The Devil’s Advocate: Understanding Sergey Kovalev

Photo Credits: Scott Heavey

One way to understand the enigmatic often surly Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev is to understand where he came from.

Born in the Spring of 1983 in Soviet Russia an empire feared and reviled in The West was collapsing under the weight of its own armor.

More miserable and less forgiving than the average Russian childhood would have been the hard scrabble life someone like Sergey growing up under this empire in decline.

One way out of the doldrums was sport – any kind of sport. The soviet system still robustly supported its sports men and women in world championship competition around the world. 

However, by the time Sergey entered the sport of boxing at 11 years old the USSR had completely collapsed and was run by gangsters, oligarchs and former regime strong men. 

Little has changed in 2017.

Early Years

Sergey Kovalev grew up in Kopeysk in Chelyabinsk Oblast. Situated in the middle of the Russian Federation in the Urals. 

Historically this region was ground zero for coal production that helped drive the Soviet State for nearly a century.

You must admire the no nonsense approach of the Russian character, embodied to a large degree by the language; prior to 1928 Kopeysk was known by the picturesque name Ugolnye Kopi meaning literally Coal Mines. To this day a pick axe is used to adorn the Kopeysk coat of arms.

It is with the diligence of a miner that Kovalev has achieved both success at the amateur level and recognition as a former undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world and a top 5 pound-for-pound fighter.

Sergey amassed a brilliant amateur record of 193-22 and was two weight Russian Junior champion. Sergey went on to Medal in the adult category in 2004, 05, 07 and 08. Sergey also competed within the Russian Military ranks winning Gold in 2005 and 2007 and Silver in 2006.

Professional Career

As his manager Egis Klimas a Russian immigrant himself who once made a living as pizza delivery man and fisherman tells it, he was on his way home after a scouting mission in The Motherland when he was brought in to watch Sergey Kovalev simply shadowbox and right away Klimas knew he had a powerful boxer on his hands. 

Klimas is leading something of a Russian Invasion, his stable of fighters includes the popular Vasyl Lomachenko, Cruiserweight terror Oleksandr Usyk and Sergey Kovalev.

Sergey made an impressive debut in July 2009 stopping Daniel Chavez and then proceeded to win all his next eight fights in the 1st or 2nd round by stoppage. He hit a snag when he faced Darnell Boone getting dropped, however still coming away with the split decision victory in October 2010. 

The next year Kovalev began working with former professional fighter John David Jackson, a veteran boxer who shared the ring with the likes of Bernard Hopkins.

The improvement was almost immediate. Kovalev rattled off eight straight wins with seven stoppages. 

Signature Fights 

Fighting Sergey Kovalev can literally be life threatening.

The fight against fellow Russian Roman Simakov is proof. The one-sided contest ended in the 7th round with a TKO win for Sergey. Immediately after Simakov collapsed in to unconsciousness and never woke.

Sergey was affected by Simakov’s death deeply, however such is the resolve and determination of the Russian he was back in the ring six months later in June of 2012 avenging his poor performance two years earlier against Boone winning this time convincingly by TKO in the 2nd round.

After 3 decisive stoppage victories in a row Sergey got a crack at Nathan Cleverly for the WBO light heavyweight belt. Cleverly was the #2 ranked light heavyweight in the world – Sergey utterly dominated him. Cleverly was knocked down two times in the 3rd round – the first time Cleverly was down as a pro and stopped in the 4th

Kovalev defended the title three times before facing wily veteran Bernard Hopkins in November 2014. As previously mentioned Hopkins and trainer John David had history; back in April 1997 Hopkins stopped John David in the 7th round and Hopkins retained his IBF Middleweight championship. 

Hopkins had defied father time for too long however and though Hopkins was the IBF & WBA light heavyweight champion Sergey was not intimidated by Hopkins resume or veteran abilities. Kovalev sent Hopkins down in the very first round with a powerful short right to Hopkins’ head.  Hopkins tried to make it ugly in periods coming in with his head to try to cut Sergey. Though the finish proved elusive Sergey showed poise and underrated boxing craft patiently executing the game plan and won every round easily. The bout also marked the first time Sergey Kovalev went past the 8th round and his feet didn’t fail him.

Hopkins VS Kovalev knockdown

Photo Credits: Jewel Samad

A noticeable shift took place in the second fight with Jean Pascal. 

The two men first fought on the 14th of March 2015, at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Pascal, now lightly regarded as little more than a gate keeper pascal was a respected contender at the time and the fight was an early candidate for fight of the year. Kovalev won by TKO in the 8th round nearly knocking Pascal out of the ring.

The build up to the rematch was acrimonious to say the least with charges of racism leveled at Kovalev (accusations brought again with some validity by Ward). Kovalev was incensed and vowed to "punish" Jean Pascal - and he did. Pascal was disarmed by the 3rd round and the remaining 4 rounds were a one-sided beating.

By no means is Pascal's skill comparable to Ward's - even prior to Kovalev/Pascal I. However, I think it's telling how much more focused and determined Kovalev was in the rematch.

Kovalev was steely, calm and ruthless. Moments where he had Pascal cornered and ripe for the finish Sergey backed off allowing Pascal to recover before the beating resumed.

Dempsey, Liston, Tyson and others have relied on intimidation and anger to fuel their performances. Dempsey was all rage inside the ring but a soft touch out. Liston was a mob enforcer and thug and a terror in the HW division before Ali. Tyson was driven by fear to a large extent. Kovalev seems a mix of Liston and Dempsey, gentle towards their family and inner circle but utterly devoid of compassion for their opponents.

It cannot be forgotten that fighting Kovalev is literally deadly as the sad case of Roman Simakov bears out. Kovalev has said repeatedly that in the rematch next weekend with Ander Ward Kovalev would "end his career."

Given precedent that may not be hyperbole.

Over time we have seen Sergey Kovalev evolve into a well-rounded fighter however the loss to Ward has jaded him. 

Watching Sergey play with his beloved young son Sacha juxtaposed with the vitriol with which he’s spoken about the man that beat him, the offensive social media posts and growing disdain for the media or anyone who doubts he was “robbed” last fall reveal an anger in the Russian that few expected – a more outward expression of ‘the Krusher’ we have come to expect in the ring, Sergey seems content to play the heel to the extent he shows any care for how the media portray him at all.

The hard-bitten Russian from an unforgiving part of the world had come to dominate an unforgiving sport.

Like Sonny Liston before him once observed that boxing needs its heroes and villains, like the popular American Westerns of the past.

As this yarn unspins it may be the Bad Guy who wins.

5 min