WBO and IBA light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev is no stranger to the spotlight. Before taking on pound-for-pound great Andre Ward in a pair of high-profile bouts that ended in controversy, Kovalev was an undefeated Russian sensation with an impressive resume and devastating style that more than confirmed why he is nicknamed the “Krusher.” He continues the path to redemption from consecutive losses to Ward on Saturday, as he puts his hardware up for grabs against countryman Igor Mikhalkin at Madison Square Garden in New York on HBO Boxing (10:05 p.m. ET). While there is a lot of background noise related to this bout and what it could mean for Kovalev and the overall picture in the light heavyweight division, the message from the Kovalev camp is clear: The task at hand is all that matters.
Much has been made of the changes Kovalev has made to his training situation after lessons learned from Ward and a near-disastrous car accident that occurred shortly after their ill-fated rematch. He left behind his old ways of poor nutrition, excessive alcohol consumption, cigarettes and reported hardheadedness in preparation to completely change his lifestyle. Instead, he has spent time at the Boxing Laboratory in Oxnard, California, and the high altitude of Big Bear while listening to the advice of his trainers and manager Egis Klimas. As this is the second camp with the complete approach to health and fitness, this is a crucial moment for the near 35-year-old. Kovalev has been vocal about the physical improvements he has felt. Klimas believes he has “already bought the time back” that was lost to improper diet and health management. The intense focus on the details outside of the fight seems to have bled over into the mentality behind the overall approach to getting the job done. As Klimas made clear by phone, “it’s all about Saturday.”
That means nothing is getting in the way of putting on a winning performance against the -800 underdog. Not even a co-feature bout that pits WBA champion Dmitry Bivol and Sullivan Barrera -- two opponents that Team Kovalev eyed for potential matchups -- against one another is a cause for distraction. Klimas made it clear that Kovalev would not have “a single eye” on the fight. He even refuses to acknowledge any preference in the outcome, as “whoever has the belt would be the best fight.” Jokingly, Klimas declared that heavyweight star Anthony Joshua was on their radar, but unification seems to be the only goal worth mentioning post-Mikhalkin.
That would include responding to recent remarks from another light heavyweight in WBC and lineal champion Adonis Stevenson. The Haitian-born hard puncher told BoxingScene.com that “they are trying to save (Kovalev).” The implication that the “Krusher” is being paired with a soft-touch opponent elicited a spirited response. Klimas criticized Stevenson’s seeming unwillingness to fight outside of his adopted home of Canada and dismissed his words as coming from nothing more than a “trash talker.” Stevenson made it clear he feels that Kovalev is still feeling the effects of the Ward losses. While that is not an uncommon sentiment among enthusiasts and analysts of boxing, it is far from the truth, according Kovalev and his camp. The official word from Klimas is, “we don’t give a [expletive] about Andre Ward.”
An interesting wrinkle to the main event is the connection to a Russian fanbase that takes great pride in its champion. March 3 holds great significance in Russia’s history: In 1878, the Russo-Turkish war came to an end, and in 1918, its involvement in World War 1 concluded. It is fitting then that Kovalev headlines a card in New York, a city known for an abundance of Russian immigrants, and that he faces only his third opponent from his homeland and the first since 2011. It is also noteworthy that Mikhalkin was a former Kovalev teammate during their amateur careers. Klimas was dismissive of any of this being an extra thought that could distract from the execution of their goal. He was unaware of the historical context and said the Russian population in New York did not to his knowledge factor into the booking. However, he did admit they were excited that so many people in their home country were expected to watch despite the noon airtime in Russia. Kilmas echoed the feelings that Kovalev has expressed about the significance and appreciation of competing against a fellow Russian fighter along with the stereotypical mindset associated with them. “We don’t back down. We only keep coming for you,” he said, doubling down on the “Krusher” nickname and taking Mikhalkin seriously despite the lopsided betting odds.
When Kovalev takes to the ring, he will be entering an important time in his career. Yes, he will be defending his newly acquired title in a high-profile main event; and yes, every fight is important. However, this could be a career-altering result in a way the Ward fights were not. The controversy behind the razor-thin decision in the first Ward bout and the supposed low blow in the rematch are in the rearview mirror now, especially when considering Ward’s subsequent retirement. It is more important than ever that Kovalev continue righting the ship if he wishes to secure future high-profile paydays and cement a legacy in the division that does not involve his rival. Even with the 180 on healthy living, the clock is running out as he ages into the tail end of most fighters’ prime years. The potential exists for unification bouts against Stevenson, Bivol, Barrera or Artur Beterbiev, but this is about Kovalev putting one foot in front of the other. The “Krusher” must take care of the task at hand first.
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