By Jake Donovan
Sergey Kovalev began the year believing he was going to land a fight with lineal light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson. At the moment, there stands a better chance that he winds up everyone else in the division, while Stevenson and unified titlist Bernard Hopkins try to figure out the next move in their respective careers.
For a guy who loves nothing more than to stay active, that could be a good problem to have for Kovalev. An unbeaten light heavyweight titlist with a burning desire to score the knockout every time out, it’s not the easiest task in the world to secure willing opponents for the rising star from Russia.
Blake Caparello is on the short list of those brave enough to step into the ring with one of the hottest fighters in the sport today. The two collide this Saturday at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bout marks Kovalev’s fourth straight appearance on American cable giant HBO, including his second straight headliner, both taking place in 2014.
Kovalev (24-0-1, 22KOs) serves as the centerpiece of what, for the moment, is a planned split-site tripleheader. Across the U.S. – in Las Vegas, to be exact – comes the other two bouts: Jessie Vargas faces Anton Novikov in a matchup of unbeaten 140 lb. fighters; while Brandon Rios is currently scheduled to face Diego Chaves, who is having a hard time leaving Argentina due to a massive immigration backlog.
Of the three bouts on the card, the light heavyweight title fight in Atlantic City is considered to be the least competitive on paper. It’s not a knock on Caparello entirely; the unbeaten Aussie (19-0-1, 6KOs) is a respectable boxer who knows his way around the ring. This much was proven in recent points wins over Allan Green and Elvir Muriqi, the latter serving as his stateside debut.
Still, the lack of knockout power coupled with the clash of styles suggest that Kovalev should be able to end this fight any time he wants. But that’s not at all the way the betting favorite views – or trains – for Saturday’s affair.
“I am taking him serious,” Kovalev insists of his latest opponent. “Good opponents are getting serious training camp and I know he is. I just get in to box and to win. We are both stepping in the ring to do our job.”
Some fighters seek additional motivation in such fights by acting as if they are the challenger vying for a championship. Kovalev doesn’t resort to such mythical scenarios. The 31-year old has taken tremendous pride in his role as a major titlist that everyone wants to see. His alphabet reign also served as his debut performance on HBO, destroying Nathan Cleverly in four rounds to claim a light heavyweight belt last August.
The win came part of a current eight-fight knockout streak, with none of the bouts lasting longer than seven rounds. Kovalev has been extended that far twice over that stretch, including a 7th round knockout of unbeaten-though unheralded-Cedric Agnew this past March.
Heading into that fight, Kovalev was regarded as a heavy betting favorite, as high as 38-1 odds with some sportsbooks. By comparison, Caparello stands a much better chance than did Agnew, as oddsmakers place Kovalev as a “modest” 12-1 favorite for Saturday night’s headliner.
Justifying the odds is a style mismatch similar to last week’s headliner on HBO, where Daniel Geale didn’t even boast a puncher’s chance in his failed middleweight title challenge versus unbeaten knockout artist Gennady Golovkin. The night played out as the odds expected, with Golovkin scoring a 3rd round knockout in a fight that most in the media figured would be at least challenging from a boxing standpoint.
Outboxing Kovalev is Caparello’s only real chance on Saturday night. But how he plans to win is less concerning to Kovalev than what his opponent is chasing after in this fight.
“Blake has an advantage because he is coming to get the title,” Kovalev believes. “He is hungry and has nothing to lose. It is my job to keep the title. (There is) more pressure on me to defend the title.”
The line of thinking may sound token in its response, but the end result speaks for itself. It’s been a long time since Kovalev has left anyone in his circle disappointed, and certainly hasn’t been the case ever since joining forces with Main Events in 2012.
It’s no small coincidence that his relationship with the New Jersey-based company has run as long as his current knockout streak. Kovalev began fighting in the United States, in hopes of improving his game, his level of competition and his notoriety. He’s hit the trifecta in that regard, but what his handlers are most impressed with is his ability to grow with each fight, and his overall willingness to fight, no matter the opponent, location or the stakes.
“Sergey impresses me because he doesn’t fight each fighter the same way,” notes promoter Kathy Duva. “He finds out what is going to work and changes his plan to adjust to each fighter. It is a joy to watch him develop. There is nothing in the world like his intensity. Three of last four opponents have been unbeaten.
“An active fighter is a successful fighter and Sergey just wants to fight.”
It says a lot for Kovalev, considering the lack of notable options awaiting him. Even with a win, Kovalev doesn’t have much to look forward to, other than knowing he’s the top available fighter in the division should anyone else want a title shot.
Stevenson and Hopkins are supposed to be working on an intended fall showdown, in a fight that would put three belts – in addition to the true lineal championship – on the line. Such talks haven’t progressed very far, meaning three belts are being held ransom as the rest of the division is left to fend for itself.
That leaves Kovalev as the only realistic option for a big payday and a title shot awaiting the best of the rest at light heavyweight.
This fact isn’t lost on Hopkins, who recently pledged a willingness to take on the crushing Russian in the event that a proposed Stevenson fight doesn’t get worked out.
It’s a nice gesture, but one on which Kovalev doesn’t plan to waste any energy exploring. At least not until August 3.
“I don’t know Bernard Hopkins,” Kovalev claims, refusing to entertain any fight other than the one presently on his plate. “All I know is my next opponent and his name is Blake Caparello.”
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