Sergey Kovalev wants you to know he’s as dangerous as ever
Sergey Kovalev was working through a wide range of emotions just a few days before embarking on the second stage of his comeback since back-to-back losses to Andre Ward, which not only resulted in the loss of his world titles but also exposed a chink in the armor of the Russian boxer who is supposed to annihilate every opponent. With the aura of invincibility zapped, Kovalev opened up on what he describes as the next chapter in his career as he prepares to defend his WBO title Saturday night against relative unknown and fellow countryman Igor Mikhalkin at the Theater in Madison Square Garden.
This will be Kovalev’s (31-2-1, 27 knockouts) second consecutive appearance at The Theater. He delivered a thrashing to Vyacheslav Shabranskyy over the Thanksgiving holiday last year to recapture one of the belts he lost to Ward. This will also be Kovalev’s second time working with Abror Tursunpulatov after a public breakup with longtime trainer John David Jackson.
“Everything is different in camp now,” a beaming Kovalev said. “Abror is in control. He makes the plan for us. He is the driver of the car and I am the passenger. Before I was the driver and my coach was the passenger.”
Kovalev blames Jackson for not being able strategize and think on his feet when the stakes were high. According to Kovalev, it was the fighter who devised the game plan, and he had to spend his energy explaining himself to his trainer instead of the trainer taking control.
“I felt this first with the Isaac Chilemba fight,” Kovalev remembers. “I knew something was not right in training and then I came into the ring and everything felt off. I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ I told John, ‘You are not giving me anything.’ No tactical advice. As a fighter I can see certain things. I need someone who can see more than me.”
Kovalev toughed out a unanimous decision victory over Chilemba in what was billed as a homecoming bout in Ekaterinburg, Russia. After leaving Russia with the victory, nothing would ever be the same again for Kovalev. He put forth a strong showing in the first bout with Ward, even scoring an early knockdown, only to fade midway through the bout and allow Ward to do enough to win close decision. All three judges gave Ward the nod, 114-113. Kovalev admits he was devastated and still believes the judges got it wrong.
“I had all the belts for three years, and then just like that, the judges robbed me,” Kovalev said. “Emotionally I didn’t get over it, and that’s my fault. While Ward went to the gym, I went with my family on vacation. We traveled the world. I didn’t step in the gym for four months, and then only had two months to get ready for the second fight.”
Kovalev said he felt good leading up to the rematch but emotionally he wasn’t prepared, and that ultimately cost him: Ward stopped Kovalev with a series of body shots that the Russian believes were below the belt.
“Something happened to me psychologically that night,” Kovalev said. “I don’t know if I was preoccupied with the judges or I was afraid of something else going wrong, but I just tired out and it’s my fault. It was actually a punch from Ward that woke me up and I said, ‘OK, I need to make it happen now.’ And then of course he hit me low and I thought the referee was going to give me some time to catch my breath. Instead he just stopped the fight.”
Kovalev said he disconnected after the second loss and reevaluated everything, including his head trainer, and pondered his future in the sport.
“I thought about (retiring), but when I went to a monastery in Greece and prayed, I realized the losses were just hurdles for me to get over,” Kovalev said. “I realized I have to stop thinking about the past and only think about the future, and now I am so excited. I have new energy from these life lessons.”
Kovalev believes he is being blessed by a higher power, because since he was on a mini sabbatical, Ward retired and vacated the three titles – and when Kovalev was ready to come back, his promoter, Kathy Duva from Main Events, had a fight date lined up with HBO and it would be for one of the belts he lost.
“This is why I say this is my next chapter,” Kovalev proudly exclaimed. “I see things much clearer now than I did before and I understand things much clearer now. I am still very dangerous because I am motivated.”
Aside from WBC titleholder Adonis Stevenson, the light heavyweight division boasts two other champions – both of whom are Russian just like Kovalev. But they’ve had fewer fights, 12 each to be exact, and their journeys seems to have been easier than the one Kovalev and his longtime manager, Egis Klimas, traveled. Klimas went so far as to compare Dmitry Bivol (WBA) and Artur Beterbiev (IBF) to lottery winners.
“They are lucky. I guarantee you they cannot go through what Sergey went through,” Klimas said. “We were fighting in garages and basements. We used to drive to North Carolina and to Pennsylvania looking for fights. Sometimes we came back without a fight. I took Sergey to Bob Arum and he said, ‘What the f**k am I going to do with a light heavyweight from Russia?”
Kovalev added that when he first got to Los Angeles and shared a room with a boxing trainer, he used to step over cockroaches to get to the bathroom.
“Sergey never has to look over his back and say thank you for people giving him stuff for free,” Klimas said. “Everything Sergey has, he earned it himself. That’s why he is a champion.”
With this being his second fight in New York City, Kovalev held court at a standing-room-only meet-and-greet with the Russian community at a popular restaurant in Brooklyn the day before the weigh-in. Judging from the interest of fans in attendance, Kovalev continues to build his base in the city that has 1.6 million Russians in it. But he also claims that can be a mixed bag.
“I actually fight better when the crowd is against me,” Kovalev said with a smile. “I am motivated to beat their guy and turn them to cheer for me. Against Chilemba, everyone was going for me and I didn’t do well.”