By Cliff Rold
The stars of the show are pretty clear.
That doesn’t make the winners certain.
This week has been as much about outside the ring wheeling and dealing as it has been the in-ring product. ESPN has expanded their investment in the sport via the partnership with Top Rank and Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury may be coming together amidst other promising rumors and developments. In contrast, the slow recession of HBO as the televised industry leader is on display in its lack of place in those headlines.
Saturday (10 PM EST) is a reminder that they’re still here with quality of their own. At light heavyweight, HBO remains well invested in the sport with an eye still toward the future. Ideally, the future for them would a showdown between WBO titlist Sergey Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KO) and WBA titlist Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KO).
A potential unification pairing between the two would match proven, powerful punchers in a crossroads match between a presently 35-year old Kovalev and 27-year old Bivol. It might not produce pay-per-view revenues, but it’s the sort of A-quality match that would be well in line with the better history of HBO boxing.
This weekend will give us an idea of whether that is a realistic direction and also exactly where each of the two favorites is in their career.
Bivol has a seasoned veteran in front of him that will allow consumers to do some comparison-shopping. 31-year old former title challenger Isaac Chilemba (25-5-2, 10 KO) lost three in a row before returning to the winner’s circle in his last fight. Two of those losses came to Kovalev and his opponent Saturday, Eleider Alvarez (23-0, 11 KO). Chilemba took both the distance.
The same can’t be said of the third of those consecutive defeats. Then up and coming Oleksandr Gvozdyk worked over and broke down Chilemba, forcing him to retire with a broken hand after eight rounds. Gvozdyk has won three more fights since and is poised for a mandatory shot at WBC and lineal titlist Adonis Stevenson.
Bivol already has a belt but his performance Saturday will inevitably be compared to those three. It’s an age-old trick in boxing. Before matching a newer face with the biggest names or other new top class talents, put them in with those fighters previous foes. The public imagination fills in the blanks from there.
To make it count, the best-case scenario is always to look better than those who came before. A point may come where beating Chilemba loses value for a fighter who is fresh into a title run; that point hasn’t arrived yet and Chilemba isn’t incapable of having a solid night.
It’s a place where an upset is unlikely but not unfathomable, though based on Bivol’s recent form it could be closer to the latter than it appears. A statement in this fight is a statement for Kovalev-Bivol sooner than later.
That is if we’re still talking about Kovalev as half of a unification battle after Saturday.
After years of being unable to secure a mandatory crack at Stevenson, Alvarez instead winds up with a title shot against the Russian knockout artist who has yet to show himself fully reassembled. Physically in two fights since a stoppage loss to Andre Ward, Kovalev has looked fine.
He hasn’t been in the ring with someone who pushes back yet.
For Kovalev, the sting of the Ward rivalry doesn’t sound like it’s gone away in myriad interviews since. He’s still lashing out. The rematch result clouds over what to many should be today a deadlocked rivalry. Kovalev was highly unlucky in the scoring of the first Ward fight, a close encounter that he had every right to feel he won; a close encounter that slipped away by a single point on all three judges cards.
Win that night and maybe there is no rematch.
Win that night and maybe Kovalev is talked about as a Hall of Fame lock.
He didn’t win.
Unofficial scorers who thought he did (and this scribe is among them) don’t count for much outside of historic robberies like the Whitaker-Chavez ‘draw.’ It’s the one that got away for Kovalev.
It doesn’t mean he can’t put a capper on his career. There is no shame in losing to a fighter as good as Ward and after two fairly soft rebuilding wins, he’s back in the thick of real top ten competition at 175 lbs. Alvarez isn’t a big puncher but neither was Ward. Alvarez has some skill, has never been stopped, and at 34 has to make his fortunes now. If Kovalev can win here, it’s affirmation that he’s still one of the best in his class.
That’s a point we assume for now based on everything that came before. This will be a proof of that.
He has to win first. If Kovalev faces some resistance here, and still pushes through, while Bivol also does his part, the whole of Saturday will be a win not just for the intended stars of the show but for HBO as well. Cards like this are most successful when they lead to something better.
If Sunday morning, speculation and anticipation are higher among fight fans for a Kovalev-Bivol showdown, all goals will have been achieved and we’ll have a new destination at light heavyweight.
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 [email protected]