the canvas. Referee Tom Taylor immediately stopped the fight as Liakhovich was convulsing.  Wilder had scored his twenty-ninth consecutive knockout at 1:43 of the first round. 
For Deontay Wilder the questions continues to be who can withstand his punching power and who may be able to extend Wilder into the middle and late rounds of a fight?  No one knows who might be able to answer that question however in terms of the immediate future perhaps Wilder could be a future opponent for Heavyweight contender and former world title challenger Dereck Chisora.
Chisora, who recently scored a somewhat controversial knockout over previously undefeated contender Malik Scott could view a potential fight with Wilder as a way to springboard back into the Heavyweight championship picture.  Malik Scott who filed a protest with the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) following his loss to Chisora in an effort to have his knockout loss changed to a no contest should also be viewed as a possibility for Wilder.
Last week the BBBofC denied Scott’s protest. It remains to be seen if this will lead to a rematch between Chisora and Scott. One should not however overlook the possibility of a fighter like Deontay Wilder being figured into the plans for either fighter. 
Although Wilder’s knockout of Sergei Liakhovich is likely to be talked about for some time, Referee Tom Taylor should be applauded for stopping the fight immediately and not counting.  It was a scary knockout and although Liakhovich was able to sit on his stool shortly after the fight was stopped, it should not be overlooked that the appropriate call was made immediately and that the fighter’s safety was the top priority as it should be. 
For Sergei Liakhovich this would appear to be a career ending knockout.  As the safety standards in the sport of Boxing have greatly improved over the years, it would be logical to see perhaps the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) and or, the Association of Boxing Commissions issue a medical suspension after a fighter has suffered a knockout like this. 
What should not be overlooked is Liakhovich has now been knocked out in his last three fights and due to the beatings he has taken not just in those three fights but throughout his career, the long-term well-being of a fighter should now be taken into consideration.  Sergei Liakhovich has been a fighter who has always been very “Game” and has always given everything he has when he enters the ring. It is however the responsibility of those who regulate the sport worldwide to ensure the safety of fighters. Although Sergei Liakhovich’s heart cannot be questioned, you never want to see a fighter take one punch too many.
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”
The Boxing Truth® is a registered trademark of Beau Denison All Rights Reserved.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

