By Jake Donovan
It may not be the fight that fans wanted, but Jean Pascal has done his best to drum up interest for his rematch with unbeaten, unified light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev.
The former World light heavyweight champion has managed to capture the attention of fans and media who enjoy the sideshow element of the sport. His biting comments have also piqued the interest of his old rival.
“This fight is personal for me,” Kovalev (28-0-1, 25KOs) admits of this weekend’s rematch, which – like its predecessor – airs live on HBO from the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada. “It is something personal for me. Everything that he is speaking is not true. What he says and what he will do in the ring is two different things.
“I understand why he’s doing this. He’s trying to make me angry. I am going to give him a reminder. I didn’t do my job last time. I should have ended his career.”
The consolation prize granted to Kovalev was becoming the first to claim a stoppage win over Pascal, earning an 8th round technical knockout in their previous encounter last March. It was the continuation of a career upswing for the fierce punching light heavyweight from Russia, who was four months removed from a 12-round shutout of Bernard Hopkins the prior November.
Kovalev’s level of dominance really dates back to his arrival on the light heavyweight title stage. He claimed his first belt in frightening fashion, boldly marching into hostile territory in battering previously unbeaten titlist Nathan Cleverly into submission in the 4th round of their Aug. ’13 meet.
The occasion served as his HBO debut, with Saturday marking his eight consecutive appearance on the American cable giant. The majority of his time as a light heavyweight titlist has been spent beating opposition in ways they’ve never previously experienced.
Cleverly, Cedric Agnew and Blake Caparello all suffered the first loss of their respective careers against the crushing knockout artist, with Kovalev also the only fighter to have scored a stoppage win over each. Hopkins was far from undefeated at the time of their Nov. ’14 title unification bout, but had never been dominated at any point in his incredible 26-year career the way that Kovalev completely shut down his game plan.
Early round knockout wins over Ismayl Sillah and most recently Nadjib Mohammedi were grim reminders of what he’s able to accomplish at any given time. Whereas some boxers claim it takes a certain level of opposition to force them to raise their own game, Kovalev always comes fight ready.
With that in mind, any thoughts of the 32-year old slugger coming in overconfident based on past results should be immediately discarded.
“I have prepared the same for this fight, with 100% responsibility and I understand (Pascal) is more motivated for this fight - more than the first one,” Kovalev notes. “He wants to be looking good in front of his fans in Canada but I am sure - and I know - that half of his fans (went) to my side after the last fight.”
Of course, any thoughts of coming in overconfident flew out the window the very moment the insults flew out of Pascal’s mouth.
It began with the former light heavyweight champ playing the race card during the kickoff presser to formally announce the rematch last December. Pascal dialed it up several notches during the final pre-fight press conference Wednesday morning, his over-the-top antics nearly leading to an on-stage brawl with Kovalev’s trainer, John David Jackson.
Kovalev himself got caught up in the moment, requesting the two fighters take it outside and settle their differences the old-fashioned way. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, reminding both fighters to save a little something for Saturday evening.
“He will pay for this January 30,” Kovalev promises. “We will see January 30 who he is.”
If their most recent performances are any indication, then Pascal is no longer the top fighter he once was. On the flip side, he deserves credit for recognizing the chinks in his armor – if in fact there are adjustments to be made in his fighting style. Something was amiss in his clash with previously unbeaten Yunieski Gonzalez last July in Las Vegas.
The bout served as the chief support to Kovalev’s win over Mohammedi, with the intention to drum up interest for this weekend’s HBO headliner. By night’s end, fans instead clamored for Pascal-Gonzalez II after their 10-round fight ended in a questionable decision win in favor of Pascal, who has since employed the services of Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach.
As for Kovalev, if any adjustments are being made in his camp, it’s to find a way to end the fight even quicker this time around.
"I don't have any plans for the fight,” Kovalev notes, pointing out his usual intention of forcing opponents to fight his style, making any necessary adjustments from there. “We will go to the ring. A boxing fight is (like) a street fight – there are no rules. It doesn't matter what he will bring. I must be ready for anything.
“I don't think about Pascal. He has good motivation and he has a new coach, but I just should be ready for anything. If he will bring something better, it doesn't matter.”
If there’s additional motivation to be found for Kovalev, it’s what lies ahead. The past two years of his career have been spent clamoring for a long-desired showdown with lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson. It appears that the ship has finally sailed on that idea, with Kovalev now moving towards a fall showdown with unbeaten former super middleweight champion Andre Ward.
Both fighters agreed to take interim fights to help drum up interest – and if nothing else, give Ward the chance to once again acclimate himself from the ring, having fought just three times since 2011.
With the carrot dangling overhead comes incentive to keep winning. Ward remains a down-the-road distant memory at the moment for Kovalev, who has all of the fuel necessary to proceed full-steam ahead with his next assignment. Despite beating Pascal in a way that he’s never previously experienced, the fact that he is still an active fighter doesn’t sit well with the man widely considered the best light heavyweight today, who seeks recognition as the most feared fighter in the world.
“Usually the guys who fought me, I destroy their career. I didn’t destroy (Pascal) because the referee stopped the fight,” Kovalev acknowledges, talking through the unfinished business angle for this weekend. He forgot to say to the referee 'Thank you. You saved my life.' So now, I’m here to do this and to finish my job.”
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox