Sergey Kovalev is fighting for his career in the ring, and his freedom outside of it

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Sergey Kovalev desperately needs a win. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Sergey Kovalev desperately needs a win. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Twice in his career, Sergey Kovalev met with the media to explain away a defeat in his prior bout. The first time it happened was in June 2017, when Kovalev arrived at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas for his rematch with Andre Ward.

Eight months earlier, Ward had taken a controversial (to some) decision over Kovalev. Kovalev insisted on that June day that though he felt he had won the first bout with Ward, he wasn’t at his best. He went into a lengthy diatribe about having overtrained and explained why he hired Aleksandr Mikhailovich as his conditioning coach prior to the rematch.

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He attempted to diminish Ward’s performance in their first meeting by telling reporters, “Ward fought an empty Kovalev.” He added that he told manager Egis Klimas and promoter Kathy Duva before the first fight he knew he had overtrained and would be in trouble.

“I couldn’t say to Egis or my promoter, ‘Don’t do this fight,’” Kovalev said during that June 2017 interview with reporters before the rematch. “… When a car runs out of gas, the car won’t drive. This was the same with me.”

Kovalev returns to the ring on Saturday in Frisco, Texas, when he meets Eleider Alvarez for the WBO light heavyweight title on ESPN+ in a rematch of their Aug. 4 bout in Atlantic City that Alvarez surprisingly won by seventh-round knockout.

Wouldn’t you know it, though, that Kovalev again blamed his conditioning, saying once again he overtrained. To remedy the solution this time, he hired the estimable Buddy McGirt as his trainer and is using Teddy Cruz as a strength and conditioning coach.

Predictably, he says all is right in the world again.

“I didn’t have enough gas, enough power,” Kovalev said. “You saw my condition. I was lazy. It was like something was wrong with my body, proving again that I always push myself more than needed and that was my biggest mistake in my boxing career: Always push further than needed. Right now, Buddy has taught me a lot. [I’m] saving energy for the fight and I listen to him 100 percent on his recommendations and I follow his instructions. I like this training camp but we’ll see Saturday what the boxing side will show.”

In one sense, none of this is that big of a deal. Boxers toil in solitude to prepare for their fights and they push their bodies to the limit, and occasionally beyond. They are laid bare when they compete, and they have no excuses. If they haven’t trained well, it will surely be exposed.

So, on the one hand, it’s easy to give Kovalev a pass for his excuse-making.

But he’s nearly 36 and he hasn’t had a clean win over an elite fighter in a long time. He has lost, probably forever, the intimidation factor he once had over so many opponents. On top of that, he’s dealing with felony assault charges. A model sued him, claiming he assaulted her and her dog in June in Big Bear, California, when she refused to have sex with him. Kovalev has firmly denied the charges.

The alleged incident occurred about two months before the first fight with Alvarez. No one knew about it at the time, but it had to have eaten at him and made it difficult for him to concentrate on his job. Maybe he was overtrained and responded to the stress of the charges by pushing himself harder into his work.

But as the rematch approaches, Kovalev has to be thinking about the case yet again. He has a March court date. Kovalev deserves the presumption of innocence, no matter how heinous the charges against him are, because it’s the only way our system works. It’s up to the government to prove the allegations.

That said, imagine if it were you having to face these charges, and you knew in a little more than a month you’d have a court hearing that could lead to you spending as many as four years in jail. It would be hard to concentrate on work tasks, to be sure.

On Thursday, he refused to allow a Ring TV reporter to join a scrum he held with media following a news conference in Frisco. He’s had a beef with the reporter for several years, and notably, angrily refused to take a question from him prior to the Ward rematch (on the same day he brought up over-training as a reason to explain his loss).

There’s pressure coming at him from all sides. He knows the truth of what happened with the woman in Big Bear, but he’s also a Russian and not that familiar with the American legal and judicial system.

Fighters, even the most easy-going ones, are often temperamental in the days leading up to a fight. They’re often sore, and tired, and hungry and they’re plenty anxious. So it’s important to not take everything they say when they’re in that state as gospel.

But there are a lot of little things adding up that suggest Kovalev can feel the walls beginning to close in on him. He’s giving former welterweight champion Jessie Vargas a run for his money when it comes to his frequency of changing trainers. He went from John David Jackson to Abror Tursunpulatov to McGirt. He’s had the same kind of turnover with his conditioning coaches.

Alvarez is 24-0 with 12 knockouts, but he’s 34 and not considered in the same class as elite light heavyweights such as Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Dmitry Bivol, Artur Beterbiev and new champion Marcus Browne.

It’s a fight that Kovalev should be able to win, particularly with a shrewd trainer like McGirt there to guide him through these rough waters.

McGirt is one of the game’s elite trainers, but he can’t get into Kovalev’s mind. If it’s a long grueling fight, will Kovalev be confident he’ll have enough in the tank to make it to the finish? Will he be able to block out the concerns about his court case? Has he had enough time to form a bond with McGirt? Is his feud with a reporter just one of those things, or is it a sign he’s distracted and frustrated?

His career is on the line, quite literally, because no matter how good he looks, the court system is going to have its say.

But even if he’s right and the charges against him are false, and are proven to be that way, his career is hanging by a thread.

If you were going to name one boxer who desperately needs a win the next time out, Kovalev would be at or near the top of the list.

The fight is fascinating on so many levels.

For Kovalev, though, it may just be the least of his problems.

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