Sergey Kovalev: From unknown to pound-for-pound supremacy
LAS VEGAS – Sergey Kovalev has come a long way to get to this point.
Tonight, he will face Andre Ward (30-0, 15 knockouts) in the most anticipated fight of the year that will mark only the third time in the 26-year history of THE RING magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings that two unbeaten fighters in the top five will face each other.
It’s a huge boxing event where the winner will likely end up with the keys to the pound-for-pound castle. And for Kovalev, the journey to this point has seen him make the uphill climb of bringing boxing’s light heavyweight division back to prominence while proving that Russian boxers can be a force in boxing.
“Nobody knew me five years ago,” the unified light heavyweight champion said earlier this week. “It was very difficult”
He’s right. Kovalev’s manager Egis Klimas reflects on the challenges he faced in making the Russian relevant to American audiences. After meeting Kovalev through a mutual friend in Kazakhstan before Krusher’s professional debut in 2009, Klimas knew he had something special. But he also knew it was going to take some time and a significant investment to get him noticed.
“I told him there was no money in the light heavyweight division,” Klimas said. “At that point no networks wanted to do anything for Russians. I told him to think about super middleweight but he told me to be patient and I will bring the division to life.”
It was frustrating at first as Klimas tried to get him a fight on a network but he was turned away. But Kovalev refused to give up, kept his head down and destroyed his opponents.
“He never asked me any questions about his opponent or told me he wasn’t ready to fight,” Klimas said. “He didn’t care. All he wanted to know was what weight the fight was at. He knew he wasn’t making any money.”
Kovalev ran his record to 17-0-1 with 15 knockouts. While impressive, the problem was that the top promoters simply weren’t interested in a Eastern European boxer. Top Rank, Golden Boy, Lou DiBella and Gary Shaw all passed on signing Kovalev.
“I was very honest with him,” Klimas said. “If you can make it to the top and take the American audience then you’ll have success. Otherwise, forget about it.”
Klimas says that he invested somewhere in the ballpark of $400,000 in Kovalev’s career before he saw any kind of return. He paid for the travel of Kovalev’s team as well as his opponents and gave the Russian some money so he could feed himself. Finally, a crack was made in the door and Kovalev blew it off the hinges. And that happened to be when Kovalev had a rematch with Darnell Boone in 2012 and scored a second-round TKO.
“I made $5,000 for that fight,” Kovalev said with a smile. It also marked the first time Kovalev would fight under Kathy Duva’s Main Events banner. After everyone else passed on the Russian light heavyweight, Duva saw something special in the Krusher, even when nobody else did.
“An unnamed executive at HBO said I’ve got two problems with Kovalev: He’s a light heavyweight and he’s a Russian,” Duva said.
But after defeating Boone, Kovalev would go on to decimate Nathan Cleverly in 2013 to win the WBO light heavyweight title and the legend was born. Since then, Kovalev has become one of boxing’s most popular fighters with the ability to demolish his competition with his overwhelming punching power as well as box with the best of them. He’s run roughshod over his completion, even turning in a dominant performance over legend Bernard Hopkins. And nobody dominates the wily veteran.
After unsuccessfully chasing a unification bout with WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson (“Adonis who?” Kovalev says in jest), the next best thing happened when super middleweight dynamo Andre Ward materialized. The stakes cannot be higher as the winner will be recognized as boxing’s best pound for pound fighter. But Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) has been through enough on his journey to this point and is relatively unfazed by the idea of facing Ward.
“It’s just another fight,” Kovalev told RingTV.com. “He’s not dangerous but he is a tough fight for me. “He doesn’t have a punch like Mike Tyson but he’s smart and has very good defense.”
This fight is everything that’s right in boxing. You have two completely different boxers who have rose to the top by doing what they do best. For Kovalev, that is brutalizing his opponents with devastating offense while Ward puzzles opponents with his defense. But it’s not a concern for the Russian as he plans on continuing to do what got him here in the first place.
“Why should I change anything when what I did before gave me success? The only thing that changes is that I’m fighting Andre Ward,” he said. But he is aware that Ward has possession of something that Kovalev never had, an Olympic gold medal. But Krusher is viewing this as not only a championship fight, but his own Olympic event.
“This fight is for two championships: Olympic games and world boxing championship. Victory over him will give me my gold medal.”
With boxing supremacy and mainstream success hanging in the balance, Kovalev believes that a victory for him will prove his greatness and also prove to the boxing world that denied him that he’s was worth every ounce of the investment that Klimas and Duva put into him. Even if Kovalev loses, he’s already won by surpassing the low expectations placed on him.
But if he wins, Kovalev assures that boxing’s future will be in good hands.
“If I win, I’ll give the world great fights,” Kovalev said. “If he wins, boxing fans will get boring fights for the future. If Ward wins, the fans lose.”