IN an era when good fighters magically become great ones thanks to clever marketing and short memories, Sergey Kovalev forged his reputation by challenging his contemporaries and then bludgeoning most into submission. No character tweaks were required for Kovalev as he played only himself during his first reign as light-heavyweight king. Even now, at the age of 36, Kovalev just wants to get in the ring and do what he has done impressively for large parts of his journey.
This Saturday, the feared Russian, surely in the climactic scenes of his storied career, returns to his motherland to overcome the challenge provided by Britain’s boastful Anthony Yarde. He looks to defend his WBO title, a belt that has been dear to Kovalev since he won it for the first time in 2013.
Back then, Kovalev arrived in South Wales as a mysterious but largely unproven danger man, to challenge Nathan Cleverly. Team Cleverly hoped he would be a stepping-stone for the young Welsh king, which now sounds bizarre when one assesses their respective careers since that hot August night six years ago. Kovalev brutally displayed the alarming gulf between world class and elite level as he decorated the ring inside the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff with Cleverly’s outgunned frame.
That result was something of a shock to some in British circles. Particularly to those who thought that Cleverly was on the way to emulating Joe Calzaghe – his former stablemate – as a bona fide attraction in world boxing. Calzaghe watched the Kovalev destruction from ringside with a stunned face that mirrored most in attendance. The Russian slugger had proved his menace, and then some.
Yarde is another Brit with lofty aspirations. Another Brit in Kovalev’s sights. And though Kovalev is the champion this time, he’s again in a situation where he must defeat a British fighter to reach a higher level.
“I am very satisfied with what I have won in my career,” Kovalev told Boxing News as he took a break from preparing for the 38th fight of his professional career. “But I still want to be the undisputed champion of the world at light-heavyweight.”
Yarde – by virtue of his mandatory status with the WBO – is a boxer Sergey must fight if his mission for complete dominance is to continue. The importance of the bout is not lost on Kovalev.
“Anthony Yarde is young and hungry, and this is a dangerous fight,” Kovalev continued. “I am thrilled to fight for the first time in my hometown of Chelyabinsk. It is a dream to defend my title in front of my family and friends, so I thank Yarde for agreeing to fight me at home.
“He’s the only fighter that I’m thinking about right now and I need to be very smart with him.”
Kovalev’s admission that Yarde is the only man in his thoughts is arguable considering the amount of speculation surrounding a fight with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. The Mexican, who has picked up world belts of varying importance across three weight classes, has made it known that 175lbs is a potential destination for an upcoming fight and Kovalev’s position as one of the division’s leaders carries wide appeal to the current middleweight ruler. Despite the obvious riches and opportunity a showdown with Canelo would create, Kovalev refuses to be drawn on the subject and states that his immediate focus is prioritised by Yarde.
“At this moment I have no thoughts about Canelo. I only have thoughts about Anthony Yarde,” states Kovalev, again refusing to be drawn on any rival bar his next one.
A fighter who has prospered and endured in the ring with leading names such as Bernard Hopkins, Jean Pascal and Andre Ward, Kovalev appears far too shrewd to underestimate those coming behind him. A disastrous run from the backend of 2016, lasting approximately two years, saw Kovalev’s menacing aura disintegrate following two defeats to Ward and an emphatic stoppage setback to Eleider Alvarez.
Now under the tutelage of Buddy McGirt, one of boxing’s famed fixers, Kovalev demonstrated a restricted approach when exacting revenge on Alvarez earlier this year, using McGirt’s skilful approach that famously extended the career of Arturo Gatti by going back to basics.
Kovalev still has dreams that he wishes to fulfil and, sensibly, is not thinking about the finishing line up ahead.
“I don’t think about how many fights I might have left so I just try to perform at the highest level I can in every fight I’m in. I have never been a fighter who thinks about the past, I just try to look at what is in front of me,” he growled. “I want to be known as the fighter who fought anyone at any time, and to fight for my family and legacy.”