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Kovalev Wins in Familiar Fashion But His Future Plans Are Uncertain

Was it only a year and a half or two ago that the fight many fans most wanted to see was a light heavyweight unification matchup of 175-pound knockout artists Sergey Kovalev

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Unification

Was it only a year and a half or two ago that the fight many fans most wanted to see was a light heavyweight unification matchup of 175-pound knockout artists Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson?

Kovalev and Stevenson presumably are still available to swap shots for pride and profit, but circumstances have rendered the once-hot pairing to something more akin to lukewarm, and that’s even if the two would-be combatants can bring themselves to do something more than make snide remarks about one another. For one thing, the 40-year-old Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs), who defends his WBC title against Badou Jack (22-1-2, 13 KOs) on May 18 in Montreal, has always seemed about as anxious to test himself against Kovalev as he might be to contract the Ebola virus. For another, Kovalev, the “Krusher” from Russia, also seems to have lost some of the shine from his once-shiny reputation. Oh, Kovalev still might belong on a lot of knowledgeable observers’ top 10 pound-for-pound lists, but he’s 34, has those two losses to Andre Ward on his resume and was targeted for some scathing comments from his former trainer, John David Jackson. Even his latest victory, in which he defended his WBO championship on a seventh-round stoppage of fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin Saturday night at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, seemed almost drab in comparison to the heavyweight barnburner held just 5.4 miles away in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where WBC champion Deontay Wilder survived some scary moments before putting away his most formidable opponent to date, Luis “King Kong” Ortiz, in the 10th round.

“She (Main Events matchmaker Jolene Mizzone) had been telling everybody all along that Mikhalkin was going to present a real test,” said Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, whose company promotes Kovalev. “He’s got that southpaw style, he’s relentless, he’s Russian. She knew that this was not going to be a walk in the park (for Kovalev). The guy did belong in there. He earned his shot.”

Maybe so, but the test presented by Mikhalkin (21-2, 9 KOs) for the most part seemed less final exam than pop quiz with an open book. Although the challenger’s southpaw stance might have given Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) momentary pause, for the most part the clearly superior titlist demonstrated why he went off as a 19-to-1 favorite, which is pretty much of a sure thing.

Kovalev opened a cut to Mikhalkin’s right eye with a left hook in the sixth round, and the wound worsened until referee Steve Willis felt obligated to step in 2 minutes and 25 seconds into round seven and wave off the rest of a bout whose outcome had always seemed preordained.

But while Kovalev is accustomed to ending things with spectacular flourishes, this TKO seemed almost routine. In fact, Kovalev’s postfight comments bordered on apologetic.

“Little bit disappointed,” Kovalev said of his performance as he held his giggling, attention-seeking and impossibly cute toddler of a son, Aleksandr. “I did not show everything that I wanted because Igor is southpaw. It is not a comfortable style (for me).”

“He is not easy opponent, believe me. He looks like maybe a no one guy, you know, but he is good. And I was, like, a little lazy. Sluggish. I don’t know, something was wrong.”

Despite Kovalev’s professed inertia and obligatory kudos tossed the outclassed Mikhalkin’s way (Kovalev won 17 of the 18 completed rounds on the three judges’ official scorecards and would have made it 20 of 21 were it not for Willis’ intercession), he and his support crew – Duva, manager Egis Klimas and trainer Abror Tursunpulatov – no doubt realize that there is lost ground that needs to be made up, and quickly, if some of the big bopper’s luster is to be restored to its former level.

“There’s a lot of light heavyweight fights happening in the next few weeks,” said Duva, who hopes to get Kovalev back in the ring in June, preferably at the Garden, which he now calls his favorite venue. “I really think those fights have to happen. Once we figure out who wins, we’ll make some decisions.”

Kovalev said he’d prefer not to fight another southpaw next, which would appear to rule out Stevenson, not that that evaporating dream fight is apt to ever advance beyond the theoretical. There’s the standard HBO/Showtime snag that somehow would have to be resolved, with Kovalev contractually bound to the  former and Stevenson to the latter, as well as the likelihood that the Haitian-born, Quebec-based WBC ruler would decline to exit his Canadian comfort zone, where he has staged his last 14 fights and is determined to remain unless extradited. But Kovalav expressed interest in a possible rumble with Jack (22-1-2, 13 KOs), should he get past Stevenson, an iffy proposition.

