By Jake Donovan
A perceived mismatch can always be disguised as a showcase when a long range term is in place. Sergey Kovalev’s light heavyweight title fight versus Cedric Agnew was always all about setting up the Russian knockout artist for a targeted fall showdown with lineal light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson.
In the wake of events from earlier in the week, Saturday night’s fight is now all about showcasing Kovalev while scrambling late in the game for another sales pitch.
Stevenson allowed the worst-case scenario – at least in the eyes of Kovalev’s team, boxing fans and HBO - of his signing with Al Haymon to play out by announcing that he will be taking his business to Showtime, beginning with his May 24 title defense versus Andrzej Fonfara. The bout was supposed to be part of a package along with this weekend’s showcase, on the heels of the two punchers scoring knockout in an HBO-televised doubleheader from Canada last November.
With that in mind, the network greenlighted tonight’s fight, in which Kovalev makes his 2014 debut following a breakout campaign in 2013. His first fight of this year comes against an unbeaten but unheralded and largely untested challenger whom many believe to be in way over his head, even if his refreshing attitude throughout fight week has begun to win over fans.
The theme for this promotion is “Keep Calm,” pointing to the return of Kovalev. However, it has now become a statement for the approach his handlers need to take in mapping out his near future – because his fans will remain anything but calm the moment it’s discovered that the immediate future looks mighty bleak.
By the time all parties settled into Thursday’s final pre-fight press conference, this fight had already become about so much more than whatever action will take place in the ring. Furious over Stevenson and his team backing out of a verbally agreed-upon two-fight deal – the second a head-on collision – promoter Kathy Duva has already put in motion a lawsuit against Yvon Michel and GYM Promotion, Stevenson’s promoter.
The foundation of the claim is breach of contract, even if nothing was ever signed on the Stevenson side. Duva and Kovalev signed on for the two-fight deal earlier in the year, under the belief that Stevenson – on the word of Michel, which was stated in a documented message to Duva – was officially on board.
Instead, Stevenson not only has a fight date with Showtime, but also a future opponent already waiting in the wings pending the outcome of the April 19 showdown between Bernard Hopkins and Beibut Shumenov.
As for Kovalev and his team, there awaits a tough task at hand – and it’s not necessarily the fighter who will be standing across from him in tonight’s main event in Atlantic City.
“On Saturday, Sergey will fight an undefeated fighter who asked for this fight,” Duva said of Agnew, doing her best to divert attention away from the original purpose this bout once served.
To his credit, Agnew (26-0, 13KO) is on the very short list of fighters brave enough to step into the ring with Kovalev these days. Throughout fight week, he has unequivocally stated his intention to shock the world, and that he has the perfect style to neutralize Kovalev’s two-fisted attack.
“I am ready to go out there and show the world what I am capable of,” Agnew promised during Thursday’s press conference. “And show the naysayers what I am capable of. There are always going to be naysayers out there and people who overlook me. I say nothing to them and I will keep doing what I am doing.”
His laid-back yet confident demeanor isn’t lost on the event’s organizers.
“Clearly he has a lot of courage,” Duva acknowledges. “I have always respected a fighter with that attitude."
The attitude Agnew has is akin to taking the first half of the promotional phrase in its most literal form – keeping calm.
Kovalev is doing his best to remain the same. Naturally, the reigning light heavyweight titlist – who makes the 2nd defense of the belt he acquired just seven months ago – wants to face the best. The undefeated 30-year old entered 2014 with every intention of marching down that road, though of course insistent that he’s focused solely on the task at hand.
“I don't have any predictions for this fight. He is an undefeated guy and so am I,” Kovalev (23-0-1, 21KO) points out. “He has big motivation. He is on HBO and it is a title fight. I am going to do my job.
“Short fights are the result of my job and my work in the gym. I am only boxing. I go into the ring to show good boxing. I want to show the people what they want to see in the ring from me."
What they’re going to want to see following Saturday – assuming a win comes out of the fight – is tougher opposition in the months to come. As brilliant as has been Kovalev’s rise, there has yet to come a fight in which he wasn’t a considerable favorite heading in.
A showdown with Stevenson represented the type of fight that would answer those questions. It’s an investment his team was willing to make, even with the knowledge that HBO was on board to pay out a 2-1 purse split in Stevenson’s favor, since the 36-year old is the bigger draw (in Montreal) and also the true light heavyweight champion.
The investment HBO wasn’t willing to make was to up the ante considerably for a Stevenson showcase without the guarantee that he’d be back to face Kovalev in the fall. The original deal in place called for both fighters to agree to a two-fight pact – separate showcases and then their own blockbuster clash.
Instead, Stevenson dared HBO to up the ante to what Showtime is willing to pay for the forthcoming optional title defense – which is rumored at around $1.75 million. That amount doesn’t come with a guarantee of next facing the winner of Hopkins-Shumenov, even if Haymon is expected to guide him in that direction.
While HBO had every right to pass on the aforementioned opportunity, there is concern about who is next for Kovalev. All of the names being mentioned would require a move up in weight.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is at the top of the list for every fighter from 160 to 175 simply because he’s the most lucrative option and also beatable in the eyes of those in pursuit. But there’s no reason for the second-generation former titlist to leap that high in weight, never mind that he’s already in negotiations for a proposed July showdown with unbeaten middleweight Gennady Golovkin.
Andre Ward is the reigning super middleweight king who, despite occasionally talking about facing opponents outside of his weight class, has shown no real desire or intention to move up in weight. It’s all a moot point for the moment, as he is in round two of an ongoing attempt to separate from longtime co-promoter Dan Goossen.
With the threat of a lawsuit between Main Events and GYM Promotion, you can also scratch off any chance of Kovalev facing Jean Pascal any time in the near future.
Carl Froch is a possibility should he offer a more convincing showing in his rematch with George Groves this coming May. However, much like Ward there exists little evidence that Froch will flee from the super middleweight division anytime soon, especially while there still exists a massive gap between risk and reward as Kovalev’s drawing power remains a question mark.
The first step towards building the 30-year old as a box office attraction comes this weekend. Tonight serves as Kovalev’s first HBO-televised main event, and also the first time in seven years that Main Events has promoted an HBO card from Atlantic City. The location was once their headquarters while actively promoting the late Arturo Gatti, who singlehandedly resurrected boxing along the gambling strip following the gap left behind by Mike Tyson a decade prior.
Kovalev, like Gatti, is an all-action fighter, and always worth a look whenever he’s on TV. What he isn’t yet, is a fighter with an immediate connection to the crowd.
What he’s also not, is very concerned about his future beyond March 29. If he is to believed, that was always the case even when everyone else thought Stevenson was waiting in the wings.
“I never go into the ring thinking about someone else,” Kovalev insists. “I want to say good luck to Adonis is in his career but someday he will meet my punch. We will talk about it after the fight."
Given the acceptable options, he might not have a choice.
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