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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

Bernard Fernandez

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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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Press Release: The BWAA Names Floyd Mayweather Jr the Fighter of the Decade

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Floyd Mayweather was the most dominant fighter over the last decade, and that supremacy has been rewarded by the Boxing Writers Association of America as the first Joe Louis Fighter of the Decade recipient by going 10-0 (2 KOs) through 2010-2019.

Mayweather (50-0, 27 knockouts) beat out Canelo Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao for the honor, two fighters he defeated in the last 10 years. The list of nominees also included Andre Ward and Wladimir Klitschko.

In addition to Alvarez and Pacquiao, Mayweather defeated Shane Mosley, Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero, Miguel Cotto, Marcos Maidana (twice), Andre Berto and UFC star Conor McGregor, in a fight “Money” hardly trained for. That’s one current Hall of Famer (Mosley), and three future Hall of Famers (Pacquiao, Cotto and Alvarez).

“Thank you to the Boxing Writers Association of America for voting me Fighter of the Decade,” Mayweather said in a statement. “I am honored to be recognized by the media who covered my career throughout its’ many decades.

“Boxing has been a part of my life since I was two years old and I dedicated my life to it and gave it my all. I trained hard, showed up for every one of my fights and did my job successfully each and every time. To retire undefeated and achieve what I did in the sport is not only a gift to myself, but to the fans and most importantly, my team and family. I certainly didn’t do it alone and I appreciate anyone who played a part in it.

“Hard work and dedication, something I did for my entire career. I am grateful and humbled by this honor. Thank you so very much.”

Alvarez was Mayweather’s biggest threat in the voting.

In 2015, Mayweather beat Pacquiao by scores of 118-110 and 116-112 (2). In 2013, he outpointed BWAA 2019 Fighter of the Year Alvarez.

It’s why the BWAA has chosen Floyd Mayweather Jr., the only two-time BWAA Fighter of the Year in the 2010s (2013 and 2015), as the Joe Louis Fighter of the Decade.

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Tonight’s ‘ShoBox’ Telecast is Another Milestone for the Long-Running Series

Arne K. Lang

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ShoBox: The New Generation hits another milestone tonight. The long running, late night boxing series will air its 250th episode. The Hall of Fame broadcasting team of Barry Tompkins and Steve Farhood, assisted by analyst Raul Marquez, will call the action from the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa (near Sioux City; 77 miles north of Omaha).

Partly because of its time slot (it’s tape-delayed for viewers outside the eastern time zone; meaning that everyone gets it at 10 pm) ShoBox doesn’t draw big ratings. But it’s must-see viewing for hard core fans and people in the industry.

The initial show in 2001 – when ShoBox aired late Saturday afternoons – featured two fighters with identical 17-0 records in the main event: Leonard Dorin and Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley, who hailed from the state of Washington where he was trained by former two-division world champion Greg Haugen, was in too deep but lasted nine rounds before the fight was stopped. Dorin, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist for Romania, then based in Montreal, went on to win the WBC 140-pound title, making him the first what are now reportedly 81 ShoBox alumni to have won a world title. (That’s Dorin on the right pictured with the late Arturo Gatti who took the title from him.)

Years from now, when the history of ShoBox is written, historians will note the synergy between it and Native American casinos. One wonders if the show would have lasted as long if not for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the 1988 federal law that legalized gambling on tribal lands, opening up a new horizon for boxing promoters. There are now full-fledged Native American casinos (i.e., with table games and slots) in 28 states. Many are off in the boondocks, a good distance from a major airport, and this is where ShoBox has frequently set up shop. (Don’t get into a U.S. geography trivia contest with any of the longtime members of the ShoBox gang.)

Over the years the #1 destination for ShoBox has been the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, California (a cowboy town in California wine country), which has hosted 36 shows. In recent years, the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, has been a popular destination but that relationship, like that with Chumash, appears to have run its course.

Tonight’s ShoBox show is the eighth at WinnaVegas. Looking back, the most interesting card was the July 20, 2018 card that marked the ShoBox debut of Jaron “Boots” Ennis. Two rising Chinese fighters, light heavyweight Fanlong Meng and jumbo-sized heavyweight Zhilei Zang, appeared in off-TV bouts, and there was a zesty 8-round encounter between undefeated lightweights Thomas Mattice and Zhora Hamazaryan, a bout unfortunately marred by a horrendous decision. (The BWAA took the unprecedented step of publicly shaming the two Omaha judges that scored the bout for Mattice; the rematch produced a draw.)

A match-up of undefeated fighters has become a ShoBox staple. Tonight’s show was to feature a bout between undefeated super lightweights Shohjahon Ergashev (17-0, 15 KOs) and Keith “The Bounty” Hunter (11-0, 7 KOs) but Hunter’s management thought better of it and had him pull out.

The 28-year-old Ergashev, a southpaw from Uzbekistan, remains on the card. Filling in for Hunter is Adrian Estrella (29-4, 24 KOs), a fighter from Mexico who trains in Fort Worth.

In the other bouts on the TV portion of the card, Vladimir Shishkin (9-0, 6 KOs) opposes Ulises Sierra (15-0-2, 9 KOs) in a 10-round super middleweight affair and super flyweight Jarico O’Quinn (13-0-1, 8 KOs) meets Oscar Vasquez (15-2-1, 3 KOs).

The show has a distinct Detroit flavor. O’Quinn was born and raised in the Motor City. Ergashev and Shishkin, a Russian, train with other Eastern European fighters at the reconstituted Kronk Gym where the headmaster is Javan “Sugar” Hill. The nephew of the late Emanuel Steward, Hill has been in the news a lot lately as the new trainer of Tyson Fury.

