Sergey Kovalev could be Buddy McGirt’s best reclamation project
OXNARD, California – Buddy McGirt perhaps has boxing’s best Midas touch.
Before he sits down to talk about his latest revival at The Boxing Laboratory gym, McGirt excuses himself to correct a flaw he caught from the corner of his eye fifty yards away from one of the pupils working nearby Sergey Kovalev.
“Get closer to the bag, left uppercut, then the hook. Don’t just hit the bag. You have to treat the bag like an opponent. Sharpen your tools, that’s what it’s all about,” advises McGirt before he assumes his seat again across the gym.
Soon after Kovalev was crushed by Eleider Alvarez in August 2018, knocked down three times and stripped of his light heavyweight title, the broken and battered Russian sought for McGirt’s corrections and constructive criticism at the suggestion of his manager Egis Klimas.
McGirt and Kovalev had a cordial relationship to that point whenever they saw each other at fights. They would crack a joke, and keep it moving. But now, it was time for an about face.
Kovalev and McGirt met in Northridge, California, for a workout late last year. Kovalev was intrigued by the idea of a union but not 100% certain, so he asked for an encore at the same time and same place the next day before eventually sealing the deal.
Kovalev quickly rebounded under the auspices of McGirt to avenge his loss against Alvarez and regained the WBO title in February that he first owned in 2013, then dispensed mandatory challenger Anthony Yarde in August.
The recently formed duo will walk into the ring as a tandem for the third time this year with their toughest task to date when Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs) takes on Ring Magazine middleweight champ Canelo Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs) in a light heavyweight showdown Nov. 2 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Alvarez, a natural 160 pounder, will be stepping up two divisions with hopes of winning a world title in a third weight class (The Ring does not recognize the secondary title he holds at super middleweight) for a match that will stream on DAZN.
“This is the biggest fight of my life. I’m more experienced, smarter, and I can finally say that I have a real professional trainer,” said Kovalev. “Before Buddy McGirt, I was fighting alone. All they did was put a towel on their shoulder and give me a mouthpiece. Now, I’m thinking different. Buddy says the right things, and I agree mentally.”
A Kovalev win will complete the biggest reclamation project of the Hall of Fame fighter-turned-trainer’s career, McGirt said, surpassing his resurrection of former fighters Arturo Gatti, Vernon Forrest and Antonio Tarver, all of whom bestowed coaching services on to him immediately following a loss.
“When you get these great guys like Sergey, you just remind them of what they can do,” said McGirt. “I just have to give them a tune up and turn them loose.”
When news got out that McGirt was going to train Kovalev, his phone started to ring off the hook. But they weren’t congratulatory calls. Instead, it was derogatory chides toward his new fighter’s work ethic and commitment to the craft after he unceremoniously split with previous longtime coach John David Jackson.
“People were calling to bash Sergey, questioning why I would work with him and waste my time,” McGirt remembers. “But I wanted to be the judge of that, and not what people were telling me. I’ve never had any problems with him in training. I can honestly say he’s a great and sincere person. Everybody deserves a second chance.”
As the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” — but you can reteach the ones they forgot about — and that’s what McGirt plans on doing for the 36-year-old Kovalev.
When Kovalev showed McGirt tape of his amateur career and a fight versus Matvey Korobov, McGirt pleaded to his fighter to revert back to his previous ways.
“He got away from his hand speed, smartness and the basics. Everything was crush, crush, crush,” said McGirt. “I saw the video and asked, ‘what happened to this guy?’ He told me, ‘I got away from it because I was knocking everybody out.’ I told him, ‘at this stage of your career, you’re not knocking everybody out, so what are you going to do?’ And he said, ‘make it easier.’”
“He showed me different positions, and simply said ‘shoot the left hand more,’” said Kovalev. “I threw the left hand so much I couldn’t drive my car home afterward. It would take hours to recover.”
Kovalev will sport a four-inch height advantage and a two-inch reach advantage but give up seven years in youth to the 29-year-old Alvarez, who’s coming off an impressive unanimous decision win over Daniel Jacobs in May.
McGirt said they plan on keeping the offensive-minded Alvarez at bay by being smart, and by setting him up with Kovalev’s feints and jabs, arguably one of boxing’s best.
“I’m very excited and a little nervous about this,” said Kovalev. “Canelo is a very good, talented, smart, tactical and strong fighter. He has everything — defense, speed, stamina. It will be very interesting.”
“He needs to box from the outside,” said McGirt. “If Canelo comes in, he needs to pay the price. Canelo will try to bring everything in his arsenal, try to outbox early and take him to the late rounds and put the heat on him. When he steps on the gas, we’re going to step on our gas harder. We’re going to do the opposite of what he wants us to do.”
The body-attacking Alvarez is a betting favorite largely because the past-his-prime Kovalev has looked brittle when taking shots to his midsection, as evidenced by his two losses against Andre Ward and the serious scare he survived during the summer against Yarde in which McGirt threatened the stop the fight between rounds 8 and 9 as a fatigued Kovalev was momentarily being bludgeoned.
The adversity started with a body attack, and to combat a questionable core, Teddy Cruz, Kovalev’s strength and conditioning coach, has been hardening the fighter’s torso and legs via planks, push ups and pull ups to protect him from Alvarez’s crippling body attack.
“We’re keeping it simple by focusing on the core and building around it,” said Cruz, who’s worked alongside McGirt his entire career. “You can break a board on Sergey’s abs. He’s at that point right now, and his core is a lot stronger than from when we started working with him. It’s progressed and improved.”
“They haven’t over trained me at my age,” added Kovalev. “They’ve taught and ensured me everything on a strict schedule.”
McGirt said Kovalev’s fight against Yarde displayed the moxie, mettle and level of motivation needed to challenge Alavrez and pull off the upset.
“He got lazy in the Yarde fight because it was so easy early. He fell asleep. Yarde woke his ass up,” said McGirt. “It was a nuts and guts performance. He showed me that everything people said about him was wrong.”
Depending on how the fight unfolds, a Kovalev victory perhaps will supplant McGirt’s most significant win as a trainer when Tarver knocked out the untouchable Roy Jones Jr. in 2004.
The Russian knows that he’ll have to produce a turn-back-the-clock performance in order to defend a light heavyweight title for the eleventh time in his career and pull off the upset of the year.
“I lost all of my style and technique before I started working with Buddy,” said Kovalev. “He’s taught me more patience, defense and boxing and to not just try to knock people out. He’s brought back the old me.”
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist and member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011. He has written for the likes of the Guardian, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health and NFL.com and currently does TV commentary for combat sports programming that airs on Fox Sports. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at [email protected].