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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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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ Jake Paul and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, an influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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