Sergey Kovalev, Act II

Sergey Kovalev says he’s a new man. In a fascinating Sports Illustrated article, Kovalev makes it clear that he had a religious experience after the disastrous rematch with Andre Ward. He also claims that he’s now a different, more focused fighter, with such vices as drinking and smoking having gone by the wayside in favor of a newfound attitude and seriousness. This, of course, is clearly for the best, if true. Sergey took a first-class beating from Ward the second time around. Fighter’s simply can’t take too many of those and it seems Kovalev was on the road to taking more of them if his description of his former life is true.

Everyone likes stories of redemption and boxing is loaded with them. George Foreman, of course, is one of the most famous. Immediately after a grueling fight against Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico in 1976, the former heavyweight champion had a religious revelation that inspired him to walk away from the ring and become a pastor. Lots of people may claim to have such experiences, but it’s hard to deny that Foreman emerged from the sweltering Caribbean heat a changed man, who went on to a stirring Act II. And then a third and a fourth. George went from frightening bruiser to smiling winner and has remained so ever since. Can something similar happen for Kovalev?

Ward blasts Kovalev in the rematch.

It’s impossible to say of course. While he may end up being a much better and more mature person in his life outside the ring, it’s his skill and stamina as a boxer which are in question right now. Since his impressive demolition of Nathan Cleverly in 2013, Kovalev ruled as a kind of light heavyweight terror, the type of dangerous fighter that rival Adonis Stevenson wanted nothing to do with (at least not without some heavy duty, if not absurd, financial incentive). But now Kovalev has been thrashed and other fighters undoubtedly smell blood in the water. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy is clearly hoping “Krusher” is spoiled goods when he meets the former champion in New York on Saturday for the WBO light heavyweight title, one of the belts vacated when Ward announced his retirement.

Kovalev has a new attitude, but can he still be the “Krusher”?

Should a new Kovalev prove to be an improved Kovalev, then Shabranskyy and the rest of his division better watch out. For Sergey was a monster in the ring before facing Ward, when in fact he gave “S.O.G.” two of the toughest battles of his career. His big issue, frankly, was that the man would run out of gas. This isn’t an uncommon phenomena in the fight world. Just last August, for instance, Conor McGregor ended up completely gassed in his ring debut against Floyd Mayweather. Part of it was probably due to genetics, part of it to Floyd’s barely noticed body work, and part of it was probably due to not training properly. A fighter can look like he’s in fantastic shape but still not have the inner strength and stamina that boxing demands.

That clearly was the case for Kovalev in both fights against Ward. He delivered early on in the first bout before tiring and looking less impressive later on. In the rematch, Ward pushed things along by employing a brutal body attack. Kovalev complained of low blows, and those may have been a factor, but there was no denying too that Ward landed quite effectively, and legally, to the gut and that those shots, along with a few crunching right hands upstairs, took all the wind out of the Russian’s sails. Moving forward, this is a weakness which must be remedied. Kovalev and his fans are obviously hoping that his tank is now fortified with the extra fuel needed to battle hard into the late rounds of a competitive fight.

And, frankly, it’s hard to imagine a lifestyle change not helping Sergey at this point. The man told Sports Illustrated that he’s no longer drinking and smoking. You read that right. Drinking and smoking. Talk about leaving oneself open to getting winded. Even John L. Sullivan knew when to go easy on that stuff. Now, though, through a series of events that would make for an inspiring old-school Hollywood movie, Kovalev says he’s living clean. As he tells it, when he returned to his home country after the second loss to Ward, he had no intention of changing his ways. But after a near fatal car crash, they did.

Kovalev eventually made his way to Greece, where he spent time at an Orthodox monastery and prayed for hours. As a result of this spiritual journey, he claims to be a new man as he heads into the second half of his career. But will a more genteel persona prevent Sergey from being the vicious bruiser who left a path of supine bodies on his way to world titles? No one knows, but Foreman was certainly able to maintain his killer instinct and the ability to lay men out after his spiritual sea change.

Sergey and new coach Tursunpulatov.

And like Foreman, Kovalev has made some changes not just in terms of diet and discipline, but also in his team and his training habits. Gone is John David Jackson, which of course is no surprise. The cracks were showing in that relationship even before the second Ward fight. Just as Foreman parted ways with Dick Sadler after his loss to Muhammad Ali and hired Gil Clancy, Jackson is out and Kovalev is now working with experienced coach Abror Tursunpulatov of Uzbekistan. Gone is the language barrier that previously existed between boxer and trainer and gone too are mindlessly grueling workouts that, according to Sergey, sapped his endurance before the Ward fights.

No two men are alike, but it will be fascinating to see the results of all these changes when the bell rings on Saturday. Foreman’s evolution eventually led to him also changing his habits and tactics and, incidentally, improving his stamina, which enabled him to give Evander Holyfield one of his toughest battles and then, a few years later, to knock out Michael Moorer and regain the heavyweight title. No doubt Main Events promotions and HBO are banking on something similar being at work now with “Krusher” and are hoping he looks great against Shabranskyy. After all, Kovalev remains Main Events’ top fighter. And HBO? Well, now that Bob Arum has taken his Top Rank fighters over to ESPN, they could definitely use another star attraction.

In other words, more than a few people will be very happy indeed to see a new and improved Kovalev emerge this weekend, including fight fans who want to see more exciting battles and beatdowns. And no doubt Sergey himself is anxious to move on to a second act that promises more high-profile fights and big money. Act II begins on Saturday and the start of a new championship run could be just one win away. And if Kovalev does rebound with a big victory over Shabranskyy, then fight fans will know the story of Sergey Kovalev is far from over and in fact the drama and excitement of Acts III and IV are in the offing.            — Sean Crose 

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