“FOR a long time I never wanted a nickname,” Sergey Kovalev says quietly as he reflects on the way his life has changed since he began fighting professionally in America nearly six years ago. He might now be known as “Krusher”, and regarded alongside Gennady Golovkin as the hardest-hitting fighter in boxing, but Kovalev resisted any easy shortcuts. These days Kovalev and Golovkin are routinely hailed as “Beasts from the East”, and acclaimed as more interesting fighters than the controlling Floyd Mayweather, the only boxer who can legitimately argue to be clearly ahead of them in the pound-for-pound rankings.
“I just wanted to be Sergey Kovalev, nothing else,’ he says. “I see no good idea in a nickname. But Kathy Duva, my promoter, told me that people in America don’t remember Russian names. They get confused with Russian fighters. They can’t tell you the difference between Sergey Kovalev and Alexander Povetkin and Ruslan Provodinkov. It is like we are the same guy.”
Kovalev is an unassuming man, for all his controlled ferocity in the ring, and he sighs in mild disbelief. Those three Russian names are as distinct as the differences between a limited heavyweight like Povetkin, an unbeaten multiple world champion light-heavy in Kovalev and an inconsistent 147-pounder such as Provodnikov. “Kathy explained that people will recognise me more if I get a good nickname. She thinks a long time and says, ‘You are more than just a knockout guy. You are crushing your opponents. You are ‘Krusher’.”
There is a small pause, a little laugh and the 31-year-old Kovalev makes his concession: “I think about it and, now, I like it. ‘Krusher’ is a good nickname.”
Ironically, just as he has grown used to his ring alias, Sergey Kovalev has become a household name in world boxing. His performance last November in comprehensively outpointing Bernard Hopkins, dominating and even outboxing the wily old American, sealed his rise. Hopkins was 49 years old but he remained such a formidable presence that many boxing insiders actually believed he might beat Kovalev. Instead, the Russian gave the American veteran, who has always loved nicknames, from “The Executioner” to “The Alien”, such a beating that it was almost embarrassing. Kovalev showed mental toughness, composure and boxing technique which surprised many who dismissed him as a one-dimensional bully ready to be exposed by an old master in Hopkins.
“I like everything about the Hopkins fight,” Kovalev says, understandably. “It was a fight in the mind. Who had the strongest mind? Who is smarter? It showed I can be very smart. And I have patience too. That was so important. I was patient and I box smart.”
Kovalev makes a glowing tribute to his trainer, John David Jackson, who had fought Hopkins in 1997. He might have been stopped in seven rounds that night but, as a coach, Jackson understood what Kovalev needed to do against Hopkins. “He helped me so much,” Kovalev says of Jackson. “We work a lot on the mind and the strategy. The most important thing was I need to keep my mind cold. It was a hot atmosphere but he told me to stay calm and patient and cold. I did not have to look for the knockout. Just outbox Hopkins. If the knockout happens it is great but it will be also good to win on decision. We won a very clear decision. It was not just unanimous. It was a big victory.”
Hopkins’ most admirable achievement that night was withstanding a brutal barrage of punches that Kovalev unleashed in the last round. “I was surprised he didn’t go down,” Kovalev admits. “I was shocked. I think he has a very hard head.”
Kovalev laughs dryly in admiration of Hopkins’ extraordinary resilience and courage. “For the last one-and-a-half minutes I gave him so much punishment. I wanted to stop him. He lost balance and he nearly went down. But he was still there at the end.”
Does he like Hopkins, now that the old warrior is no longer trying to unsettle him? “I like him,” Kovalev says. “I have very big respect for him. We respect each other a lot. I sent him birthday wishes [when Hopkins turned 50 in January] and I wished happiness and good health for him. He was a great champion.”
Kovalev made his debut in 2009 in Greensboro, North Carolina – a one-round stoppage of the unknown Daniel Chavez who was also fighting professionally for the first time. His early years saw him rack up wins in obscure American towns and cities like Fairfax and Tacoma, Louisville and Lafayette. For a long time he and his manager, Egis Klimas, struggled to make money and gain recognition.
“We travelled all over the country,” Sergey recalls. “I would fight anyone, anywhere. It was hard but I never gave up my dream. Ever since I was a small boy in Russia I had a dream to be someone. I told Egis America was a country where people see their dreams come true. It takes a long time but now I am in great fights, with lots of attention. I had to work so hard to get here.”
Kovalev has had a couple of fights in Russia and, in November 2011, tragedy struck. He fought his countryman Roman Simakov in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Simakov had a decent 19-1-1 record but Kovalev stopped him early in round seven. It soon emerged that Simakov had taken such a brutal beating that he fell into a coma. Kovalev was distraught and he immediately paid for his stricken opponent’s parents to fly to Yekaterinburg. They remained at their son’s bedside while Kovalev and his wife, Natalia, prayed for Simakov. Three days later, Simakov died.
“If I ever step in the ring again, I will dedicate my next fight to Roman,” Kovalev wrote on his website a few days later. “All of my earnings will be sent to his family. Forgive me, Roman … Rest in Peace, Warrior.”
I broach an enduringly difficult subject carefully. “No comment,” Kovalev says bluntly.
I try again, highlighting his compassionate statement to Simakov’s family, for such a devastating incident must still haunt Kovalev in his most introspective moments. “I think of his family,” Kovalev says after a painful pause. “I think only good thoughts but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Klimas, who helps out with translation, steps in to make an even more emphatic point. “Sergey has no comment to make. We never give any comments about Roman Simakov.”
Such a stance is understandable even if it is noticeable that Kovalev’s knockout ratio has not dipped since that fatality. Many boxers whose opponents have died are never the same again and even avoid looking for a knockout punch. Kovalev has retained his frightening power while emerging as a decent and rounded man outside the ring.
A possible explanation is his military service. When I interviewed Hopkins last November he suggested that one of the reasons he found it difficult to unhinge the Russian was that Kovalev had been a soldier in the Russian army. Perhaps that disciplined detachment has helped Kovalev. Would he agree that it was a factor in him withstanding Hopkins’ typical psychological warfare?
“Yes, of course,” Kovalev confirms. “I was in the military one year and it teaches you to be strong.”
Klimas points out, proudly, that “Sergey was also a highly decorated military officer.”
Kovalev is certainly very different to Adonis Stevenson, even if the WBC light-heavyweight champion is another fearsome hitter. Stevenson is also, like Jean Pascal, a Haitian based in Quebec, but his reputation outside the ring is streaked with notoriety. A unification clash between Stevenson and Kovalev, who holds the WBA, IBF and WBO versions of the title, would be one of the most riveting fights of 2015. Yet it often seems as if Stevenson is avoiding a showdown with “Krusher”. Does Kovalev sense any trepidation in the otherwise swaggering Stevenson?
“I don’t want to talk about him,” Kovalev says. “There is no reason. I beat Pascal and then after that I have to defend my IBF title against [mandatory challenger] Nadjib Mohammedi. After that, if Stevenson will stay WBC champion, I will be very happy to have a unification fight.”
Strikingly, for a man who says he never makes predictions, Kovalev cackles and produces a withering dismissal of Stevenson. Asked if he anticipates a difficult fight against the dangerous Stevenson, Kovalev says: “Easy work. Easy! No problem.”
I point out that Kovalev is still not widely known in more general sporting circles. Boxing has become such a narrow world that, especially in America, only Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are really familiar fight names to the average sports fan. Sergey Kovalev, just like Golovkin, deserves widespread recognition. He is more than just a “Krusher” for the boxing anorak.
“Thank you,” Kovalev says. “But I have learned to be patient. It just takes time. It’s no problem. Everything is going great.”