BKB: A Modern Twist on Bare-Knuckle Boxing

Since the inception of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in the 1800’s the concept of Bare-Knuckle Boxing, although rightfully regarded as the original form of the sport of Boxing, has long been in the past. As time has gone on although Boxing much like all combat sports remains dangerous, the innovation of gloved prizefighting has become the standard for the sport. 
As a Boxing historian this observer frankly did not expect to see anything resembling a return to Bare-Knuckle Boxing in my lifetime.  In the past when asked my thoughts on a potential return of Bare-Knuckle Boxing I have always stated that I did not see it happening primarily due to safety concerns, regulations, and the dangers that already exist in the sport of Boxing as it is.  I have however said despite the dangers of the sport, the safety standards in Boxing have greatly improved over the years.
Sometimes when many feel a bout was stopped prematurely feeling that a hurt fighter should have been given the benefit of the doubt, an explanation that you will often hear a referee or athletic commission state was the safety of the fighter became the primary concern.  An argument could and perhaps should be made based on this, that Boxing in today’s day and age is considerably safer for those who compete in the sport and that can be attributed to those who regulate the sport who continue to make strides to ensure the safety of fighters.   
One such example is when the legendary Evander Holyfield was medically suspended indefinitely by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) following his one-sided decision loss to veteran contender Larry Donald in 2004. The commission cited their reasoning behind the suspension as being due to Holyfield’s diminishing skills.  In covering the fight card in which Holyfield-Donald took place and the subsequent aftermath in the days following the card, this observer applauded the decision of the NYSAC.  Although Holyfield would eventually be cleared to resume his career the NYSAC should be commended for the action they had taken and continue to take to ensure the safety and welfare of boxers. 
Based on the ever present concern for safety in the sport of Boxing, this observer was surprised to hear of a concept known as BKB: Bare-Knuckle Boxing. The inaugural BKB card which premiered on July 27th was available via pay-per-view exclusively to subscribers of Satellite television provider DirecTV. The card which took place in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire featured ten bouts ranging from the Lightweight division to the Heavyweight division.  In all truth and honesty although I had obvious concerns about the fighters safety, I was curious to see this concept.
 What made this unique were the rules in which fights in BKB are fought.  Unlike a traditional Boxing ring, BKB bouts are fought in a circular pit with no ropes. Round limits on this card were two minutes in duration with a one minute rest period between rounds.  Bouts were scheduled for distances of five, seven, and ten rounds respectively.  Judges scores are done on the traditional ten-point must system and are announced after each round to the fighters and the audience in attendance.  If a fighter steps out of the circular pit accidentally it is considered a slip. A fighter who is knocked down however will be given a traditional ten count to get to their feet. 
Boxing gloves were also used in this concept. The gloves however are smaller than a traditional Boxing glove with one exception, the knuckle area is exposed although the hole is deep enough seemingly to prevent actual contact with the knuckles.  The gloves also range between five and seven ounces depending on the weight class in which a bout is being contested.  Although some stated prior to this card that “It isn’t Bare-Knuckle Boxing if gloves are used.” This observer thought it was a unique concept and a necessary component with regard to fighters’ safety. 
Unlike a traditional Boxing ring, the BKB circular pit measures seventeen feet in diameter and 227 square feet which makes it just over half the size of a traditional 20X20 Boxing ring.  From a fan’s perspective the BKB pit offers unrestricted viewing angles due to it’s lowered floors and colored lift gates signifying each fighter’s respective corner that lift and lock at the beginning of each round.   Prior to this card I really didn’t know what to expect but much like the anticipation prior to a mega fight in either the sport of Boxing or the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) it was certainly intriguing to see what this concept would look like in practice.
One thing that was obvious as the fights got underway was that this type of format does not necessarily favor a boxer who likes to utilize lateral movement.  This is due the narrow space in the pit area.  This format however appeared to be tailor made for a boxer who likes to fight on the inside.  This observer’s initial impression was that this format although a little different than a traditional Boxing format was indeed unique and was often entertaining to watch.  The two minute rounds in particular seemed to ensure a quick pace where fighters were looking to let their hands go from the outset of a round.  Although some Boxing purists may have varying opinions, BKB seemed to deliver on what it promised which was to provide entertaining and action packed bouts. 
The inaugural BKB event was not however without some elements of controversy.  In the first bout of the card, a Cruiserweight fight between Chris Traietti and Larry Hopkins, Hopkins was floored just seconds into the second round by what all accounts appeared to be an accidental head butt.  Although Referee Dave Greenwood immediately signaled “No Knockdown!” he counted Hopkins out after Hopkins failed to respond to his command to get up. 
It goes without saying that whenever there is a new concept or a would be new sport put into practice, that there is likely to be some confusion early on.  In regard to this situation I am surprised that this fight was not ruled a no contest due to an accidental foul.  Although a little confusing one would assume that we are likely to get some clarification on such a rule in the future on subsequent BKB cards.  For now it appears that Larry Hopkins was the unfortunate recipient of a tough break however given that it was the first card under the concept and format of BKB, circumstances like this are bound to happen. 
What should be applauded however despite the confusion surrounding the ending of the Traietti-Hopkins bout are the performances of  the referees who officiated on this card.  The damage caused by the bare-knuckled exposed gloves was immediately noticeable.  The referees however in this observer’s eyes did an excellent job of making sure that fights were stopped when appropriate and that the fighters who competed on this card did not suffer any unnecessary punishment. 
Individually each of the ten bouts proved to be exciting however the bout that stood out in my mind on that evening beyond the Traietti-Hopkins bout was the Light-Heavyweight bout between Jason Naugler and Teneal Goyco.  Although all the bouts on this card provided plenty of action the Naugler-Goyco bout in the opinion of this observer was the fight of the night.   From the opening bell these two fighters engaged in a slugfest with each fighter having their say in the opening round.
Goyco opened a cut on the forehead of Naugler with a left hand in the second round. The cut would worsen as the fight progressed however Naugler remained undeterred and kept coming forward.  By the end of round three Goyco seemed to be getting the better of the exchanges however Naugler took the punches well and even taunted his opponent before having his mouthpiece knocked out by a Goyco jab in the closing seconds of the round. 
By the end of round three Naugler’s cut had worsened to the point where frankly I wondered whether the fight would be stopped between rounds.  It was a nasty gash and although Naugler’s heart and frankly the heart and determination of all the fighters who competed on this card could not be questioned, this was one of the things that I was concerned about with regard to a fighter’s safety prior to this card.  A vicious Goyco left hook that landed flush on the jaw of Naugler would bring an end to the fight in round four as the fight was immediately stopped by Referee Mike Ryan.
Overall I came away from this card with a feeling of optimism. After all I was not sure what to expect out of this card but was pleasantly entertained by the heart and pure guts of all the fighters who participated. I was equally impressed by the New Hampshire Boxing and Wrestling commission in how they were able to ensure the safety of the fighters.  My overall impression is that BKB may be in a position that is not all that unlike the position that the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) was in when it surfaced in the United States in the early 1990’s.
This observer remembers how MMA was looked upon during that period of time.  One should remember that during MMA’s inception in the United States that it was essentially no holds barred fighting where the only rules were No biting, No eye gouging, and, No strikes in any form to the groin. 
The original format of MMA here in the United States raised the ire of many politicians, most notably Arizona Senator John McCain who labeled the sport as “Human Cockfighting” and was a driving force in lobbying to see that the sport was banned by many states. As a result of McCain’s efforts many states did indeed ban the sport of MMA and many cable companies refused to carry pay-per-view MMA events for a period of time.
In time the sport of MMA evolved into it’s current format of rules and regulations including the use of gloves and various weight classes.  In time many states have lifted their ban on MMA and in the last decade the sport has grown at a tremendous rate not just here in the United States but around the world.  Although rules and regulations can vary depending on a particular MMA promotion, the sport overall has proven to be quite successful.  Even though MMA still has some hurdles to clear in some states, the day of universal licensing and regulation for MMA events in the United States seems to be near.
For the newest twist on the original form of Boxing in what appears to be the latest addition to Combat Sports BKB, there may not be as great a struggle for acceptance and regulation as has stood in the way of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.  As long as safety precautions continue to be taken and fighters are cleared to compete in the same manner in which Boxers and MMA fighters have been for many years, this observer believes the concept of BKB Championship Boxing could be around for some time. 
Will the concept of BKB evolve in the future? Only time will tell… 
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

The Boxing Truth® is a registered trademark of Beau Denison All Rights Reserved.

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