By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Sergey Kovalev showed Saturday night that he remains an elite light heavyweight.
An admittedly re-dedicated Kovalev emphatically came back from his technical-knockout defeat to Andre Ward by dropping Vyacheslav Shabranskyy three times on his way to a second-round technical knockout win in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Referee Harvey Dock stopped the fight at 2:36 of the second round, with a stunned Shabranskyy stumbling all over the ring.
The 34-year-old Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) also won back the WBO light heavyweight title he lost to Ward (32-0, 16 KOs), who gave it up when he retired two months ago.
“It’s my goal to be the best in the division,” Kovalev said. “Last time I was stopped it was a decision by the referee [Tony Weeks]. Here tonight was great boxing for me. I love boxing and I want to make great fights.”
The Russian knockout artist floored Ukraine’s Shabranskyy (19-2, 16 KOs) for the third time with a right hand in the second round. A brave Shabranskyy got up for the third time in less than two rounds, but was hurt badly.
His trainer, Manny Robles, was making his way up the steps to stop the bout before Dock moved in to halt the action, with Shabranskyy still on his feet.
Shabranskyy seemed to knock Kovalev off balance with a jab in the first round, but Kovalev came back to drop Shabranskyy with a right hand with about 1:20 to go in the round. Later in the first round, Kovalev staggered Shabranskyy with a stiff left, which set up a right-left combination that dropped him again.
Shabranskyy got up again and showed Dock enough to allow the fight to continue. Shabranskyy held Kovalev to survive the final seven seconds of that round.
Kovalev, who was a 14-1 favorite, fought for the first time since Ward stopped him in the eighth round of their light heavyweight championship rematch June 17 in Las Vegas. Kovalev contends that the low blows Ward landed were the reason for that defeat, but his critics think he had already quit in a fight that wasn’t going his way by then.
Ward won the IBF, WBA and WBO light heavyweight titles from Kovalev in the previous fight, though Ward’s 12-round, unanimous-decision win was considered controversial a year ago in Las Vegas.
Before Saturday night, Shabranskyy had lost only to Cuba’s Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs), who got up from a second-round knockdown and dropped him three times on his way to a seventh-round knockout 11 months ago in Indio, California.
Barrera beat the Dominican Republic’s Felix Valera (15-2, 13 KOs) by unanimous decision in a 10-round fight on the undercard Saturday night.
After his own impressive victory Saturday night, Kovalev alluded to potential light heavyweight title unification fights against WBA champion Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs) and newly crowned IBF champion Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KOs).
“I’m happy that the belts have different owners,” Kovalev said. “It makes everything interesting and we can make better fights. We have a bunch of belt-holders and we can now find out who is the best. I am ready for any champion, because this is very good for boxing.”
Kovalev is tentatively expected to return to action March 3 in The Theater at Madison Square Garden against an undetermined opponent.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.