By Thomas Gerbasi
“We are a different breed,” Sergey Kovalev said.
The question asked of the WBO light heavyweight champion was about the current popularity of fighters like himself, Ruslan Providnikov, and Gennady Golovkin. The three hail from Eastern Europe, have varying commands of the English language, yet they all have become beloved pugilists in the United States.
And yeah, “different breed” pretty much covers it, because in a boxing world increasingly populated by those who run away from fights – both literally and figuratively – fighters like Kovalev only want to compete against the best and do so in a fashion that leaves fans screaming for more.
But in the case of the 31-year-old Chelyabinsk native nicknamed “Krusher” for the 23 knockouts he’s produced in 25 wins without a loss, his separation from the fistic flock goes beyond that.
Manager Egis Klimas saw it immediately. Sure, he had the requisite talent that comes with a 193-22 amateur record, but there was more to Kovalev, and for Kovalev, there was more to Lithuania’s Klimas.
“We understand where we grew up,” said the champion. “Mentally, we’re the same.”
“He had very good boxing skills, and he never was greedy,” Klimas adds. “He always took my advice and I knew where we were going, and in my mind, I had the road already.”
It wasn’t going to be an easy one, but they would travel it together. To this day, the two don’t have a signed contract, but their bond is airtight, and it’s survived the test of time and a business that has broken up families, let alone those not connected by blood.
Klimas’ plan? Keep his fighter busy, showcase him wherever and whenever he could, and eventually gain the interest of a top-level promoter. Sounds simple, but it’s not, and he needed a fighter like Kovalev to buy into the plan. He did.
“I dealt with a lot of fighters, and for me, it was always that when I called the fighter with a fight, the first question was ‘who is the opponent?’” Klimas recalled. “Then it was ‘how tall is he? How many fights does he have? How many amateur fights? Who trains him?’ and all of that. From Sergey, I never heard a single word. I just call him and say ‘we’re fighting two Saturdays from now.’”
Kovalev’s response? “What weight and where?”
“How can you not love a fighter like that?” Klimas laughed. It’s impossible not to, especially when he packs a punch like Kovalev does. Eventually, the two signed on with Kathy Duva and Main Events, and the world began catching on.
A 2013 destruction of Nathan Cleverly put Kovalev on the map and earned him a world title, and two successful title defenses followed. For diehard fans, the fight that needed to be made was between Kovalev and fellow knockout artist Adonis Stevenson, but that bout hit the skids. Disappointed but undaunted, Kovalev got back to the gym to prepare for his next title defense against Blake Caparello in August of this year.
As the bout drew near, rumblings began that future Hall of Famer was interested in a unification fight with Kovalev. Then those rumblings turned to reality.
“I was surprised that Hopkins called me to fight against him before the fight against Caparello,” Kovalev said. “I signed this contract one day before that fight. I was surprised then and I’m happy now.”
Kovalev rose from a flash knockdown in the first round to stop Caparello in the second, securing the Hopkins fight, which takes place this Saturday in Atlantic City. Almost as soon as the ink dried on the contract, everybody knew who Sergey Kovalev was, and that’s been a bit of an adjustment for him.
“It’s not very easy work fighting on this level because there’s a lot of attention on you,” he said. “There are a lot of questions, sometimes a lot of stupid questions (Laughs), and a lot of attention. But this is part of my job and without these things, boxing is not possible. So I have patience and this is like an additional workout of my mind and the practice of my English. Maybe this will help my English.”
The fact that he’s making the attempt is admirable enough, and while some questions go through Klimas for translation, Kovalev always insists on answering them himself in English. Add in a great sense of humor and frequent laughs, and Kovalev is the nicest guy in the world who can also punch your head into the third row. In other words, this Saturday’s fight is a star making turn for him if he can send the 49-year-old future Hall of Famer into retirement.
That’s a task easier said than done though, and while most agree that the pressure and power that Kovalev brings are the keys to beating “The Alien,” so many have tried and failed before that it’s like Hopkins puts his foes under a hypnotic spell before the opening bell sounds. When asked why no one has been able to definitively beat the Philadelphia great in years, Kovalev basically says that his peers’ past failures are none of his concern.
“I cannot say for everybody or for somebody else,” he said. “You need to ask the guys that fought him already. My goal is different. My goal is to get the win November 8 against Hopkins.”
To help get him there is a former opponent and coach of Hopkins in ex-world champ John David Jackson. Kovalev doesn’t talk about the day-to-day chats with Jackson about Hopkins, but he does say that a win would be a group effort, even though he’s the one in the ring with gloves on.
“What we’re doing in the gym is all for next week and this victory will be our victory, not just mine,” he said. “My manager is working on it, my trainer is working on it, I’m working on it, my friends and my sparring partners are all working on it, and we’re going to get the win.”
Just making it to this point shows the dedication of Kovalev to his craft and his dream. But if you needed any further proof, realize that he the only way he has seen his son Aleksandr, born on October 20, is through the wonders of modern technology.
“I didn’t see my son and my wife (Natalia) personally after the birth. I just saw my son in pictures and in video from Skype.”
A different breed indeed. But don’t think that the sacrifices made aren’t going to be worth it if Kovalev can defeat Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall. The fighter knows it too, so when asked what Saturday night will look like, his four-word response speaks volumes.
“I will be happy.”