The bell had yet to ring to start the fight, but the outcome was already decided. Sergey Kovalev was finished and about to get his butt kicked for a second time by Eleider Alvarez. The boxing world was more than ready to wave goodbye to “Krusher” and turn the page to more exciting match-ups in the light heavyweight division. Except it didn’t happen. Instead, Kovalev gave us one of the best performances of his career as he out-hustled and out-boxed Alvarez pretty much from first bell to last. The Russian former champ may not have ‘krushed’ his conqueror, but he sure got some sweet revenge. And put some egg on the faces of all the talking heads who thought he was done and dusted.
Max Kellerman said James “Buddy” McGirt deserved a tremendous amount of credit for this win. You know what? I think Buddy deserves nearly all the credit. Not many are aware, but Buddy is one of the very best trainers in boxing today. He took on a reclamation project, a guy whose life still seemed to be in turmoil well after his shocking knockout defeat at the hands of Alvarez in the first fight, and he made that guy look better than he has in a long time. A second defeat to “Storm” would have been career-decimating, or even career-ending for Kovalev. This was a must-win situation but the pressure didn’t bother McGirt one bit. As a result, it didn’t bother Kovalev either.
Buddy McGirt did all the right things in camp with Kovalev to bring out the best in the guy. He let him train intelligently, at a sensible pace, and didn’t overwork him. Kovalev has had stamina issues in the past, but we didn’t see them at all last night, credit to McGirt. In training he had Kovalev work with smaller sparring partners and coached him on a game plan of getting off first and out-boxing Alvarez. But beyond all that, I think something more fundamental happened between Buddy and Sergey in training camp, something essential, that paved the way to victory.
It is not at all unfair to point out that Kovalev had been making a lot of excuses for his failures, going all the way back to his double undoing by Andre Ward. I believe Buddy must have helped to shift Kovalev’s attitude and thus get him to properly and fully understand the causes of his defeat at the hands of Alvarez the first time around. When you suffer a huge setback like that, you have to acknowledge where you went wrong and be able to change things up and start fresh.
We just didn’t see that kind of thing in all the time since Kovalev’s first controversial defeat to Ward. Buddy not only was a trainer in the traditional sense, but he must have also been Kovalev’s psychologist and Father Confessor. Whatever demons were tormenting Sergey were put to the side. Buddy must have taught him how to put those things out of his mind and focus on the task at hand.
Once that essential psychic piece of the puzzle was in place, Buddy could go to work. He took Kovalev back to school, to the fundamentals, back to textbook boxing. McGirt’s game plan was simple yet brilliant: use skill, hustle, and technique to surprise Alvarez and neutralize his offense. From the opening bell, Kovalev came out sticking and boxing, and he executed that game plan to perfection. He threw over eight hundred punches and effectively smothered Alvarez, never letting him get set or get his punches off the way he had in the first match. It was a rout. Two of the judges had the fight close, but the third gave Kovalev a shutout. I scored just one round for Alvarez.
Again, I don’t think you can overstate how much credit Buddy McGirt — a former world champion himself, by the way — should receive for this unexpected outcome. No one was predicting this kind of performance from Kovalev. But a trainer who can get into his fighter’s head and inspire him and take him to a place where he can perform at his very best, physically and mentally, can make a huge difference and I believe that’s what we saw last night. It was evident from the early rounds when we saw a properly focused and warmed-up Kovalev getting off first, over and over again. Alvarez would throw the big shots from time to time, but he just could not step in and follow up and dictate the fight the way he had back in August.
There was not just one key to victory in this performance. Kovalev had to box with patience and focus but bring different facets of his game into play. The jab was of course critical, but his right hand leads were important too, as well as his footwork, and feints of both hand and foot. He kept Alvarez guessing and reacting and as a result “Storm” could never seize the initiative the way he did in the first fight. As Buddy himself said after the fight, Kovalev followed the plan better than even he, McGirt, had expected. No matter how you break it down, it was a tremendous performance by a boxer so many had written off.
But as I say, a lot of the credit has to go to McGirt. And I would go so far as to say that he has to be the leading contender right now for Trainer of the Year. Kovalev turned to him for help after the most disastrous defeat of his career and Buddy re-built both the Russian’s psyche and his ability to go beyond just dominating guys with his power. Instead he had Kovalev go back to the fundamentals and box with authority and intelligence. The training camp heading into this critical rematch was exactly what Kovalev needed at this juncture. His career was teetering on the brink of disaster and it’s Buddy who pulled Sergey back and put him on the right track. Talk about a dramatic turnaround. This is Hollywood movie stuff!
There’s some ugly criminal allegations swirling around Kovalev in regards to stuff outside the ring and no one should make light of all that. Hopefully it gets sorted out and that doesn’t spell the end of the Russian’s career just when he’s rediscovered, thanks to Buddy McGirt, his mojo. But for now, let’s put that aside and give both Kovalev and McGirt their props. This was a terrific performance against an elite fighter, one that shocked the boxing world and shook up the light heavyweight division.
— Ralph M. Semien