By Michael Rosenthal
A lot of people seem to think that Sergey Kovalev would have a minimal chance of beating Canelo Alvarez if they were to meet in a few months, particularly after the WBO 175-pound titleholder’s performance against Anthony Yarde on August 24.
Maybe, maybe not. Only one thing is certain in my mind: This is a fascinating matchup.
Alvarez vs. Kovalev would have a clear favorite – Alvarez – but also other elements that make it compelling – star power, a high level of skill, punching power, history in the making and a significant difference in natural size, which could make this a closer fight than many expect to be.
I, too, believe Alvarez would win. I learned long ago that you’re usually right when you pick the more-talented of the two principals to win regardless of other factors. And Alvarez certainly is the better fighter.
Kovalev also showed vulnerability against Yarde, a strong, talented, but inexperienced challenger who had Kovalev on the brink of a knockout in the eighth round before fading and getting stopped himself in 11th.
Yarde’s effective body punching – a specialty of Alvarez’s – in the middle rounds, which underscored an apparent weakness of Kovalev’s, and ability to seriously hurt the champion raised the obvious question: If the green Yarde could do that to Kovalev, what could a transcendent talent like Alvarez do to the 36-year-old Russian? That’s a very good question.
Andre Ward, who fought Kovalev twice, said before the Yarde fight that Kovalev was about 70 percent of what he was at his peak and that assessment seemed about right based on what we saw in the ring. Kovalev at 70 percent was able to fairly easily outbox Yarde much of their fight but he can’t be expected to do the same against an opponent with the skillset of Alvarez.
And, finally, Kovalev would have only 10 weeks between the grueling Yarde fight and a target date of November 2 for his meeting with Alvarez, which wouldn’t allow him as much time as he would like to recuperate and prepare.
All that is why many believe Alvarez will feast on Kovalev if they fight one another.
I don’t believe this is a slam dunk for Alvarez, though. The adage “a good big man beats a good little man” might just apply in this fight. And make no mistake: Even this version of Kovalev is a “good big man.” Alvarez, a middleweight titleholder, overwhelmed two opponents he faced at super middleweight – Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Rocky Fielding – but Kovalev is much better than either of those fighters. And he’s bigger than they are, having fought at light heavyweight or slightly heavier his entire 10-year career.
You have to wonder: Will Alvarez’s punching power be diminished significantly at light heavyweight? And how will he handle the shots thrown by Kovalev, who has always been known as a heavy puncher? Twenty-nine knockouts in 34 victories is an indication that his nickname – “Krusher” – is apt. Yes, Yarde hurt Kovalev and was able to take his punches until he ran out gas but he’s a lot bigger and stronger than Alvarez is.
It should come down to this: Is Alvarez’s advantage in all-around ability enough to offset Kovalev’s edge in size? We’ll find out if negotiations bear fruit.
I’ll applaud Alvarez if he actually takes the fight. He and his team – including Golden Boy Promotions partner Bernard Hopkins, who fought Kovalev – obviously see enough vulnerability in the titleholder to tempt fate in an effort to win a belt in a fourth weight class.
At the same time, Alvarez and Co. must realize that moving up two weight classes to face a bigger, proven commodity like Kovalev is risky yet appear willing to do it anyway. That doesn’t surprise me. Say what you want about Alvarez but he has demonstrated that he’s willing to face tough challenges, as he did against Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, Erislandy Lara, Gennady Golovkin (twice) and Daniel Jacobs.
The fight is a no-brainer for Kovalev, who will earn in one fight enough to retire comfortably if he’s smart with his money. That’s the main reason he would be willing to take the fight with limited time to recover from the Yarde fight and possibly accept a catch weight, which I hope doesn’t happen. A catch weight would upset the balance in the matchup and ruin it for me.
I presume Kovalev also believes he would win the fight. I think he believes in his ability, punching power and experience. He has to be thinking, “No middleweight is going to move up two weight classes and beat me, not even this middleweight.”
And I think he believes in his new trainer, Buddy McGirt, which must bolster his confidence. McGirt believes in him, too.
“Sergey is ready for Canelo without a doubt,” McGirt said. “He showed (against Yarde) that he still belongs. People wrote him off saying ‘he’s old, he’s this, he’s that,’ and he proved them wrong. He still belongs at the top. He still has that fire burning inside to be the best.
“I don’t care who Sergey fights next, but if Canelo wants to step up to the big boys, then Sergey’s going to have to beat him.”
I hope he gets the chance.
Michael Rosenthal was the 2018 winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades. Follow him at @mrosenthal_box.