By Cliff Rold
One year ago at this time, Sergey Kovalev was a week from his first loss, convinced he was really still undefeated.
Saturday night (HBO, 10 PM EST), Kovalev enters knowing he was defeated for the first time. This is life after Andre Ward, the debated decision loss and the stoppage suffered in pursuit of revenge.
This is also a fight for boxing life. A loss for Kovalev would be as devastating as it would be life changing for Vyachelsav Shabranskyy. This battle between Russia and the Ukraine will decide who snags the WBO light heavyweight belt left vacant upon Ward’s retirement.
It will also decide who gets to matter as the immediate future of the 175 lb. division is determined.
Let’s go the report card.
?Current Titles: None
Previous Titles: WBO Light Heavyweight (2013-16, 8 Defenses); WBA Super Light Heavyweight (2014-16, 4 Defenses); IBF Light Heavyweight (2014-16, 4 Defenses)
Weight: 174 ¾ lbs.
?Hails from: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Hails from Russia)
Record: 30-2-1, 26 KO, 1 KOBY
Record in Major Title Fights: 9-2, 7 KO, 1 KOBY
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Gabriel Campillo TKO3; Nathan Cleverly TKO4; Bernard Hopkins UD12; Jean Pascal TKO8, RTD7; Andre Ward L12, TKO by 8
?Current Titles/Previous Titles: None
Height: 6’3 ½
Weight: 174 lbs.
?Hails from: Los Angeles, California (Hails from Ukraine)
Record: 19-1, 16 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: First Title Opportunity
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: None
Pre-Fight: Speed – Kovalev B+; Shabranskyy B-
Pre-Fight: Power – Kovalev A; Shabranskyy B+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Kovalev B; Shabranskyy C-
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Kovalev A-; Shabranskyy B
If there’s one thing both fans and Kovalev can like about this one, its Shabranskyy always showing up to fight. It’s what allowed him to pull off what was an upset at the time of Yunieski Gonzalez in 2015. It’s what got him drummed by Sullivan Barrera three fights ago.
Shabranskyy can employ some head movement on occasion but he’s an offensive minded fighter who often forgets to duck. It’s meant a quick accumulation of miles. While younger and less experienced than Kovalev, his body may already be more worn. Look at footage of him a couple of years ago versus against Barrera or even his last fight with Todd May.
Shabranskyy looks slower, less reflexive, and increasingly easy to hit. If he has a saving grace, it’s that he still packs a wallop. He had Barrera down between his own multiple trips to the floor. Since June 2014, only one of his wins has gone the distance. Also assume he will be hungry and could be even more fired up about the perception of vulnerability.
Kovalev could still tell himself he was really undefeated before the Ward rematch. Fans and pundits could debate the point; he didn’t have to. Now, despite fighting well again for much of the rematch (ahead on one card and only a point behind on the others before the end), he knows what his limits are. The mental effect of that loss could be a factor here.
If there is a hangover, a rugged battler willing to take a shot to land one might be the wrong cure for it. He could also be the perfect rehab assignment. On paper, it shouldn’t be the case. Kovalev is better technically, possessing a superior jab, better defense, better sense of space, and what must be assume to still be a nasty right hand.
If one was going to script a way to being Kovalev back, this looks more like smart rehab. It’s an opponent who should make a good show without derailing the intended outcome. Shabranskyy is a fun television fighter but he’s also a too willing target. Kovalev may yet have ghosts lingering from the Ward rivalry but if they surface it will probably be in another fight. His jab will establish the range early and Kovalev should begin to feel confident after a round or two that he’s still himself. When he does, the right hand is going to punish Shabranskyy. The pick here is Kovalev by stoppage inside eight rounds or so.
Report Card Picks 2017: 42-17
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]