Sergey Kovalev, looking to shake off back-to-back losses to Andre Ward, made a triumphant return to the ring, blowing away an overmatched Vyacheslav "Slava" Shabranskyy to win a vacant light heavyweight world title Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"I did it. I worked really hard. Mentally, physically, I'm back," Kovalev said, his new belt slung over his shoulder.
Kovalev regained one of the 175-pound world titles he lost to Ward by controversial decision last November. Ward knocked out Kovalev in the eighth round of their rematch on June 17, and when he retired in September, he vacated his three titles. One of them now belongs to Kovalev again, and he made it look easy regaining it.
Kovalev savaged Shabranskyy, who had little to offer to the crowd of 3,307.
Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) sure didn't look like there was any hangover from his losses to Ward. He scored two knockdowns in the opening round, drilling Shabranskyy (19-2, 16 KOs) with powerful right hands. The first knockdown came on a flush shot with a little over a minute left in the round. Then, with Shabranskyy still seemingly unsteady, Kovalev landed two more hard rights and a left for another knockdown.
With a minute to go in the second round, Kovalev, 34, a Russia native fighting out of Los Angeles, hammered Shabranskyy with a right hand to the side of the head for the third knockdown of the fight.
Shabranskyy, 30, who is from Ukraine but lives in Los Angeles, was shaky but continued to fight, and Kovalev was all over him. He was teeing off on Shabranskyy with right hands and had him reeling into the ropes. Then, when he badly hurt him yet again, this time with a clean left to the head, referee Harvey Docked stepped in and waved off the fight at 2 minutes, 36 seconds.
Shabranskyy's two-fight winning streak came to an end. His other loss was by seventh-round knockout to top contender Sullivan Barrera, who was offered the fight against Kovalev but turned it down, opening the door for Shabranskyy to get the opportunity.
Kovalev was overwhelming with his offense. According to CompuBox statistics, he landed 50 of 113 punches (44 percent), and Shabranskyy landed only 16 of 71 (23 percent). Kovalev closed the show by landing 25 of 36 power shots in the second round.
The result was as expected. Few gave Shabranskyy a serious shot to win or even to be that competitive. But nobody really knew how Kovalev would be in his return to the ring following two losses in a row with his aura of invincibility having been shattered.
Kovalev admitted he went through tough times following the losses, especially after the rematch with Ward, when many thought he quit.
He spent time this past summer at a monastery in Greece to clear his head and to prepare mentally and spiritually for his return to boxing and then he split with longtime trainer John David Jackson after their relationship had been on the rocks for recent fights.
He hired Uzbekistan's Abror Tursunpulatov, a complete unknown in this part of the world but a cornerman Kovalev said he felt comfortable with in part because Tursunpulatov speaks Russian, which Kovalev prefers in his corner even though he speaks English.
"You see the results," Kovalev said of working with Tursunpulatov for the first time. "It was good. I feel very comfortable with him. He tells me what to do and it works. Two heads are better that one."
Said Tursunpulatov: "We analyzed together what punches we thought would land the best and during the fight they were the punches that landed the best."
Now with the comeback win out of the way, Kovalev said he was looking forward to moving back into bigger fights.
"It's my goal to be the best in the division," Kovalev said. "Last fight I was stopped, it was a decision by the referee. Here tonight was great boxing for me and I love boxing and I am here to make great fights.
"I'm happy that the belts have different owners and it makes everything interesting and we can make good fights for boxing fans and also boxing history. We have a bunch of beltholders and we can now find out who is the best in the light heavyweight division."
Kovalev picked up one of the belts Ward vacated; Russia's Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), who was ringside, now has another; and Artur Beterbiev (12-0, 12 KOs), a two-time Russian Olympian who beat Kovalev twice in the amateur ranks, won the other on Nov. 11. And there is also lineal world champion Adonis Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs), who holds another title belt.
Kovalev has wanted to fight Montreal's Stevenson for years, but Stevenson has never appeared interested and has spent his four-year title reign feasting on lesser opponents. But Kovalev said he still wants that fight as well as anyone else with a belt.
"Adonis 'Chickenson' is on my list, but I am ready for any champion," Kovalev said. "Dmitry Bivol, Beterbiev, because this is very good for boxing. Let's do it. I'm ready."
According to Main Events promoter Kathy Duva, Kovalev could be back at Madison Square Garden for his first title defense on March 3 to headline another HBO card, with Bivol, whom Main Events works with, also making a defense on the undercard. Bivol's opponent could be mandatory challenger Barrera, who outpointed Felix Valera in the co-feature Saturday.