“I’ve read on the internet that Badou Jack would be a big-money fight,” Kovalev said. He also opined that a unification bout with WBA champ Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs), who almost toyed with Cuban expatriate Sullivan Barrera (21-2, 14 KOs) before stopping him in the 12th round in Saturday night’s co-featured bout on HBO, is on the table and deserving of consideration.

By any measure, including earning potential, Kovalev is not where he was heading into his first showdown with Ward on Nov. 19, 2016, in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. There are more than a few people who believe that Kovalev had done enough to get the nod in that one, although Ward, by consensus one of the two or three best fighters in the world, came away a 114-113 winner on all three official scorecards. With a chance to settle the score in the rematch on June 17, 2017, at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas, Kovalev was stopped in eight rounds in another tight scrap, leading 68-65 on one card and down by just 67-66 on the other two. Kovalev claimed the stoppage was the result of illegal, below-the-belt punches that drew no warnings or penalties from referee Tony Weeks, an argument that was not without some merit.

The Ward setbacks seemed to send Kovalev into a funk, and when he decided to jettison Jackson, the sacked trainer claimed he was being unfairly portrayed as a scapegoat by a selfish fighter who took too many shortcuts in the gym.

“Sergey likes to talk trash,” a bitter Jackson said after the Ward rematch. “He’s blaming me for the loss but let me tell you this, you can’t blame me for the loss when he quit. He quit! Once Andre started hitting him to the body he was done.

“He makes Russian people look bad. All the Russians that I’ve trained, they are wonderful people, man. This guy (Kovalev) is a complete (expletive), just a really selfish person.”

Although Klimas floated the names of better-known replacement trainers, most notably Freddie Roach, the gig went to Tursunpulatov, who came to Kovalev’s attention because he trained Russian middleweight Bakhram Murtazalien. They now have been together for two fights, Kovalev’s two-round blowout of Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Shabranskyy on Nov. 25 of last year for the vacant WBO title and now Mikhalkin.

“He reminds Sergey of his old trainer from the beginning in Russia, especially because Sergey wants to hear the Russian language in his corner,” Klimas said when Tursunpulatov came aboard. “That is important to him.”

The restoration of Sergey Kovalev remains a work in progress. Jackson’s depiction of him as a quitter is about the worst thing that can be said of a fighter, and his sacking of a well-thought-of black trainer and some insensitive comments have raised, perhaps unfairly, the ugly specter of racism. Those are labels that aren’t always easy to scrape off, and Kovalev must try to do so to mollify the doubters while at the same time demonstrating that he is still the potentially great fighter he appeared on the verge of becoming not so very long ago.

The fastest and most obvious way to reestablish himself as a card-carrying member of the boxing elite would be to get a third shot at the now-retired Ward and to win. Ward recently mused that a third clash with Kovalev has crossed his mind, so there is that to consider. Certainly, all evidence suggests that such a fight would come with shorter odds than Kovalev getting a first go at Stevenson.

If not Bivol or Jack, the grab bag of possible Kovalev foes include Joe Smith Jr. (23-2, 19 KOs), Marcus Browne (21-0, 16 KOs), Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KOs), Okeksandr Gvozdyk (14-0, 12 KOs), Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs) and Anthony Yarde (15-0, 14 KOs). Even Mike Lee (20-0, 11 KOs), the Notre Dame grad better known for his role as a pitchman for Subway sandwiches, would appear to be in play; he is, after all, ranked No. 3 by the WBO.

But whomever Klimas and Duva select as the next partner on their guy’s dance card, you have to wonder how big a splash that bout can make in a landscape where a preponderance of fight fans are fantasizing about the May 5 rematch of middleweight superstars Gennady Golovkin (37-0-1, 33 KOs) and Canelo Alvarez (49-1-2, 34 KOs), or the prospect of similar superfights pitting heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua (20-0, 20 KOs) and Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) and welterweights Errol Spence Jr. (23-0, 20 KOs) and Terence Crawford (32-0, 23 KOs).

