Sergey Kovalev staked a claim on Saturday as the world's best light heavyweight with his seventh round knockout of badly overmatched Cedric Agnew in the ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
"The Krusher," as he is known, also did a surprisingly good rating for his debut as an HBO main eventer. The bout averaged 1.006 million viewers and peaked at 1.048 million.
It was solid number and exceeded the figure that the highly popular middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin drew in his first HBO main event in 2012. Golovkin, who is now one of HBO's biggest stars, attracted 685,000 viewers for his Sept. 1, 2012, bout with Gregorz Proksa.
There is a key difference, however: It was Golovkin's first time fighting on television in the U.S., whereas Kovalev had appeared multiple times on NBC Sports Network and then twice in undercard fights on HBO. It's likely the audience had a greater familiarity with Kovalev than it did Golovkin at the time of his debut.
But Kathy Duva of Main Events, which promotes Kovalev, was thrilled with the rating he drew. She noted that the Kovalev fight went up against the NCAA men's basketball tournament, that Agnew was a massive underdog and that the fight got very little marketing push from the network.
"Historically, it's been very rare [for a boxing promoter] to go on that weekend [against the NCAA tournament]," Duva said. "It's a day you can't sell anything because people are so caught up in the tournament."
Kovalev drew slightly less for his fight against Ismayl Sillakh than Adonis Stevenson did against Tony Bellew when both men fought on the same card in November, but Duva pointed out that Kovalev's ratings were better among 18-to-49-year-olds, a key demographic.
Kovalev did well with that group again in the Agnew fight, attracting 464,000 in adults 18-49, nearly double the 242,000 total viewers who watched the mixed martial arts fight card, World Series of Fighting 9, that was airing on the NBC Sports Network at the same time.
Duva suspects that Kovalev may be attracting some of the MMA fans who are known to love knockouts. Kovalev is one of the sport's hardest punchers and knocked Agnew down three times Saturday.
"These MMA guys, they love action, they love knockouts and they love guys who are blunt and speak their minds," Duva said. "Kovalev is a destroyer and he comes in and goes right at it. That appeals to the MMA fan, I think. They're not interested in guys like Guillermo Rigondeaux. He's a great, fantastic boxer, but the MMA crowd isn't looking to see that.
"Kovalev has the kind of style that appeals to them, and I think that's why we're seeing his numbers so good in that demographic."
Duva was so euphoric she suggested that Kovalev might become a pay-per-view star. She didn't define star, though I would say it is a fighter who can sell 500,000 or more on pay-per-view, regardless of the opponent.
By that definition, there are really only five boxers who can legitimately described as superstars in the pay-per-view era, which began in 1991.
Those five – Floyd Mayweather Jr., Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Manny Pacquiao – routinely drew 500,000 and frequently blew past 1 million. Lennox Lewis, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Felix Trinidad and Fernando Vargas were very good PPV stars, but needed a strong opponent to put up a massive figure.
Canelo Alvarez may one day join the "Fantastic Five," given his performance in fights with Mayweather (2.2 million) and Alfredo Angulo (350,000). While many may be tempted to give Mayweather all of the credit for the sales in the Alvarez fight, remember, that 2.2 million represents well more than double what Mayweather sold for his previous fight against Robert Guerrero.
It seems Duva would be happy if Kovalev simply became a top attraction on HBO, the way Golovkin has done. There are a number of reasons why he'll never make it to pay-per-view in a big way:
• He's 31 years old.
• He's Russian and doesn't yet speak great English.
• He's a light heavyweight and there aren't a lot of quality opponents who would make for a sellable PPV fight..
HBO desperately needs Kovalev to at least become a frontline headliner on the network who can routinely draw 1.2 million or more for his bouts.
That seems eminently doable. It would be great for the sport if Kovalev were able to cross over and become a pay-per-view attraction, though that seems unrealistic.
Job One for Duva, though, is to make Kovalev a hit with the masses, and she seems well on her way to doing just that.