By Jake Donovan
When a rib injury forced Eddie Chambers to withdraw from his scheduled Jan. ’12 clash with Sergei Liakovich, the boxing industry rolled its collective eyes with thoughts of ‘here we go again.’ The bout was supposed to headline the inaugural edition of Main Events’ NBC Sports Network Fight Night series.
Rather than panic or write off the concept as a non-starter, the event’s handlers huddled up and came up with a salvageable alternative – a matchup between Bryant Jennings and Maurice Byarm, at the time a pair of unknown Philly-born heavyweight prospects. The development turned out to be a blessing in disguise, serving as the launching point of Jennings as a sorely needed breath of fresh air in a depleted heavyweight landscape.
The rest is history in the way of the success of the series, a remarkable statement considering it could have been history after just one show. Nearly 2½ years later, the latest installment is presented this weekend, when Anatoliy Dudchenko faces Nadjib Mohammedi in a 12-round light heavyweight elimination bout at the Mohegan Sun Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Not familiar with either fighter? Not to worry. Chances are you’ll get to know the winner – and perhaps even the loser – very well in months to come, if the series’ past trends hold true to form.
“We think it's the best boxing series on TV, and this fight is an example of why we think that's the case,” believes Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, who is more active than ever as a promoter these days. “We have a very significant fight here. The winner will be the #1 contender in the IBF (International Boxing Federation) in a very hot light heavyweight division.
“While there seems to be the potential for Bernard Hopkins to face Adonis Stevenson, if for some reason that fight doesn't happen, the winner will be ordered Hopkins next. If it does happen, the winner will be ordered to face the winner of that fight. The bottom line is that the winner is going to get a shot at a very big fight.”
Germane to the intriguing nature of this series, this matchup actually came as an alternative to originally scheduled plans. Dudchenko was ordered to face Dmitry Sukhotsky, who instead chose to head in a different direction.
Minimal time was lost in securing a replacement, one who wound up scrapping his own plans to take this fight. The staff at Main Events gave a quick scan of the Top 10 light heavyweights according to the IBF, and only had to make one phone call before finding its modified main event.
“We reached out to Christel (Aujoux, Mohammedi’s manager). It didn’t take long at all to make the fight,” Duva reveals. “The truth is, the majority of fighters want to fight.”
The bout will mark the first time Mohammedi (34-3, 20KO) fights on U.S. soil. The 29-year old light heavyweight contender has fought predominantly in France, with minimal success beyond his homeland. Two of his three career losses have taken place on the road – a points loss to Nathan Cleverly in a Dec. ’10 interim title fight, and a knockout loss to Sukhotsky in Oct. ’11.
Ten straight wins have followed, though none coming against recognizable opposition. To his credit, Mohammedi and his team believed the time had come to step up in class, which explains their willingness to take this fight when it was offered.
“It was my plan to fight for a title in 2014,” Mohammedi insists. “We tried the European champion… but when they told me about Dudchenko, we hopped on it because we wanted to fight.”
Mohammedi was in position to challenge for the EBU (European) light heavyweight title earlier this year, scheduled to face Igor Michalkin in a vacant title fight. The fight was on course until the opportunity arose to fight in an elimination bout with the chance for the winner to challenge for a major title.
Michalkin went on to win the EBU title, taking a decision over Mohamed Belkacem, whom Mohammedi defeated handily two years ago. In that regard, this fight can be viewed as moving onward rather than taking a fight without a guarantee of bigger things to come with a win. Of course, a win is anything but guaranteed, especially given his track record away from home.
“The fruit of our labor brought us here,” Mohammedi states. “We’ve been working towards this moment for years. We have no pressure at all. I’ve fought in many other places besides the United States. I have no pressure at all because the ring is my home.
“When I come into the ring, I don’t question myself. I’m here to win and I’m here to become champion. After this fight, we are ready to prove to the American fight fans that we are ready to become world champion.”
Naturally, his opponent will have something to say about that, at least in the ring, as Dudchenko is a man of few words.
“If he says he will knock me out… well, we will see,” the 35-year old Ukrainian export simply says in response to the thought of Mohammedi’s prediction.
Dudchenko (19-2, 13KO) is the latest light heavyweight in whom Main Events is ready to fully invest.
Their prize possession at the moment is unbeaten knockout artist Sergey Kovalev, a light heavyweight titlist who was first introduced to casual boxing fans on this series in 2012. Knockout wins over Lionell Thompson, former champ Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White led to his graduation moment – an appearance on HBO to face then-unbeaten light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly.
Kovalev won in emphatic fashion, as has been the case in each of his two title defenses, as he is now generally viewed as the best light heavyweight in the world. The true champion at 175 is Stevenson, but who is seemingly unwilling to face the crushing Russian. The 36[year old southpaw is instead being steered towards a three-belt unification bout with Hopkins later this fall.
If Kovalev doesn’t get his shot at the winner, the most likely reason will be that the winner of this weekend’s bout is enforced as next in line. Dudchenko likes his chances of becoming that fighter and for good reason. The streaking contender has won 16 straight since sputtering out to a 3-2 start to his career at a time when boxing wasn’t quite yet a way of life.
“Before, I didn’t have a manager, promoter or a real training camp,” says Dudchenko, who relocated to the U.S. in 2004. “I worked in construction when I came to the United States. Nobody was taking care of me. Now I am taking care of the boxing (part).”
His success story is the type of backdrop Main Events looks for when presenting fights for the NBCSN Fight Night series. Sometimes, the stars to emerge from these shows are unpolished prospects like Jennings, who is now one win away from challenging for the heavyweight title. Other times, they are fighters who are written off, such as Gabriel Rosado and Curtis Stevens, both of whom were afforded the chance to reinvent their careers on NBC Sports and go on to contend for the middleweight title.
Both came up short in separate shots at unbeaten middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin. While Rosado tried and failed in subsequent opportunities on prime time cable, Stevens returned home and has emerged as a cult favorite.
A big part of the appeal surrounding Stevens has always been his natural knockout power. It had never come in as handy as his last fight, a thrilling come-from-behind knockout win over Tureano Johnson this past April on NBC Sports, Stevens’ 5th televised appearance on the Fight Night series circuit and 7th with Main Events dating back to March ‘12.
The bout served as perhaps the best televised doubleheader of 2014. The evening’s main event featured Steve Cunningham’s career-resurrecting decision win over Amir Mansour, twice climbing off the canvas to floor and eventually upset the previously unbeaten heavyweight.
“These fights have brought a lot of fighters to the public attention,” Duva points out. “Nobody knew who Sergey Kovalev was, who Bryant Jennings was, who Curtis Stevens was. I can go on and on.”
As long as she can, so, too will the health of the NBC Sports Network Fight Night series.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox