In a tougher-than-expected defence of his WBA, IBF and WBO light-heavyweight titles, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev unanimously out-pointed Malawi-born challenger Isaac Chilemba on his home-turf in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Although prevailing widely on the official scorecards, the judges’ tallies of 117-110, 116-111 and 118-109 were perhaps a tad disingenuous to the challenger and certainly didn’t tell the story of how difficult a contest this was for the defending champion.
The bout was designed to serve as Kovalev’s warm-up for a November super-fight against American pound-for-pound star Andre Ward, and while a fighter the quality of Kovalev should certainly never be written off, the odds on a Ward victory will likely be slashed following Chilemba’s spirited showing. Kovalev won clearly, but he looked far from unbeatable on this night, and one was left with the distinct feeling that his fearsome aura took a hammering, even in victory.
Kovalev appeared the stronger, more powerful fighter and he was the aggressor throughout, but his attacks looked worryingly predictable, perhaps even one-dimensional, for large portions of the match. Chilemba came into the contest with a reputation for being an awkward customer – notably earning a split draw against current WBC cruiserweight world champion Tony Bellew in their first meeting, in 2013 – and the challenger proved to be every bit as slippery as his reputation suggested.
As early as the opening round, former WBO world super featherweight champion and Boxnation commentator, Barry Jones, noted Chilemba’s educated footwork and subtle “little half steps backward” that would take him just out of punching range and make him a difficult target. Chilemba also demonstrated a fast, accurate and sophisticated jab that he doubled up effectively from body to head. In a fairly close first session, Kovalev’s aggression and work rate, punctuated by a sustained flurry in the closing seconds, won him the round. But there were also clear signs that Chilemba would not be beaten easily.
Chilemba worked his jab again in the second stanza, catching Kovalev cleanly with the shot as the Russian over-extended with his own attacks. While the punch was fast and accurate, it lacked serious force and his offence was generally limited to landing single shots; in contrast the champion’s ramrod jab was followed by thudding right hands thrown in much higher volumes. Although many of the champion’s power shots were missing or being blocked, his aggression was nevertheless dictating the pace of the fight.
In the third, Chilemba established his own foothold on the scorecards and showed himself to be a capable and worthy challenger. Kovalev struggled to find his distance and was repeatedly caught by classy left-hand counters; with half a minute to go in the round Chilemba landed a peach of a right hand, the best punch of the fight so far. The champion was still the aggressor, but despite the roars of support from the home crowd every time he threw punches, he was failing to land cleanly or consistently.
Chilemba’s excellent jab was on display again in the fourth, visibly snapping Kovalev’s head back as he timed the champion coming in again and again. Kovalev was always moving forward and looking to do damage with a powerful one-two, but he was following the challenger rather than cutting the ring off effectively. The challenger’s confidence seemed to grow and he let his hands go more often, clearly winning the round.
The fifth was a difficult round to score and could feasibly have gone either way: Chilemba had success early on, landing some sneaky right-hand counters, as well as uppercuts and body shots on the inside, whereas Kovalev imposed himself towards the end, landing a powerful uppercut of his own. Regardless of how the judges were seeing the fight to this point though, it was clear by now that the Russian was not having one of his best days at the office, something further evidenced by the uneasy look on his face between rounds. “He knows it’s a hard night’s work now,” observed Boxnation’s Barry Jones.
The champion began the sixth with renewed intent, putting powerful combinations together and bullying the challenger back with the sheer force and volume of the shots, even when they weren’t landing cleanly. Around the halfway point, Chilemba scored with a beauty of a left hook, reminding “Krusher” and his Russian fans that he wasn’t about to lay down any time soon.
