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Light-heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev punched his ticket to the biggest fight of his career by knocking out unheralded underdog Blake Caparello in the second round on Saturday in Ovation Hall at the Revel Casino Hotel.
Known as "Krusher," Kovalev needed to retain his 175-pound world title in order to preserve a November unification fight with 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins - a match signed only on Friday afternoon during his HBO fighter meeting - giving Saturday's outing more urgency than a typical title defence.
Kovalev, who retained his world title for the third time in front of 1,603 fans, did it in blowout fashion after surviving a trip to the canvas in the first round.
Caparello did not do much in the first round, but he did land a straight left hand that dropped an off-balance Kovalev, who had been walking right to him but did not appear hurt by the shot.
"My life flashed before my eyes, but it was obvious that he was off balance," Kovalev promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events said. "When I saw him go down in the first round I thought, 'That's a loss of focus.' Think about the pressure tonight."
Kovalev said he wasn't feeling any pressure because of the Hopkins fight, however. "I didn't think about Bernard Hopkins tonight. I was focused on this fight," he said. "It is very important. A big step for me. If I do not win the fight there is no fight with Bernard Hopkins."
In the second round, Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs), the much stronger fighter, dropped the overmatched Caparello three times. A right hand to the body caused the first knockdown and Caparello (19-1-1, 6 KOs) never seemed to recover. He got up at the count of eight, but he was visibly in pain.
"That was devastating, that body shot," said Lou DiBella, Caparello's promoter. "I think that a great boxer like Hopkins has a chance, but Kovalev is a devastating puncher. Kovalev has dynamite in his gloves."
Moments after Caparello, a 27 year old Australian southpaw fighting in the United States for the second consecutive time, rose from the first knockdown, Kovalev bucked him with a straight right hand and referee Sparkle Lee ruled a knockdown, seemingly because his knee touched the canvas. It hardly mattered because he went down again a few seconds later under a powerful hail of punches as Lee called off the fight at 1 minute 47 seconds, giving Kovalev his ninth knockout in a row.
"That's the 'Krusher.' That's how he got his name," Duva said.
Said Kovalev: "It was not a real knockdown. He got me off balance. But when I got him in the liver I felt I can finish the fight. Why not? This was not a surprise."
When the fight was over, few were particularly interested in what went down between Kovalev and Caparello. It was all about Kovalev and Hopkins, who was ringside and even joined Kovalev during his post-fight interview on HBO.
"He's very smart. He's very sneaky. He's very experienced," Kovalev said of Hopkins, who will turn 50 two months after the fight. "I am surprised he is almost 50 years old. But my next fight is against Bernard Hopkins and I am very happy. It's a big fight, interesting fight. I was surprised he said yes. It is one of my dreams to fight him."
The fight, likely to be November 8 either at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City or the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, came together quickly - and in a bit of a surprise - on Friday, after only a little more than a day of negotiations between Duva and Oscar De La Hoya and Eric Gomez of Golden Boy Promotions, Hopkins' promoter.
Negotiations began on Thursday and the deal was signed Friday afternoon. Hopkins had until 5pm on Friday to sign for a unification fight, or the IBF - which sanctions one of the belts Hopkins holds - would have ordered his mandatory defence against unknown Nadjib Mohammedi of France. The IBF allows unification bouts to trump mandatory defences, but only if they are signed before the deadline for the mandatory defence.
Many thought Hopkins would next take on champion Adonis Stevenson, who left HBO and a Kovalev deal in March to go to Showtime for the express purpose of getting a fall fight with Hopkins, who had been fighting on that network. Stevenson won a tune-up fight in May but also wound up being sued - along with promoter Yvon Michel, adviser Al Haymon and others - by Main Events for backing out of what Duva said was a verbal agreement for the Stevenson-Kovalev bout. Main Events also sued Golden Boy, claiming it interfered with its Stevenson-Kovalev deal.
Although the Stevenson-Hopkins fight was also in discussions, Hopkins signed for the fight with Kovalev, bringing him back to HBO after the network had banned all Golden Boy Promotions fighters following Hopkins' win against Tavoris Cloud on the network in March 2013.
"The Kovalev side, Kathy Duva, we got the deal done," Hopkins said. "It was a deal that didn't take a lot of posturing or egos. It was an easy deal to do based on two people, two companies, working to get the deal done, and the better deal was to be back here on HBO for a lot of reasons. If you really look at the whole scheme of things, I might have helped a couple of people not have a lawsuit against them."
Hopkins, who will put his two belts up against Kovalev's one, said before the fight that he was rooting for a "devastating Kovalev knockout" and explained how he came to finalise the Kovalev fight rather than the one against Stevenson.
"One side was aggressive [Kovalev's] and the other side was a little bit lackadaisical [Stevenson's]. One guy had a real aggressive approach. The other one had a casual approach," Hopkins said. "I don't know if that was miscalculated or somebody's bad day. Maybe they overslept, but eventually I realised that I want to be undisputed light-heavyweight champion of the world. That's what I set out to do, and that's what I'm going to do, but I needed some cooperation."
Hopkins got it from Main Events and Kovalev.
"It's a fight that Sergey wants very much," Duva said. "Sergey has said from the start he wants to fight the best, wants to be in big fights. We couldn't be more happy."
Kovalev stuck it to Stevenson for ditching a fight with him and then also losing out on the Hopkins fight.
"I'm very happy. I told everybody about Stevenson after my last fight that he is a piece of s***. Everybody knows it," Kovalev said.
The 31 year old said he would not try for a knockout against Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs), an all-time great defensive fighter who has given himself the nickname of "The Alien" - because what other human could still fight at such a high level at age 49 and in his 26th year as a pro?
"I'm not going to try for a knockout. We will just see in the ring," Kovalev said. "I'm not a talker. I'm just a fighter. Who knows? We'll see in the ring. He can teach me because he is very experienced. I am not scared to fight him, even to lose to him. He's an 'Alien.' But I am the 'Krusher' and I will send him to Mars."
This article originally appeared on ESPN.com