 

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Rey Vargas: “The featherweight title is absolutely still mine”

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Although there have been many speculations and comments about his boxing future, Mexican Rey Vargas affirms with total conviction that he will only decide after his fight against American O’Shaquie Foster on February 11th at the Alamodome in Texas.

Undefeated and current WBC featherweight champion, Vargas (36-0, 22 KOs) will seek to add the vacant WBC super featherweight belt that American southpaw Shakur Stevenson (19-0, 9 KOs) lost on the scale last September when he beat Brazilian Robson Conceicao (17-2, 8 KOs) by unanimous decision.

Referring to his 126-pound title, Vargas expressed via a translator, “The featherweight title is absolutely still mine, so no worries about that. As far as 130, this is definitely an interesting challenge, an interesting place to be. We haven’t really decided what we’re gonna do afterwards, but we’re focused on the moment right now. Let’s focus on this fight, on this great crowd that we’re gonna be in front of, and then whatever happens, it will come after this fight.”

Born 32 years ago in the Federal District and residing in Otumba, Mexico, Vargas captured the world featherweight belt in February 2017, defeating Gavin McDonnell (22-2-3, 6 KOs) by majority decision at the Ice Arena in McDonnell’s hometown of Hull, England.

During the following two years, he made five successful defenses and in November 2021 he was victorious in a 10-round bout against his compatriot Leonardo Báez (21-5, 12 KOs) at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas.

Eight months later, in his second appearance at 126 pounds, Vargas defeated then-undefeated Philippine champion Mark Magsayo (24-1, 16 KOs) by split decision. Magsayo was defending his WBC belt for the first time that night at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

After beating Magsayo, Vargas’s representatives made arrangements to collide with Mexican Leo Santa Cruz (38-2-1, 19 KOs), who at that time was the WBA featherweight super champion.

However, the agreement with Santa Cruz did not materialize and Vargas directed his attention towards the 130-pound belt, which Stevenson lost at the weigh-in in September. Considering his status as champion, the WBC agreed to Vargas’ request and ordered him to compete with O’Foster, who is ranked at the top of the category.

In a statement on its website, the WBC specified that the winner between Vargas and Foster has the obligation to make two defenses, according to the rules and regulations of that sanctioning body.

“The Leo Santa Cruz fight is definitely something that we have been meaning to do for years now,” Vargas said. “But as the process got more complicated and other stuff just kept getting in our way, this door opened for us where it was definitely an interesting challenge, something that can be as good as the Leo Santa Cruz fight.”

“(I’m) in a new division, the super featherweight division, where I can test myself,” said Vargas. Yes, it’s not my division per se, but I’m always up to new and exciting challenges, and this is definitely one of them. So, even though this isn’t the Leo Santa Cruz fight, it can definitely live up to the hype just as that one would.”

Foster (19-2, 11 KOs) has nine successive wins, the most recent against Tajikistan southpaw Muhammadkhuja Yakubon on March 18 of last year in Dubai, where they fought for the WBC silver belt.

Born 29 years ago in Orange, Texas, Foster said in an interview that this opportunity to face Vargas for the 130-pound crown “is a dream come true. And I’m so happy I can’t even hide it.”

Foster continued, “It’s something that I’ve been working for since I was eight years old. I never had a dream to be an Olympian, it was always to be a world champion so I’m feeling great and I’m ready to put on a show for the world.

“I feel like everything is happening at the right time and it’s my time to take over. I would love to unify once I get the title and then go undisputed if I can.  I’ve got big, big, big aspirations coming up.  We’re going to make it happen.”

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Álvarez in Spanish.

Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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Navarrete Overcomes Adversity to TKO Wilson in a Corker

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Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete won his 31st straight fight, pushing his record to 37-1 (31) and captured a title in a third weight class tonight at the Desert Diamond Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, but nearly came a cropper himself in a match in which both he and his opponent Liam Wilson were on the deck and hurt on multiple occasions. At stake was the WBO 130-pound belt vacated by Shakur Stevenson.

