The word hangs over the career of Russia’s WBO light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KO).
The 36-year old almost beat Andre Ward in 2016.
He almost cemented an argument as the best light heavyweight since at least Roy Jones if not Michael Spinks.
He almost made a case as the number one fighter in the sport, regardless of weight class.
He almost edged toward the next level of stardom still elusive after all these years.
There are plenty of folks who think he should have had all those things, who scored the first fight against Ward in his favor. What would things have looked like if the judges had flipped just a single round, most notably the tenth, in Kovalev’s favor?
Would there ever have been a rematch, much less a stoppage loss, to Ward? Could it have unspooled into a trilogy? Maybe the Eleider Alvarez upset still happens in 2018?
Almost is just another way of saying did not.
This Saturday, Kovalev steps to the plate one more time in what is inarguably the highest profile fight of his career. Despite big power, Kovalev has settled for being a solid, well paid star in the boxing niche at least in the North American market. His fights with Ward were moderate financial attractions and there were some solid crowds in Canada but never anything like this Saturday (DAZN, 9 PM EST).
Saturday, Kovalev has middleweight champion Saul Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KO) moving up a pair of division chasing his third divisional crown (sorry, WBA sub-titles don’t count). Alvarez, at 29, is favored to win and there are some who see this as a smart risk, the younger man moving on an elder, larger man near the end.
The thinking may be right.
Kovalev, the 2014 Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year, is sitting on the verge if another almost. Kovalev is 2-0 already this year in dramatic fashion. He rebounded from his knockout loss to Alvarez to pitch a near shutout in the rematch in February. Kovalev followed with a knockout of undefeated Anthony Yarde, a fight where he weathered some tough spots against the raw but physically talented younger man.
A win this Saturday would give Kovalev a strong case for Fighter and Comeback of the Year.
It would also give him a chance at the sort of big name win that slipped away in the narrow Ward loss.
It probably shouldn’t be that way but boxing, especially in this era of fewer fights, resolves so often to just a few fights. Later, with time, history buffs can come back and reanalyze a career, can add perspective, but the general public impression is formed and lingers on.
Alvarez is the man right now in boxing. There might be better fighters but there is no bigger star. If Kovalev can beat him, even given a size edge, it will be remembered. If Kovalev can beat him, this year can stand as a response to some of the questions his run since the first Ward fight has brought to bear.
Kovalev is an easy guy for some fight followers not to root for based on outside the ring issues, including current issues with the law. Some of that has played into a pile on questioning whether he was exposed as a bully, a sore loser, and whether he folds under pressure.
Inside the ring is what matters Saturday. There is a segment of the US press that, maybe because of his punching power, seemingly hasn’t always recognized the complete fighter Kovalev has been at his best. He’s had one of the best jabs in the sport during the decade and works off a strong ring IQ. Ward didn’t outbox him in either fight; Kovalev forced him to find grittier paths to victory.
No one else has really outboxed him either.
Alvarez has a tall order in front of him.
Kovalev has how he’ll be remembered to fight for along with the regular spoils of victory. Even if father time were a factor, an Alvarez loss would hurt how Kovalev’s career is reflected upon. A win would be an exclamation point.
We’ll see what the older man has left in days.
A World Series where the road team wins every game? It might not have been the best Fall Classic ever but that’s a once in a lifetime outcome. Congratulations to the Washington Nationals…Gervonta Davis and Josh Taylor had an entertaining Twitter exchange but wouldn’t it be nice if Davis or his team seemed even remotely interested in trying to beat the best lightweight in the world since that’s the division Davis is moving to? Boxing in 2019 is weird sometimes…Glad to see the WBSS cruiserweight issues appear worked out. Dorticos-Briedis should be excellent…Crisis on Infinite Earths is almost here…Happy Halloween everyone!
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org