By Keith Idec
Igor Mikhalkin considers Sergey Kovalev to be the same ferocious fighter he was before Andre Ward stopped him in their rematch.
Ward hurt Kovalev badly with a right hand in the eighth round June 17, before landing several questionable body blows that caused referee Tony Weeks to stop their light heavyweight championship rematch in Las Vegas.
Russia’s Mikhalkin thinks that controversial loss, coupled with his unconvincing unanimous-decision defeat to Ward in their first fight 15 months ago, motivated Kovalev to regain the status he lost to the since-retired Ward.
The 34-year-old Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) bounced back from his technical-knockout loss to Ward by stopping Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (19-2, 16 KOs) on November 25 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Kovalev, who won the WBO belt Ward gave up by beating Shabranskyy, will defend that 175-pound championship against Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs) on Saturday night at The Theater (HBO).
“I think [the second loss to Ward] might’ve motivated Sergey even more, because a lot of Ward’s punches were low,” Mikhalkin told BoxingScene.com through a translator. “They were controversial punches. If anything, I think that motivated Sergey to fight stronger and get his titles back. It definitely didn’t diminish him. It motivated him.”
Mikhalkin scored the first Ward-Kovalev fight for Kovalev, who floored Ward in the second round, but lost a unanimous decision in November 2016 in Las Vegas.
“I definitely think Kovalev won the first fight with Andre Ward,” said Mikhalkin, who owns the IBO light heavyweight title. “There’s no question about that. In the second fight, it was very interesting. It was kind of even. I don’t agree with the referee’s decision to stop the fight. I think the referee pulled the trigger when he shouldn’t have. It left a lot of questions about what’s next, what to do.”
Kovalev is typically listed as a 20-1 favorite over the 32-year-old Mikhalkin, a former amateur teammate.
HBO will televise the Kovalev-Mikhalkin match as the main event of a “World Championship Boxing” doubleheader (10:05 p.m. ET). The broadcast will start with a 12-round fight that’ll pit Kyrgyzstan’s Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), the WBA light heavyweight champion, against Cuba’s Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs).
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.