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.”

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