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Will Sergey Kovalev save the day for HBO after it failed him?

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Sergey Kovalev
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Sergey Kovalev is one of boxing's biggest punchers and one of its most promising commodities. (Getty Images)

HBO is saddled with what could be a disastrous boxing card on Saturday at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

Light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev, the powerful WBO champion who is showing signs of morphing into stardom, will face little-known Cedric Agnew in the main event.

Kovalev is more than a 30-1 favorite, astronomical odds that make one question who thought it a good idea to make this fight the main event on a premium cable network.

To make matters worse and to make the HBO Sports executives even more nervous, Kovalev goes into the fight on something of a downer.

For most of the past eight months, he's spoken of landing a unification bout with WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, a bout that had the potential to be an insanely exciting slugfest.

But on Tuesday, Stevenson accepted a more lucrative offer from Showtime to fight Andrzej Fonfara, essentially crushing the hopes of seeing a Stevenson-Kovalev fight anytime in the near future, if ever.

With Stevenson and IBF champion/legend Bernard Hopkins aligned with Showtime, there are few available opponents of note for Kovalev in his division. The best he can hope for now that Stevenson has gone to Showtime is for super middleweights like Andre Ward and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to move up to fight him.

Normally, this would be the type of situation that would sap the motivation out of a fighter. But Egis Klimas, Kovalev's manager, laughs devilishly when that thought is broached.

"Anyone who thinks that way doesn't know Kovalev even a little bit," Klimas said. "I started to mention Stevenson to him and he shook his head and said, 'Who gives a [expletive]?' He doesn't care. He just wants to fight and he's ready to go out and do what he always does."

For HBO's sake, he'd better fight well. You can bet that there are plenty of people who draw paychecks from Time Warner Inc. who are praying that Kovalev somehow turns out to be a light heavyweight version of Gennady Golovkin.

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Sergey Kovalev (R) lands a punch on Ismayl Sillakh during their WBO light heavyweight title fight. (AP)

Kovalev is a massive puncher, like Golovkin, though it's yet to be proven he's the complete fighter, as well as the engaging personality, that Golovkin is.

Kovalev is 23-0-1 with 21 knockouts, but he hasn't shown the ability to box like Golovkin, the highly regarded middleweight kingpin. Kovalev's trainer, the estimable John David Jackson, insists he's far more skilled than most people realize.

He was 197-17 as an amateur, though he did not compete in any major international events and fought mostly in Russia.

"He has boxing skills, but no one gets to see them because most fighters don't make it four rounds against him," Jackson said. "He has the talent to do a lot of things. He is not one-dimensional. He has a lot of tools to work with. If the fight lasts longer, he will get to showcase his talents.

"Once that bell rings he does what he does best: He delivers. Sergey lives to be a champion."

He's not expected to see much of a threat in Agnew. Agnew has little experience at the world-class level and only two fights ago, was competing in a six-rounder.

He was brought in when the Stevenson-Kovalev fight remained not only a possibility but an almost certainty. Agnew was essentially being paid to take a beating and to help stir more interest in a future Stevenson-Kovalev bout.

Now, with that possibility blown, HBO executives need to hope that Kovalev somehow connects with the masses the way that Golovkin has done in the last two years.

When HBO lost Floyd Mayweather Jr. to Showtime in 2013, its public relations team furiously worked the phones doing damage control. They tried to convince skeptical boxing writers that they'd funnel more money into network newcomers like Stevenson and Kovalev.

One source told Yahoo Sports earlier in the week that Showtime paid nearly 40 percent more than HBO had agreed to pay Stevenson.

The question that no one at HBO can answer is at what cost the savings came. HBO lost Mayweather, who went on in his second fight on Showtime to sell 2.2 million in pay-per-view against Canelo Alvarez, another fighter who came up on HBO.

After losing Mayweather, HBO made the decision to no longer do business with Golden Boy Promotions, which led Showtime to have arguably the best year in its history. Many of the fighters who competed in the compelling Showtime bouts in 2013 were men such as Keith Thurman, Adrien Broner and Danny Garcia – fighters who debuted on and competed regularly for HBO.

And then, the final stroke was refusing to pay the nearly 40 percent extra to match Showtime's offer to Stevenson. Instead of biting the bullet and locking up a guy who was going to be a cornerstone fighter for it, HBO went the cheap route and passed.

That leaves Kovalev without a compelling opponent in both the short and long term.

Kovalev, though, has the kind of rare punching power that could make him a star. The odds of him achieving that stardom will increase dramatically, however, if he shows some diversity to his game and isn't simply a lumbering, straight-ahead strong man.

He faces an uphill climb and he's getting little support from the network he signed a multi-fight deal with.

But if Kovalev can make like Golovkin, at least fewer people will remember HBO's epic failure to sign Stevenson and guarantee a hot fight fans were desperate to see.

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