By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Maybe it’s because Vyacheslav Shabranskyy knows Andre Ward was the best boxer in the world at that time.
Perhaps it’s because he has lost a bout by knockout, too, and thus realizes it can happen to any fighter if he isn’t properly prepared or careful or, worse yet, both.
Whatever his rationale, Shabranskyy doesn’t consider Sergey Kovalev damaged goods now that he has been stopped by Ward. The Ukrainian contender expects to encounter a hungry, vicious Kovalev when they fight for the vacant WBO light heavyweight title Saturday night in The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
“He’s still a dangerous fighter,” Shabranskyy said prior to a press conference Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. “Yeah, he lost. But now he’s more dangerous than before because he lost.”
The 34-year-old Kovalev indeed is eager to not only regain the WBO 175-pound championship he lost to Ward, but to restore his reputation. The Russian knockout artist’s critics contend he was on the verge of quitting in his rematch with Ward, even before Ward’s blows below Kovalev’s belt prompted referee Tony Weeks to stop their second bout in the eighth round June 17 in Las Vegas.
Shabranskyy didn’t directly answer when asked whether he thinks Kovalev quit. His trainer, Manny Robles, suspects the end was near that night, even if Ward hadn’t hit Kovalev low.
“That’s a touchy subject, but personally, [I think] it was a matter of time,” Robles said. “It was just a question of time for the referee to come in and stop the fight, because I noticed that prior to the referee stopping the fight, he was starting to deteriorate. … I feel the referee stepped in at the right time. Nobody knows where his mind was, what he was thinking, the type of camp he had, preparation, etcetera. And they’re human.”
That said, like Shabranskyy, Robles doesn’t view Kovalev as an easy mark now that he has been stopped by the retired Ward (32-0, 16 KOs).
“My opinion of Kovalev has not changed,” Robles said. “Kovalev is a great, great fighter. He’s a great ambassador to the sport and we’re expecting the best Kovalev. And that’s the reason why we went out and got the best possible sparring we could with [Dmitry] Bivol and [David] Benavidez. We’re treating this fight for what it is, a world title fight.”
The scheduled 12-round bout between Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs) and Shabranskyy (19-1, 16 KOs) will headline HBO’s “World Championship Boxing” tripleheader Saturday night (10 p.m. ET).
The first two fights are scheduled for 10 rounds.
The co-feature will match light heavyweights Sullivan Barrera (20-1, 14 KOs) and Felix Valera (15-1, 13 KOs). The opener of the telecast will pit Jason Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs) against Yuriorkis Gamboa (27-2, 17 KOs) in a super featherweight fight.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.