ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – He was back, but he wasn’t, because in the two fights since a career-defining series against Andre Ward, no one was quite sure what to make of Sergey Kovalev. He flattened Vyacheslav Shabranskyy, but Shabranskyy was the definition of a tuneup. He blew away Igor Mikhalkin, but Mikhalkin wasn’t much better.
Was the man who spent years terrorizing the light heavyweight division back? Or did the toll from a mentally and physically draining pair of fights with Ward diminish him?
“This fight was going to tell us that,” Kovalev’s promoter, Kathy Duva, told Yahoo Sports.
“This fight” was Saturday’s 175-pound title defense against Eleider Alvarez, an unbeaten, relatively unknown light heavyweight who had spent the past two years chasing Adonis Stevenson. When Marcus Browne fell out of a scheduled fight with Kovalev, Alvarez quickly stepped in. And in the seventh round, he made quick work of Kovalev, dropping him three times before referee David Fields waved off the fight.
Where was the old Kovalev, the knockout artist who entered the fight having sent nearly 80 percent of his opponents home early? In the first few rounds, Kovalev looked sharp. He was the aggressor, peppering Alvarez with combinations, controlling the pace of the fight. In the fourth round, Kovalev unleashed a barrage of punches, hammering Alvarez with head shots. Alvarez hung around though, sneering back at Kovalev toward the end of the fourth, rallying to fight Kovalev relatively evenly in the fifth and six.
Then came the seventh, when it all unraveled. Alvarez didn’t enter the fight with an impressive knockout percentage – just 48 percent of his opponents had been dispatched early. But he stopped Lucian Bute two fights earlier, and as far back as the amateur ranks had shown some pop. A straight right hand sent Kovalev stumbling to the canvas midway through the round, and a savage combination dropped him again moments later. Visibly shaken, Kovalev got up, but a right hook from Alvarez sent Kovalev crumbling one last time.
“It was a two-round combo that I have been throwing my whole career and we worked on it in camp,” Alvarez said through a translator. “I have always practiced that in camp and we thought it would work in this camp.”
Alvarez put Kovalev down, but a little over a year removed from his loss to Ward, it’s fair to wonder if that was the fight that finished him. Before Ward, Kovalev was a wrecking ball, leaving bodies in his wake. Ward humanized him, proving the boogieman vincible, offering in-ring evidence that Kovalev wasn’t to be feared. At 35, Kovalev is intimidating no more.
Kovalev isn’t finished, something Duva made clear on Saturday. He has a rematch clause, and Duva expects him to exercise it. Alvarez is Colombian born, but calls Canada home, and Duva believes we will see a Kovalev-Alvarez rematch there in the not-too-distant future.
“Look, I thought Sergey dominated the fight – until we got to the seventh,” Duva said. “I thought he was tremendous up until that point. He has the rematch [clause], and I’d be surprised if he didn’t [exercise it].”
He will get another crack at Alvarez, but Saturday night made it clear: Kovalev’s reign of terror is over. There will be little interest in a fight with Dmitry Bivol, a skilled, albeit uninspiring, light heavyweight titleholder who has been fighting on Kovalev’s undercards. A matchup with Adonis Stevenson officially lands on the pile of great fights that were never made while a move up to cruiserweight no longer has any sizzle.
If this is the end – figuratively, even – what a ride. Kovalev was a virtual unknown when he signed with Main Events in 2012, shopped by his manager, Egis Klimas, from promoter to promoter until one finally bit. He built a name on Duva’s NBC Sports Network series before eventually attracting the interest of HBO. He won three pieces of the light heavyweight crown before losing them to Ward, one of the great fighters of this generation.
For six years, Kovalev ranked among boxing’s best.
Everything ends, and the hours after Kovalev’s loss had the feeling of a changing of the guard. Just before 1 a.m., Bivol, fresh off a lopsided decision win over journeyman Isaac Chilemba, settled into a chair on a dais, his U.S. promoter, Duva, alongside him. Six years earlier it was Duva who introduced Kovalev to a mainstream U.S. market; with Bivol, a 27-year old with a piston-rod jab and an unblemished record, she hopes to do the same. Bivol expressed disappointment in Kovalev’s loss, but made clear he now had Alvarez, had unification, in his sights. Duva hopes to be the one to help him get there.
Kovalev will continue on in the light heavyweight division. But his days as the face of it are over.
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