Sergey Kovalev thought Egis Klimas was kidding the first time Kovalev’s manager mentioned the possibility of fighting Canelo Alvarez.
Kovalev remembered Alvarez all the way back from 2012, when he watched a young junior middleweight spar against eventual rival Gennadiy Golovkin in Big Bear Lake, California. Kovalev, a career-long light heavyweight, at first figured the Mexican icon wouldn’t come all the way up from 160 pounds to 175 to fight him.
If it were to happen, Russia’s Kovalev assumed Alvarez would require a catch weight that would reduce his size advantage at least a little bit. That might’ve been a non-starter for the 6-foot Kovalev, who hasn’t weighed in at less than 174 pounds for a fight in seven years.
Ultimately, size didn’t matter to Alvarez, who welcomed their fight at the light heavyweight limit of 175 pounds.
Now that their fight has been finalized for November 2 in Las Vegas, Alvarez’s antagonists will tell you that the joke’s on anyone that thinks this is anything other than an exploitative superstar picking on a fast-fading champion who’ll make it appear that Alvarez has chased a greater risk than he’ll actually take versus Kovalev. They’ll tell you Alvarez should’ve embraced that third fight against Gennadiy Golovkin, so that they can attempt to settle their score once and for all.
Alvarez’s staunch supporters counter that jumping up two weight classes to challenge Kovalev is an extremely dangerous endeavor, ambition for which Alvarez deserves praise. They also consider Alvarez’s majority-decision victory over Golovkin in their rematch all the evidence they need to prove his superiority, and thus see no need for that third fight.
When assessing just how dangerous of an assignment Alvarez has accepted, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Kovalev obviously isn’t the same fighter he was three years ago, when the then-unbeaten Russian knockout artist was preparing for his first fight against Andre Ward.
Whatever you think of Tony Weeks’ strange stoppage at the end of Kovalev’s rematch with Ward, Kovalev has been knocked out twice in the past three years. Ward had hurt him badly with a right hand before those questionable body blows caused Weeks to halt their June 2017 rematch in the eighth round.
Three fights later, there was no doubt about Eleider Alvarez’s annihilation of Kovalev. Colombia’s Alvarez knocked down Kovalev three times before their fight resulted in a seventh-round knockout in August 2018.
Kovalev commendably came back to out-box Alvarez in their immediate rematch and regained the WBO light heavyweight title. But Anthony Yarde, his strong but limited mandatory challenger, nearly knocked out Kovalev late in the eighth round of his subsequent bout.
With a career-high, eight-figure payday for the Alvarez fight hanging in the balance, Kovalev recovered quickly and knocked out an exhausted Yarde with a single jab in the 11th round. Fighting in his hometown for the first time, Kovalev again showed remarkable resolve by bouncing back to beat Yarde in a pressure-packed environment.
It’s impossible to argue, however, that Kovalev resembles the same fighter that faced Ward the first time.
Once a devastating puncher, he doesn’t seem to have quite the same snap on his right hand that demolished many opponents during his run at the elite level.
Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs) can’t take a punch the way he once did, either. His vulnerability to the body obviously is a huge advantage for Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs), one of boxing’s best body punchers.
Nevertheless, Kovalev believes Alvarez picked him to make a statement, not because he views Kovalev as the easiest mark among boxing’s four light heavyweight champions.
“It’s because I’m the best boxer [at] light heavyweight,” Kovalev told BoxingScene.com on Wednesday, before their press conference in Los Angeles. “Therefore, he chose me. I’m sure [of] this. My name is the biggest name in the light heavyweight division. The other [champions], it’s people nobody knows, except me, [at] light heavyweight.”
The 36-year-old Kovalev does have greater name recognition than IBF champ Artur Beterbiev or WBC champ Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who’ll meet in a light heavyweight title unification fight October 18 in Philadelphia. Same goes for WBA champ Dmitry Bivol.
Beterbiev (14-0, 14 KOs) is generally regarded as the hardest puncher in the division, though, and Bivol (16-0, 11 KOs) clearly is a fresher, more skillful fighter than Kovalev at this point.
Still, fighting Kovalev is nothing like Alvarez’s WBA super middleweight “title” fight December 15 at Madison Square Garden. Rocky Fielding is even taller than Kovalev, yet he had been knocked out in the first round by Callum Smith, the WBA’s actual champion at 168 pounds.
Alvarez predictably pummeled England’s Fielding, who was knocked down four times on his way to suffering a third-round knockout.
However diminished, Kovalev is a much more imposing opponent than Fielding and the WBO’s only champion at 175 pounds. He stands four inches taller than Alvarez, has a tremendous jab and still can crack with his right hand.
Overcoming Kovalev’s strengths would make winning a light heavyweight title much more legitimate than the super middleweight championship he won by defeating Fielding.
“Obviously, it’s gonna be a hard fight,” Alvarez told BoxingScene.com. “But I believe that we can adapt to his style and win the fight.”
Kovalev realizes Alvarez will be tough to beat, too. Alvarez is moving up 15 pounds, but Kovalev thinks this leap to light heavyweight will benefit Alvarez, whose iron chin has served him well throughout a 14-year, 55-fight career.
“I think this will be [my] hardest fight because he’s strong and he’s not cutting the weight,” Kovalev said. “He’ll still have a hundred percent of his power and stamina. Because, when you’re losing the weight, your power and your stamina a little goes down, by losing weight. But if he’s cutting weight [for this fight], maybe it’s just for the speed, maybe just five pounds, maybe 10 pounds – not more. And he, right now, will be in the best shape, maybe better than before.”
The favored Alvarez won’t encounter the best version of Kovalev when they square off at MGM Grand Garden Arena. It’s still hard to fault a 5-foot-8 middleweight for jumping up two weight classes to fight a light heavyweight world champion who has lost only to Ward, then the sport’s pound-for-pound king, and another unbeaten boxer in Eleider Alvarez.
“It’s a challenge for me,” Canelo Alvarez said. “I wanna make history in boxing.”
How difficult of a challenge is this for Alvarez? That depends on whether you ask Alvarez’s critics or supporters.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.