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Sergey Kovalev's path from boxing unknown to top of the sport

·Combat columnist
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LAS VEGAS – About five years ago, a little known boxing manager named Egis Klimas approached Bob Arum, one of the sport’s most powerful promoters, about taking on a promising light heavyweight he had under contract.

Arum liked much of what he’d heard, except for one thing: Klimas was pushing Sergey Kovalev, a Russian with no reputation and no significant amateur background.

Arum at the time focused mostly on Hispanic fighters and didn’t see how he could successfully promote a Russian. So he referred Klimas to a long-time friend and competitor, Kathy Duva of Main Events.

Duva quickly scooped up Kovalev in what may have been the brightest decision of a long and successful career in the sport.

And the culmination of that will be on Saturday, when Kovalev takes on Andre Ward at T-Mobile Arena on HBO Pay-Per-View for supremacy in the light heavyweight division.

“From the moment I saw him in Bethlehem, [Pa.], I immediately imagined him being the best fighter in the division,” Duva said. “I thought it at that second. I remember [Hall of Fame promoter] Russell Peltz coming up to me saying, ‘Who wouldn’t you put this guy in with?’ and I couldn’t think of anyone. To be where we are now, in a position to become No. 1 in the world, this is the dream. Main Events has worked with some tremendous fighters and we’ve had some really good runs, but for the most part those were guys that came with Olympic medals and nobody was really surprised when they succeeded.

“To take Sergey from the point where nobody in Russia knew who he was, where he had never been given a leg up by anybody, where nobody wanted to even look at him to take him to where he is today, I have to say, and we at Main Events couldn’t do that with anybody, but when a person came along with the skill and the desire to do it, it was the perfect marriage for us.”

Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev faces his biggest challenge on Saturday against undefeated Andre Ward. (Getty Images)

The bout with Ward will be the defining moment of Kovalev’s career. He’s 30-0-1 with 26 knockouts and has largely been unchallenged to this point. In his last outing, he had an off-night in a tune-up bout with Isaac Chilemba and still won by scores of 116-111, 117-110 and 118-109.

His biggest victory by far is a 2014 win over the legendary Bernard Hopkins in Atlantic City. Hopkins was two months from his 50th birthday, and was no match for Kovalev, who won by unanimous decision.

There aren’t the kind of big names other than Hopkins on Kovalev’s record that exist on Ward’s, but few doubt Kovalev’s ability.

But it wasn’t that long ago, however, that Kovalev was prepared to walk away from the sport, feeling he had no expectation that he could make a decent living by boxing.

He conceded that he never expected he’d find himself starring in one of the year’s most significant bouts.

“I’m very surprised myself,” Kovalev said of his position near the top of the sport. “When I was in the amateurs, I never thought that someday I would turn pro at all. For me, professional boxing was very crazy. I thought pro boxing was just beating the whole brain out of your head. It’s very dangerous. In amateurs, it was enough with injuries and some hard fights. I felt like I would never be able to do 12 rounds. My wife pushed me to turn pro and one man, Anatoliy, Egis’ friend, found me in Russia and he met with me in Moscow and we started to talk about professional boxing.

“I started to think about it, but it was a maybe. Finally, I made my decision after the 2008 Russian Championships when I won the final fight and the victory was given to my opponent. When I turned pro and came to North Carolina, I was disappointed, really. I [never] thought if I turned pro I would get to this level where I am right now. For three years we fought without any promoter. I fought with the support of Egis. Throughout everything he was my father, my brother, my guide. For me, he was everything.”

A win over Ward, the last American male to win an Olympic gold medal and one of the elite fighters in the sport for at least eight years, could vault Kovalev to the top of the heap in the pound-for-pound race.

It’s a classic boxer versus slugger bout in that Kovalev is a big puncher and Ward is a shrewd and often brilliant boxer. But Kovalev is not to be underestimated in his boxing ability.

He can fight from range, as well, as he showed in his win over Hopkins.

It gives him two ways to win the fight and that, combined with what members of his team say is an incredible will to win, make him a formidable foe.

His hunger cannot be underestimated, trainer John David Jackson, a former world champion himself, said.

“It’s his upbringing,” Jackson said. “Growing up in Russia, the hard time that he’s been through, I think that’s what makes him the more mentally tougher fighter. That and his desire to be champion and stay champion. He loves the limelight and the adulation that he gets, but I think he’s the mentally tougher fighter and the mentally stronger fighter.”