LOS ANGELES -- Unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev perhaps is more talented than relatively unknown mandatory challenger Nadjib Mohammedi. Kovalev is a much more devastating puncher and also has a much deeper resume.
But nobody can say that Kovalev is hungrier than Mohammedi, a prohibitive underdog, who will get a crack at Kovalev's three world title belts on July 25 (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
"Even though Sergey might be stronger, and he might be bigger, and he might have been on the big stage a lot more than Nadjib has, there is one thing that I believe we have the edge in, and that is desire," Vince Caruso, Mohammedi's manager, said during his impassioned remarks at a news conference in a hotel conference room on Saturday afternoon to announce the bout.
"When you have been held down your whole life, your whole career, a career that started in 2005, and you have to fight in rooms that are smaller than this, with no TV coverage, no press, that is hard times. Nadjib Mohammedi has gone through hard times. ... He is a straight-ahead blood and guts fighter. There is nothing really special about him. His strength is his heart."
Caruso said Mohammedi's desire comes from the desperation to change his life circumstances.
"Show me a guy with heart who is sick and tired of being broke and sick and tired of getting the short end of the deal and I am going to show you a winner," Caruso said. "Nothing ever lifts adrenaline more than the desire to change your life. That is what we need to look at going in against this guy because he is a killer. He is No. 1, the big cheese. That is what we want. We want high risk because we want high reward."
It would indeed be a mammoth reward. Kovalev (27-0-1, 24 KOs), 32, a native of Russia who recently moved from South Florida to Los Angeles, has been a wrecking machine as he has knocked out 10 of his last 11 opponents.
Only the legendary Bernard Hopkins made it to the final bell in their November unification fight, but it was a shutout decision and Kovalev knocked him down and took his two belts in one of 2014's most significant fights.
Kovalev followed that virtuoso performance in March with a crowd-pleasing eighth-round knockout of former world champion Jean Pascal on his turf in Montreal.
Mohammedi (37-3, 23 KOs), 30, of France -- who has been knocked out inside two rounds in two of his losses -- has won 13 fights in a row and became Kovalev's mandatory opponent courtesy of a seventh-round knockout of Anatoliy Dudchenko in a mild upset in June.
"For me this is big a opportunity," said Mohammedi, who will be going into his third bout with trainer Abel Sanchez, who is best known as middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin's trainer but also used to train Kovalev. "I respect Sergey Kovalev but I don't come here for joke or for play or for game. I want to be world champion. I am not stupid. I know what you think about me. I am not naive. This fight is very, very difficult for me but I say it is very difficult for Sergey."
Main Events promoter Kathy Duva promoted the Mohammedi-Dudchenko fight and signed Mohammedi afterward, knowing he loomed for Kovalev.
"The truth is Nadjib came here last June as an opponent basically. He came here and won a fight he wasn't expected to win," she said. "He earned his place. He has taken advantage of this time to work with a great trainer in Abel Sanchez and believe me -- we are very well aware of it. With an awkward style and a great trainer, his great heart and drive, this is not going to be an easy night for anybody.
"Having said that, Sergey Kovalev is something very special, we all know that. To me he is exactly what boxing is supposed to be, somebody who goes out there and gives their all gives 1,000 percent every time. He keeps the crowd entertained. He keeps the fight exciting. He makes it fun to be there. That is why we tend to focus on him and his future. We don't mean it as an insult to anybody. That is what we have. It is called a star."
While Kovalev seeks bigger fights, Mohammedi is who he must deal with next.
"I am sure it is going to be very interesting fight. Why? Because Nadjib has very good and big motivation to be champion and my desire is to get (all) four titles," said Kovalev, who hopes to land an eventual unification fight with Adonis Stevenson, the lineal champion who also owns the one major alphabet belt Kovalev doesn't. "I think that will happen this year, that I fight a unification fight. (The) fight against Nadjib is for me next step. I am not going to say that I will (win). I will is words of trash talkers. I am going to show what I can (do) in the ring."
Kovalev was appointed as Stevenson's mandatory challenger by the WBC and a purse bid was ordered, but Duva announced they would not participate in the bidding process, hoping instead to make a deal with Stevenson -- but only as long as the fight would take place on HBO, which recently signed Kovalev to a contract extension; the Mohammedi bout is the first on the new deal. Stevenson's side, naturally, has rejected that idea, believing the fight should be shopped to the highest bidder, meaning Stevenson-Kovalev is unlikely in the near future.
As far as Caruso is concerned, it won't happen at all.
"With all due respect to Kathy, she talks about all these great future plans she has with Kovalev but I would have waited until this Mohammedi fight was in the books before you made any long-term plans," he said. "I know nobody gives us a chance and he is probably a 15-1 underdog. We are the dog but everybody on this team has overcome something.
"This guy (Mohammedi) has overcome the temptations of the mafia-ridden streets of France. He went into the food business and took care of his mother and his brothers and his sister. He worked hard. He wanted to become a professional fighter. Eleven years ago I was a junkie and I was in a Las Vegas rehab. I never thought I would be on the big stage again but I am. This team has a lot of desire. We are going to win this fight and we are going to win it with heart."