Sergey Kovalev’s start in a new weight class got off to an inauspicious start.
In a clinical, if fairly uneventful, outing, Kovalev, the former longtime light heavyweight titlist from Russia, jabbed his way to a wide decision over Bulgaria’s Tervel Pulev in their 10-round cruiserweight main event of a Triller Fight Club card at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California.
All three judges scored the bout for Kovalev on scorecards that read 98-92, 98-92, and 97-93.
There were no knockdowns in a fight that Kovalev controlled from the opening round. Using primarily his jab, Kovalev outworked Pulev, causing the latter’s face to puff up. Still, Pulev, the naturally bigger fighter, was able to land power shots every now and again that dissuaded Kovalev from opening up and using his right hand.
The fight marked Kovalev’s debut at the cruiserweight (200 lbs) limit, but it was abundantly clear throughout the fight that the Russian’s best days are behind him. Once regarded as a ferocious knockout artist at 175, Kovalev now relies on his jab to win him rounds. This was, moreover, Kovalev’s first fight since his punishing 11th-round knockout loss at the hands of Canelo Alvarez in November 2019.
Even Kovalev, 39, admitted he did not look his best against the ham-handed Pulev, and suggested he needed to fight more frequently in order to look like his usual self.
“After a long rest, it was a little harder than usual,” Kovalev said. “But I’m back. I’m okay. I’m gonna keep [in] shape after this fight. Rest one week and then be back in the boxing gym. Next fight will be much more [better]. I promise you.”
“I worried about how I was going to be in this fight,” Kovalev continued. “Pro boxing at a high level. More than one year, this is very big rest. My body don’t like this. I want to fight every three, four months.”
Kovalev, who weighed in at 196 1/2 pounds, also stated that he feels like he needs to come in lighter in his next fight in order to regain some of his former quickness.
“The plan was to use the jab and long distance,” Kovalev said. “But I felt my body [had an] additional 10 pounds. I need to lose five, six pounds [for my next fight].”
Kovalev improves to 35-4-1, with 29 knockouts; Pulev drops to 16-1, with 13 KOs.
A desperate Pulev tried to land something big in the 10th and final round. He landed a right that threw Kovalev’s head back. Kovalev countered with a left hook. Moments later Pulev landed a right hand that seemed to cause Kovalev to touch the canvas, but the referee called it a slip.
Kovalev regained his footing in the ninth round, pressing the action against Pulev and mixing in more right hands to the body.
Kovalev dominated most of the eighth round, courtesy of his jab, but faltered towards the end. Pulev connected on a right hand that seemed to hurt a visibly fatigued Kovalev.
In the seventh round, Pulev threw an elbow that landed across Kovalev’s cheek, staggering the Russian Kovalev momentarily. Kovalev continued to work his jab effectively but he took more punishment from Pulev this round than in the previous ones.
Kovalev and Pulev opened up a bit more in the sixth. Kovalev had the better of the exchanges. Referee Raul Caiz Jr. briefly halted the fight because Kovalev’s shoes needed to be re-tied. Kovalev continued to land his jab, which opened up a cut under the right eye of Pulev.
In the fifth round, Kovalev continued to stick the jab in Pulev’s face, while throwing the occasional right to the body. Pulev managed to land a solid two-punch combination but otherwise landed mostly cuffing blows on the inside.
Kovalev boxed Pulev in the fourth round. Pulev could not avoid Kovalev’s jabs, and swelling began to form under his right eye as well. Pulev got in a right hand over one of Kovalev’s jabs.
Kovalev began landing some bigger punches in the third round. A right hand midway through caught Pulev’s attention. Kovalev followed up with a pair of hooks. Noticeable swelling began to form under Pulev’s left eye. Both exchanged hard hooks and right hands.
In the second round, Kovalev repeatedly beat Pulev to the punch. A right lead landed clean for Pulev. Kovalev varied his punches, shooting his right hand down to the body. A left hook from Kovalev pushed Pulev back on his heels. Pulev’s lone moment of success in the round occurred when he countered with a left hook of his own that momentarily threw Kovalev off his balance. Kovalev bested Pulev in the final 30 seconds, landing several clean, unanswered punches.
Pulev came out aggressive in the opening round but landed nothing of note. Eventually, Kovalev was able to keep Pulev at bay with his jab and keep the fight at his preferred distance.