In the seventh, Chilemba took advantage of the somewhat predictable nature of Kovalev’s assaults, frequently timing him with left-hand counter jabs and left hooks. Kovalev kept pressing though, and finally got through with his more powerful arsenal. Landing a beautiful left hook to the body, the “Krusher” then followed with a perfectly timed one-two combination to the chin which dropped Chilemba heavily. Clearly hurt, the challenger rose to beat the count and was able to block and spoil his way to the bell as Kovalev poured on the pressure. Chilemba survived, but the champion took a two point round and, more importantly, stamped his authority onto what had become difficult contest.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering that Chilemba was legitimately hurt at the end of the previous round, Kovalev began the eighth slowly and failed to unload any significant shots. Then, just as it seemed the Russian had let the moment slip, towards the end of the session he landed a series of powerful left hands and rocked the challenger once again. Chilemba knew enough to survive, but Kovalev was adding some much-needed variety into his combinations now, landing more frequently with vicious body shots and right uppercuts to clearly dominate the round.
At the end of the eighth Barry Jones made the keen observation that Kovalev was looking tired, perhaps as a result of unloading so many shots over the previous two rounds. Indeed, as if to prove Jones’ point, Kovalev took his foot off the gas in the ninth and let the challenger back into the fight. The tenth was similarly ineffective for the champion as his work rate slowed and his combinations became less accurate. Jones scored both rounds to Chilemba while his colleague John Rawling noted that Andre Ward’s people “will be looking at this and thinking: ‘this guy’s made for us.’”
The champion re-asserted himself in the eleventh, and though Chilemba had success with some eye-catching body shots, Kovalev was the more effective aggressor, forcing the challenger backwards for most of the round. While another 10-9 on the scorecards was undoubtedly in the bag for the home fighter, Rawling noted that Kovalev’s footwork was looking “distinctly robotic,” a further worrying sign that perhaps the champion’s limitations were being exposed, even as he marched towards victory.
With both fighters looking tired and showing the effects of a tough 12 round battle, they engaged in scrappy exchanges during the final stanza, with Kovalev continuing to unload the heavier artillery. Despite his greater success in the round, there was still a lingering impression that he had failed to live up to the lofty expectations he has set for himself, and that Chilemba had performed admirably in defeat. “This has been the first time that I haven’t been impressed with Sergey Kovalev,” stated Jones. “If you are an Andre Ward fan watching this, you’d think that he’s got a great chance,” concurred Rawling.
To his credit, Kovalev never stopped looking for the knockout, pouring on the pressure and landing some damaging blows during the last minute of the bout. As the bell rang to end proceedings, the champion banged Chilemba’s glove in a clear mark of respect to the challenger. The announcement of Kovalev’s unanimous victory on the scorecards was a mere formality, though they failed to reflect the arduous nature of the contest.
Was Kovalev under-prepared? Was he distracted from training by the extra attention of fighting in his homeland? Did he simply underestimate the slippery challenger? Perhaps a combination of all of the above is true. Perhaps also the return to fight on Russian soil was fraught with psychological baggage that affected the Russian more than we realize as the last time he fought in his home country, his opponent, Roman Simakov, lost consciousness shortly after being counted out in round seven and later died in hospital.
Whatever the case, the inescapable conclusion is that Andre Ward’s chances of victory in their November showdown look far better now than they did before the bout. That being said, if you are a Kovalev fan, there are still positives that can be taken away. Firstly, it is much better to get a “bad day at the office” out of the way prior to your biggest contest, rather than during it. And secondly, an awkward opponent such as Chilemba was arguably ideal preparation for what a fighter like Andre Ward will bring to the table. An early-rounds blow out might have looked good on paper for Kovalev going into his most high profile and difficult contest, but ironically would likely have hurt his cause rather than helped it.
Of course, there is still one last hurdle to overcome before the Kovalev vs Ward superfight is sealed, with “S.O.G” needing to defeat Alexander Brand in his own “tune-up” bout. It’s worth bearing in mind that a poor, or even mediocre performance from Ward against what looks to be a far less taxing opponent than Chilemba, could well shift the odds back in Kovalev’s favour. It says here though that when the two pound-for-pound stars eventually do collide, the American outboxes and shuts down the “Krusher” to take a clear points victory. — Matt O’Brien