On paper this is far from the strongest ShoBox card. Shishkin, who reportedly had more than 300 fights as an amateur, in particular is matched soft. His opponent has defeated only three fighters with winning records. But over the years, ShoBox has produced more than its share of upsets so yet another tonight wouldn’t be all that shocking.

The executive producer of ShoBox is Gordon Hall who has been there from the very inception. We here at The Sweet Science extend our congratulation to Mr. Hall and his cast and crew on the occasion of their 250th anniversary.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 81: Robert Garcia’s Boxing Academy, ‘J-Rock’ and More

David A. Avila

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Stacked cars block the long entrance to Robert Garcia Boxing Academy where many of the best prizefighters in the Southwest prepare.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and the first shift has arrived.

Just last weekend two RGBA-trained fighters Hector Tanajara Jr. and Joshua Franco returned to their native area San Antonio, Texas and showed off their fighting skills polished in the hills of Riverside, California. It’s a human factory of prizefighters of all sizes and ethnicities.

Trainer Robert Garcia, with help from his sons, runs the sizeable gym that includes three boxing rings like a choreographer. He doesn’t need charts or tablets, he simply directs the fighters to the ring and tells them the number of rounds they will be trading punches.

Gabriel Flores Jr. of Stockton is chosen to open up the sparring. He’s a 19-year-old speedy lightweight from Stockton, Calif. and so far has remained undefeated after 16 pro bouts.

First to spar with the Stockton fighter was Saul “Neno” Rodriguez, the slim power-punching super featherweight from Riverside. Early in his career he was trained by Garcia, first in Oxnard, then, when the Riverside operation was opened, he made the transition too. For more than two years Rodriguez had trained elsewhere but has returned to the Garcia machine. It’s hard to get better training.

Flores and Rodriguez sparred for multiple rounds of action that featured what each fighter does best. One is a counter-puncher and the other stalks and punishes. One utilizes speed and agility to offset attacks and the other pressures and pursues while looking for openings and mistakes.

It’s a perfect mesh of styles.

Next up was Luis Coria another lightweight with speed and aggressiveness like a wound-up top.

Coria was scheduled to fight Adam Lopez last November in Las Vegas, but when the main event featuring former WBO featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez fell out due to the opponent weighing 10 pounds over the limit, Lopez was asked to step in. That left Coria without an opponent.

“He was well paid to step aside,” said Robert Garcia trainer and manager for Coria.

That night Lopez impressed the boxing world by flooring Valdez although eventually losing by stoppage. That could have been Coria. No problem, he will be fighting soon enough.

Coria sparred several rounds with Flores and both showed speed and a contrast in styles.

The gym always operates at crank level and somebody is always preparing for the next big fight. Coming up soon will be WBC and WBO super lightweight titlist Jose Carlos Ramirez who will be traveling to China to defend against Viktor Postol on Feb. 2.

Later in February, Mikey Garcia returns to the ring for the first time since last March. The former featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight, and super lightweight titlist is set to meet former super lightweight and welterweight titlist Jessie Vargas on Feb. 29, at Frisco, Texas.

Pick any season in the year and RGBA is always humming.

J-Rock

WBA, IBF and IBO super welterweight titlist Julian “J-Rock” Williams (27-1-1, 16 KOs) finally returns to the ring and makes his first defense against Jeison Rosario (19-1-1, 13 KOs) on Saturday Jan. 18, in Philadelphia. FOX will televise.

It’s homecoming for Williams who grabbed the title with a riveting win over former champion Jarrett Hurd in what I felt was the Fight of the Year in 2019. Both engaged in trench warfare and exhibited the beautiful art of inside fighting rarely seen or allowed by trigger-happy referees anxious to create space. Close-quarter fighting takes talent.

Fighting in front of friends and family can be pretty stressful. Philadelphia is a true fight town and it could be an added distraction for Philly boxer J Rock.

“I try to just block myself from the world. Especially with a hometown fight, people are pulling you 50 different ways, tickets, asking me stupid questions. It’s crazy, so I just try to block myself from the world,” said Williams about the upcoming fight with Rosario. “Rosario brings ambition to the table. I think he’s an ambitious kid. I don’t think it’s a difficult fight (for me), to be quite honest. I just think it’s a matter of being focused and on top of my game, and I think I’ll take care of him. I don’t think it’s difficult, though. He’s a decent fighter. We’re not going to make him out to be Ray Robinson.”

Top Rank in NY

If you are one of the many who wondered whatever happened to Puerto Rico’s Felix Verdejo here’s your chance to watch the former phenom in action as he meets Manuel Rey Rojas (18-3, 5 KOs) at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, NY. ESPN+ will stream the Top Rank card.

Verdejo (25-1, 16 KOs) fought once in 2019 and defeated cagey veteran Bryan Vasquez by decision last April in New York City. He remains a big draw but since turning pro nearly 10 years ago has failed to live up to expectations as the next Felix Trinidad. There’s only one “Tito” Trinidad.

Rumors abound when it comes to Verdejo who was supposedly involved in a motorcycle accident and other escapades. Life can get in the way. Here he is now 26 years old and looking to conjure up some of that old fervor he had as a teen.

Fights to Watch

Fri. Showtime 7 p.m. Shojahon Ergashev (17-0) vs Adrian Estrella (29-4).

Sat. ESPN 4 p.m. Eleider Alvarez (24-1) vs Michael Seals (24-2); Felix Verdejo (25-1) vs Manuel Rey Rojas (18-3).

Sat. FOX, 5 p.m. Julian Williams (27-1-1) vs Jeison Rosario (19-1-1); Chris Colbert (13-0) vs Jezzrel Corrales (23-3).

Photo: Eduardo Garcia, the Garcia family patriarch, is flanked by sons Robert and Mikey. Photo by Al Applerose.

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