The Crocodile vs The Bull

After Jean Pascal lost the biggest fight of his career — the rematch with Bernard Hopkins at the Bell Center in 2011 — Hopkins told Max Kellerman that Pascal would eventually rule the light heavyweight division. This forecast was predicated on Pascal’s assembly of power, toughness, and still-developing technique which, in Hopkins’ estimation, required improvement if the Montrealer was to reach his potential. Since then Pascal has had four fights, each coming at the Bell Center, only one of which — his surprisingly easy win over Lucian Bute last year — had real implications for the division. Tomorrow night, fighting again in Montreal, Pascal meets the ferocious Sergey Kovalev, who seizes and devours his opponents like a crocodile does those careless wildebeests gathered at the watering hole.

Kovalev will be the most difficult test of Pascal’s career. He is what Hopkins said Pascal would become: the world’s best light heavyweight, a man equally violent and calculated, who can floor an opponent with a jab, as he did Blake Caporello, or patiently outbox and dominate, as he did Bernard Hopkins. The old master against whom the precocious test their mettle, Hopkins is the common opponent connecting Pascal to Kovalev. The Montrealer’s results against him were mixed, but the Russian’s were magnificent.

Pascal dropped Hopkins in their first fight and had some fine moments over the 24 rounds they contested, but emerged the clear loser. Meanwhile, Kovalev knocked “The Alien” down in the first round of their bout and easily won each of the subsequent 11. Kovalev can out box you; he can also fuck you up. The crown jewel of Kathy Duva’s boxing business fights with a style that’s more executorial than Hopkins’s ever was.

Kovalev Hopkins
Kovalev dominated Hopkins in one of 2014’s most impressive performances.

It appears few outside of Montreal think Pascal will win. He is perceived, accurately, as the lesser boxer, perhaps more mentally fragile and certainly less fearsome. Is this true? Pascal is sometimes erratic, and while powerful, he doesn’t paralyze opponents with his blows. He’s also ceded momentum in some of his biggest fights, notably against Chad Dawson and then later versus Hopkins. At Wednesday’s press conference, Pascal, for some reason, decided to ratchet up the intensity by removing Kovalev’s hat during a staredown, which prompted a shove from Sergey. It’s unlikely these tactics will vex the Russian. Rather than intimidate his opponent is it more accurate to suggest Pascal was trying to engender self-belief?

Conversely, Pascal is not a fighter without substantial gifts. He has a strong punch, is built like a bull and can fight like one, if intermittently. He’s unquestionably tough: the Laval resident never goes to the mat and certainly a rigid chin is required to compete with “The Krusher.” And, because Pascal’s the inferior boxer it’s difficult to imagine how he’ll be successful without walking through a fusillade. Kovalev likes to fight at a distance and does so cleanly, landing precise shots by launching forward in his smooth, graceful style. Pascal must take away his range, which necessitates the acceptance of pain. Against the most (or second most) feared Eurasian in boxing, that’s the brutal cost of doing business.

Pascal Dawson
Pascal looked both impressive and vulnerable against Dawson.

The implications of this match for Pascal are various. If he loses, but doesn’t get destroyed, his career as an elite light heavyweight may continue. ‘If he doesn’t get destroyed’ is an important caveat, and one to raise given Kovalev’s track record and a stylistic clash where Pascal’s greatest chance to win—coming forward aggressively—might play directly into “Krusher’s” uncompassionate fists. However, if he effectively storms the beach and somehow neutralizes the Russian’s power, Pascal might last until the final bell and perhaps even give himself a chance to win.

To remain a top draw in Quebec, the province’s self-appointed ‘Cash Cow’ will need to perform with suitable zeal. His last fight against Roberto Bolonti was an abject failure, as the Argentine’s second-round flop resulted in the bout being ruled a ‘no contest’. In Quebec, his popularity is being challenged by David Lemieux, the handsome, hard-hitting middleweight who recently righted his career. In the boxing world at large, Pascal is rightly seen as less gifted than Adonis Stevenson, the lineal champion at 175 pounds who Kovalev initially wanted to fight but who backed out on the advice of Al Haymon. And while he’s not yet on the same echelon, Artur Beterbiev has proven himself another Quebec-based light heavyweight with promise. Four years removed from his last difficult fight, an older, more experienced Pascal must show improvement if he’s to be more than a gifted but flawed boxer with a knack for monopolizing media attention.

Pascal Kovalev Hat
At the stare down on Wednesday, Pascal baited Kovalev by popping his hat off.

Clearly, it is easier to envision Pascal losing than winning. His task is an exceptionally difficult one, and the question of how the fight will unfold is certainly intriguing. Will Pascal get inside of Kovalev’s space and can Kovalev be made uncomfortable? Is Pascal’s chin hard enough to compensate for his technical deficiencies? Does he truly believe he can win, or did Pascal pursue this fight for the payday? Will the Montrealer fight sloppily and roughly to frustrate his opponent? Is Kovalev even better than we think, and will he earn a perfunctory stoppage?

More directly, can Pascal take advantage of “Krusher” late in the fight? At the press conference he drew upon a disprovable hockey stereotype when he claimed Europeans fade in the playoffs, which is why he plans to take Kovalev deep. This might be unrealistic: if “Krusher” proved anything against Hopkins it’s that he can fight with as much spirit in the last round as he can in the first.  Sometimes fighters betray a misunderstanding of their opponent when their fight plans seems divergent from reality.  Historically, it has been Pascal, not Kovalev, who loses steam in the later rounds.

The only thing we know for certain is that the energy level in the Bell Centre will be high, which should galvanize the home town man. It’s unlikely Pascal’s hand will be raised at the end but, to remain a local headliner, he can and must impress. Perhaps it’s his performance then, and not the win-loss result, that’s most important. Boxing is a violent form of show business but it’s show business nonetheless, and sometimes what counts is how you play the game, not whether you win or lose. The real question is whether you can satisfy the crowd, something Pascal does when he’s in an explosive stylistic clash, like the one he’ll get tomorrow night. Regardless of the result, if he gives Kovalev, and us, a good fight, we’ll continue to pass through the turnstiles.

— Eliott McCormick

 Weigh-in photos by David Spagnolo.

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