SHe was once the most formidable man in boxing.
Sergey Kovalev was once a name that pierced fear into the hearts of those who dared to utter it. Manufactured in the small city of Kopeysk, it was as though he was sent to this generation from the future by the Russian equivalent of Skynet, programmed to fulfil one sole purpose – to assert complete dominance over boxing’s light heavyweight division.
Warm flesh and a devilish jack o’ lantern grin coated a mechanically fine-tuned machine of destruction, blessed with unholy power and a streak of ruthlessness which slowly coursed through his cybernetic veins in the same manner as blood flows in humans. The comparisons with Hollywood villains such as Ivan Drago or the T-800 were warranted but separated by an uncomfortable truth – they were fictional. Kovalev was real. Too real in fact, that the Russian will forever bear the horrific scar of having a fellow boxer die following an encounter with him.
Nicknamed the ‘Krusher’, Kovalev arrived in the boxing world in a whirling sphere of electricity, whirring into action as his beady eyes surveyed the scene. A calculated destruction of Gabriel Campillo was the initiation of a trail of devastation. Cleverly, Sillakh, Mohammedi, Hopkins, Agnew, Pascal – all victims who testified to the futility of man meeting machine. With a boot crushing each skull that dared to challenge him, Kovalev amassed a slew of accolades reserved truly for the elite. Pound for pound top 5. 2014 Fighter of the Year. Undefeated. Unified WBO, WBA and IBF light heavyweight champion.
But atop the dominance came forth a deterioration. He met his Kyle Reese in Andre Ward, the American Olympian who moved up a weight class and twice bested him. Their first encounter resulted in a dramatic clash which saw Kovalev stunningly shake and drop the ever-elusive Ward, who himself battled back to overcome an early points deficit.
A triptych of 114-113 scorecards went in favour of Ward, a decision which was soundly booed and protested against for many felt the Russian cyborg had done enough to deserve the victory. Enraged by what he perceived to be Western injustice against him, Kovalev demanded a rematch, a second opportunity to finish off the target who had not only escaped but survived the Krusher.
Ward duly obliged but if the first fight showed Kovalev belonged at that level, their rematch was a sobering reminder that Russian technology was prone to underestimating American man-made will. The bout itself was dead level up until Ward denotated a nuclear right hand which short circuited Kovalev. As he withered back towards the ropes, Ward unleashed a series of body shots whose legality are still disputed today. Tony Weeks stepped in and called a halt to the proceedings to the delight of Ward and the disgust of many. But that sentiment of disgust was not shared by Kovalev, who remained seated on the ropes forlorn, expressionless and broken, a damning indictment that machines are only designed to perform to a certain capability.
As the battery pack began to fail and the wires spluttered, it became obvious that Sergey Kovalev had malfunctioned. When Ward abdicated the throne and fragmented his titles across the division, fresh hope was renewed as Kovalev reclaimed his former WBO title following a 2 round meltdown of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. Slowly, the whispers began to creep. “Kovalev is back”. “The machine has risen again”. “The division will be under his feet once more”. It was a consensus helped by the fact that the light heavyweight division was bleeding in fresh faces such as Dmitry Bivol, Artur Beterbiev and Eleider Alvarez, all whom a large majority considered ill-equipped to handle Kovalev’s resurrection. A laborious performance against long time friend Igor Mikhalkin was followed by a daring challenge from Alvarez, who himself requested Kovalev following a fruitless 3 year pursuit of then WBC king Adonis Stevenson.
Eleider Alvarez was supposed to the victim of a live vivisection, a mere bullet of annoyance flickering off Kovalev’s metal endoskeleton. But if Ward was Kyle Reese then Alvarez played the role of Sarah Connor to a tee. The night of August 4th 2018 was going steadily well for Kovalev, who despite having his head snapped back by Alvarez’s accurate jab, was comfortably up on the judges’ scorecards and even came agonisingly close to shaking the Colombian puncher in the 5th with a locomotive fusillade of punches. But Alvarez retained his poker face in the adversity that was afflicting him, and when the onscreen timer of 1:25 in round 7 arrived, he pulled the switch with a shotgun right hand which all but disintegrated the former light heavyweight kingpin. Kovalev rose wearily before taking a 2nd trip to the canvas. He rose from that too before a sadistic right hand dropped him onto the mat for a 3rd and final time.
Unlike Hollywood, there would be no fleeting moment of hope with a thumbs up signal as he sunk into the lava filled mat. Just shock and an unerring sentiment of disbelief as the steel of Kovalev corroded before watching eyes.
Kovalev insisted that his years proceeding the second loss to Ward had been dedicated towards a total rebuilding project, a quest further aided by an epiphany following a dangerous car accident. He sought refuge in Greek monasteries. Changed his lifestyle into one facilitating an abstinence of all things foul which he believed were affecting him – drinking, partying, overtraining, undertraining, cigarettes and poor eating habits. Even switched trainers to Abror Tursunpulatov following a nasty public divorce with John David Jackson. In 2017, his manager Egis Klimas told Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop that Kovalev “can become even better than he was at his best”.
His team believed. We believed. Kovalev himself believed, until Alvarez forcefully reminded us machines aren’t built to last forever. Even the most advanced technology needs to be permanently replaced eventually.
Tonight, Eleider Alvarez will again be the barometer to measure the quantity of combat Kovalev has left. This is now Kovalev 3.0, now being rebooted by the able hands of Buddy McGirt, Kovalev’s 3rd trainer in the past 3 years. The American veteran trainer prolonged the career of legendary warrior Arturo Gatti by approximately a dozen fights, who appeared finished following a knockout loss to Oscar de la Hoya. Close to 2 decades later, McGirt has been attempting to work that same magic on ‘the Krusher’, spending the past 2 months surgically operating on him like a mechanic with an old vehicle, ensuring Kovalev adjusts to the demands of his 35-year-old body and even threatening to cancel training sessions in the event of overtraining.
The result of the duo’s work together won’t be elucidated until fight night but their task was made more difficult as it emerged Kovalev had been charged with felony assault, a matter to be addressed in front of a court in March. Physically McGirt has spent extensive time reconstructing Kovalev but now he has to manage his charge mentally, for the last thing a fighter in a situation as desperate as this would want is another battle on his mind. Alvarez opposite him won’t show any pity as he seeks to replicate Ward’s earlier feat of terminating Kovalev not once but twice. He outperformed Ward by stopping Kovalev earlier than Ward could, and he has a chance to outperform himself by punishing Kovalev in quicker than he did last August.
Saturday’s rematch is do or die. Failure to resuscitate a victory or at least perform to his once golden standards will almost surely mark the end of the division’s former boogeyman. To that end, the Russians or another European hotbed will no doubt transplant another light heavyweight to further their dominance. There’s one lurking around in the name of Oleksandr Gvozdyk, considered an upgrade on Kovalev and already a WBC title holder. Who else will come over nobody knows but that’s for the future. This is the present and for now, a final opportunity for success and redemption awaits. Kovalev is 2-1 in rematches. He did it against Darnell Boone. He did it against Jean Pascal. He couldn’t against Andre Ward. Retooled for one last stand and with his career hanging off the precipice, we’ll find out if Kovalev can dramatically alter his late career trajectory or whether his laser eyes will flicker off into termination.
Repeat or redemption.
Success or scrapheap.
Glory or Judgement day.