The obscure 26-year-old Wilson, subbing for Oscar Valdez who had to pull out with a rib injury, was making his U.S. debut and appearing in his first scheduled 12-rounder. The skinny on him was that he had a puncher’s chance because of a powerful left hook, but with only 12 pro fights on his ledger he was a massive underdog.

Navarrete got a taste of that left hook in the fourth round which Wilson landed after landing a hard overhand right, and suddenly it appeared that the Queenslander was poised to score the biggest upset in Australian boxing history since Jeff Horn upended Manny Pacquiao. Navarrete hit the deck, lost his mouthpiece and was clearly hurt, but managed to survive the round after precious seconds elapsed as he was getting his mouthpiece re-fitted.

Navarrete fought his way back into the fight and was having a strong sixth round until the final 30 seconds when Wilson hurt him again, this time with a right hook. But the Mexican weathered the storm, winning the next two rounds decisively and closed the show in round nine when he put the intrepid Aussie on the deck with an overhand right, the prelude to an assault that forced the referee to waive it off.

Semi-windup

In a tactical junior welterweight fight that heated up in the final round, LA’s Arnold Barboza continued his steady ascent toward a title fight with a narrow but unanimous decision over Puerto Rican veteran Jose Pedraza, a former Olympian and world title-holder in two weight divisions.

Barboza, who fights well off his back foot but isn’t a hard puncher, won by scores of 97-93 and 96-94 twice to push his record to 28-0. The 33-year-old Barboza fell to 29-5-1.

Also

In the opening bout on ESPN’s main platform, Tulare, California’s Richard Torrez Jr, a silver medalist at the Tokyo Summer Games, scored his fifth fast knockout in as many opportunities at the expense late sub James Bryant

Torrez came out like gangbusters, as is his custom, and sent Bryant stumbling back into the ropes with a harsh left uppercut followed by a straight hand in the waning seconds of the opening round. A highly decorated high school football player in Pennsylvania who had a cup of coffee with two NFL teams, Bryant, 37, was saved by the bell but elected not to come out for round two.

Torrez has mentioned that he would welcome a fight with British up-and-comer Frazer Clarke. Both were defeated in the Tokyo Olympics by fearsome Uzbek southpaw Bakhodir Jalolov, the heavy favorite.

ESPN+

Las Vegas super featherweight Andres Cortes (19-0) overcame a deep cut on his left eyelid to keep his undefeated record intact with a lopsided decision over Luis Melendez. The cut was caused by an accidental clash of heads in round six. Cut man deluxe “Stitch” Duran used his magic potion to stem the bleeding and the match continued on its established course. Cortes, the busier fighter, won all 10 rounds on all three cards. Melendez, a Puerto Rican from Hialeah, Florida, declined to 17-3.

Nico Ali Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, advanced to 8-0 (5) with a unanimous decision over a local fighter, Eduardo Ayala (9-3-1), in a six-round middleweight affair. The scores were 60-53 and 59-54 twice.

Walsh, who sparred with Caleb Plant in preparation for this fight, had Ayala on the canvas in round two, compliments of a short right hand, but his durable opponent managed to last the distance.

In an 8-round junior welterweight match, Mexico’s Lindolfo Delgado, a 2016 Rio Olympian, advanced to 17-0 (13) with a unanimous decision over Clarence Booth (21-7), a 35-year-old Floridian. The scores were 80-71 and 79-72 twice.

The heavy-handed Delgado, who had Robert Garcia in his corner, scored the fight’s lone knockdown, knocking Booth off his pins in the final stanza with a chopping right hand to the ear.

In the ESPN+ opener, 18-year-old Emiliano Vargas (3-0, 2 KOs) won a 4-round unanimous decision over 19-year-old Tex-Mex southpaw Francisco Duque (1-2). Vargas won all four rounds, but Duque had several good moments.

Emiliano Vargas is the youngest and most well-touted of three fighting sons of Fernando Vargas, the former U.S. Olympian and two-time world super welterweight champion.

