Sergey Kovalev emerged on the American boxing scene in the early 2010’s on NBC and HBO as a viscous punching light heavyweight who unified titles and generated exciting knockouts. At this time he is 39 and still active but his best days are now behind him. For some reason I was compelled to watch some of his fights today and sat down for three of his best knockouts and several rounds of his win over Bernard Hopkins. My earliest exposure to Kovalev was on NBC watching him dismantle Gabriel Campillo the southpaw former WBA champion from Spain. Campillo was coming off controversial losses to Beibut Shumenov for the WBA belt and an IBF title fight loss to Tavoris Cloud where he came off the canvas early to dominate only to not get the decision. Campillo was a tricky southpaw with quick hands and adept counterpunching but found himself in over his head at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut that January night in 2013. Kovalev pressed the action and took the fight to Campillo from the opening round. In the second round he began countering with his right hand effectively. Early on in the third round Kovalev rocked Campillo with a short right hand and pressed the action mostly with straight punches. Kovalev did vary it up with his left hook and also a stabbing right cross to the body to set up a devastating straight right to the head to drop Campillo.
Campillo rose but was not fully recovered as Kovalev closed in to finish what he started. Campillo intelligently covered up but Kovalev overwhelmed him with left hooks to the body forcing his opponent to take a knee for another count. Campillo rose just in time to beat the count but was not ready to continue as Kovalev charged forward with a two handed attack. A right cross to the body corralled Campillo into left hooks that got him along the ropes. A few shots missed before a direct right hand snapped Campillo’s head back and sent him down to the canvas. Sitting and looking up a dazed Campillo saw referee Mike Ortega wave the contest off for a third round technical knockout. The win lifted Kovalev to 20-0-1 and elevated him to a top contender status culminating in a title shot at WBO titlist Nathan Cleverly in the UK.
Kovalev finally got his title shot in August of 2013 following another third round stoppage against Cornelius White. The British champion, Nathan Cleverly was 26-0 at the time and was making his 5th defense of the title when the two met in Cardiff Wales. A raucous home town crowd saw an excited Joe Calzaghe ringside to see his countryman defend his title. Kovalev showed some varied punch selection in this fight and effective footwork. Kovalev fought more behind his jab in this fight and used his right hand in a variation. He could chop it over the shoulder roll of Cleverly or try and sweep it around the guard. Though Kovalev is not known for his defensive prowess he used an economy of motion to get his feet just out of range and perfectly set to counter. In the second round their heads came together. Blood dripped around Sergey’s right eye as he went to work ripping double left hooks to the body and began to hurt Cleverly with 1-2’s. In the final minute a lazy low left lead to two solid Cleverly counters that Kovalev absorbed without much trouble. Kovalev began to lead more with the right and then threw one of my favorite shots that he would employ. With his body torqued to the left from throwing the right hand, he would use the turn of the hip to generate a hard jab with dangerous power.
Cleverly met Kovalev’s intensity in the third round and fought behind an aggressive jab. Kovalev began timing it and scored a hard right hand counter. Cleverly felt the shot but stayed on the jab. Kovalev again lead with the right and came through with the power jab and the combination rocked Cleverly. Cleverly covered up as Kovalev began ripping the body with left hooks. As Cleverly anticipated an attack up the center, Kovalev ripped two overhand rights around the left glove and high on the head dropping the champion to a knee. Cleverly shot up quickly and walked off the punches showing good footing for the barrage he had absorbed. Kovalev employed a right hand, left hook, right hand that had Cleverly again go to a knee. The shots came at different angles and attacked the guard in multiple places overwhelming Cleverly. Cleverly again jumped up very quickly but this time appeared wobbly. Not having fully recovered, Cleverly attempted to clinch and lurched forward in what looked like a wrestling step shot. Nearly touching the canvas, Cleverly barely survived the round as a left hook left him tangled around referee Terry O’Connor who would have been well within his right to stop the bout.
Kovalev had a wounded fighter in front of him to start the round and wasted no time ending the contest. Cleverly was incredibly brave to step off of his stool and meet Sergey at center ring but he was finished. After numerous unanswered punches, Cleverly was backed to the ropes and fell to his hands as O’Connor waved his hands in a fourth round technical knockout. This gave Kovalev his first world title and was a destructive performance ahead of six future title fight stoppage victories.
Kovalev went on to defend his WBO title for the first time just three months after claiming the title when he met Ismayl Sillakh In Canada on HBO. The Ukrainian amateur standout entered the ring at 21-1 but was dispatched of in brutal fashion in the second round. After a competitive opening round, a right-left combination floored Sillakh in the opening second of the second round. In no condition to go on the fight was allowed to go forward as blood leaked from the challengers nose. A brutal knockout ensued as the same right-left combination scored and dropped Sillakh.
I had only intended to watch the KO victories that Kovalev had registered but I watched parts the Bernard Hopkins fight as well. This was Kovalev’s fourth title defense and a unification of his WBO with Hopkins’s WBA and IBF. I had not watched this fight in a very long time, possibly since the Sunday morning after it happened live from Atlantic City. My memory of the fight was Kovalev fighting intelligently at range and never letting Hopkins turn it into a rough fight that he was accustomed to. I have watched the Andre Ward fights with Kovalev several times and was interested to see Hopkins again due to some stylistic similarities. Ward seemed to make Kovalev incredibly uncomfortable down the stretch of their initial fight by bringing the fight to Kovalev on the inside. Kovalev was a very dangerous fighter when opponents were at long to mid range where he could bludgeon them with straight punches or rock them with hooks and overhands. I wanted to watch for Hopkin’s success on the inside and he had very little. After hitting the canvas on a short counter right hand, similar to the Ward knockdown, Hopkins fought a very safety first approach. Bernard was not quick enough to fight effectively at range and was reduced to circling along the ropes and trying to land a counter here or there. Hopkins could successfully slip and evade similar to Adrien Broner against Manny Pacquiao, but he was not able to counter and make the missed punches pay. The strategy appeared to be one where he was looking to either get Kovalev to tire out or lure him into a fight changing counter. In round three, Hopkins succeeded and nailing Kovalev with a left hook after three missed punches and later on a right hand after a similar exchange. Kovalev was wise to not fall into the traps and it was a dominant though not entertaining scrap. Kovalev wisely in round four saw Hopkins trying to lure him in and backed off to the middle of the ring and enticed Hopkins to step out and meet him where he had the advantage. This fight was a shutout with a single knockdown and dominant final round where Kovalev finally let the hands fly.
For fight fans who remember, hopefully this is a nice trip down memory lane. For newer fans, let these be an fun introduction to an entertaining puncher who destroyed many of his opponents in a devastating title reign.