A 10-round super featherweight fight between Zavier Martinez (18-1) and Yohan Vasquez (25-3) was cancelled when it became obvious that Martinez would not make the contracted weight.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 223: An Act of War Benavidez vs Plant Press Confab

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LOS ANGELES-Heated words straight out of a burning furnace filled the cool air in downtown L.A. at the press conference on Thursday for top super middleweight contenders David Benavidez and Caleb Plant.

“Every fighter has one of these grudge matches that brings the best out of them. I don’t like Caleb at all, but I want to thank him for bringing the animal out of me. I’m more motivated than ever,” said Benavidez. “On March 25, I finally get to put hands on Caleb Plant.”

Plant was cool in his response.

“This rivalry only started because we agree to disagree on who’s better. And that’s fine, he should feel like that. That’s how great fighters are supposed to feel. It’s slowly built up over time,” said Plant.

Both are former world champions and both are ready to engage.

A large media turnout arrived at the Conga Room in LA Live to witness the two opposite style fighters, much like fire and ice.

Fiery Benavidez (26-0, 23 KOs) seemed eager to fight on the stage as the mere presence and cool demeanor of Plant (22-1, 13 KOs) seemed to ignite anger. They have both agreed to meet in the prize ring on March 25, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Showtime pay-per-view will televise the TGB Promotions card.

“If you know anything about boxing, you know this is one of the very best fights that can be made in the sport. The consensus No. 1 and No. 2 contenders in this division,” said Stephen Espinoza president of Showtime boxing. “This is a high-stakes matchup, personally and professionally. There’s a personal rivalry here. There are bragging rights here. There is supremacy in the division at stake.”

Both fighters have held world titles before and for years debates sprung up on who was better.

Benavidez was the youngest super middleweight champion at 20 when he first won the WBC version in 2017 defeating Ronald Gavril. He lost the title for testing positive for illegal substances the next year. In 2019 he faced Anthony Dirrell for the WBC title again and stopped him in nine rounds in Los Angeles. However, he failed to make weight in his next fight and lost the title again on the scales.

He is hungry to regain a world title but even more hungry to defeat Plant.

“I’ve been wanting to fight him for a long time and now the winner of this fight gets to be the mandatory for Canelo Alvarez. I’m super motivated,” Benavidez said.

Plant agrees that their match up is motivating because the winner gets Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and a hefty payday.

“I knew I was next in line to fight the interim champ before that fight, and that meant David Benavidez. I’m in the fight that I want,” said Plant who formerly held the IBF title.

Plant’s last fight was voted WBA Knockout of the Year when he double-left-hooked Dirrell to unconsciousness last October in Brooklyn. It was a shocking ending. His fight before that saw him lose the world title to Canelo Alvarez by knockout.

No shame in losing to Canelo.

Now the title former world titlists are eager to regain their former status and grab a mega payday fighting Alvarez. It’s perhaps the best fight in over a year for men’s boxing.

“I believe that this fight between David Benavidez and Caleb Plant will be added to the list of epic brawls between two warriors taking it to the next level,” said Tom Brown of TGB Promotions. “This fight will be one of, if not the winner of Fight of the Year this year. This is one you don’t want to miss.”

Top Rank

Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete (36-1, 30 KOs) challenges Australia’s Liam Wilson (11-1, 7 KOs) for the vacant WBO super featherweight title today, Feb. 3, at the Desert Diamond Arena in Glendale, Arizona. ESPN+ will stream the Top Rank card.

Wilson, 26, has never fought outside of Australia but is known for his strength and power. He is also taller than Navarrete.

Navarrete and Wilson

Navarrete and Wilson

Navarrete is the former WBO featherweight champion and has not lost a fight in over a decade.

Also, Arnold Barboza (27-0) meets Jose Pedraza (29-4-1) in a super lightweight battle. And several others such as Lindolfo Delgado, Richard Torrez and Nico Ali Walsh will be performing.

Ontario Card

Southern California’s hot super lightweight prospect Ernesto “Tito” Mercado (8-0, 8 Kos) fights Jose Angulo (14-4) at the LumColor Center in Ontario, California on Saturday, Feb. 4. RedBoxing Promotions is staging the event.

Doors open at 6 p.m.

Photo credits: Esther Lin / SHOWTIME; Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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