Sergey Kovalev was smiling as he finished a workout with trainer Abror Tursunpulatov ahead of Kovalev's WBO light heavyweight championship fight against Eleider Alvarez on Saturday in Atlantic City. It will be Kovalev's third fight under the guidance of Tursunpulatov, after Kovalev parted ways with his previous trainer, John David Jackson, after back-to-back losses to Andre Ward.
"I'm happy that we're working together because he has helped me a lot," Kovalev said. "When I came to America, I came with all my amateur baggage. When I lost twice, I lost because of that amateur baggage and because of my coach. He was my coach but he didn't really work with me. He was like a passenger in the car and I was driving. Now I'm the passenger and my coach is the driver. [Tursunpulatov] sets up my workouts every day and tells me what I should do and what I shouldn't do. I'm happy."
Over the past year, Kovalev has settled into a new process after cutting ties with Jackson -- a change he needed after his second loss to Ward. Kovalev was pushing towards that change even before making the move towards a new trainer, as Jackson has since said Kovalev was hardheaded and wanted to run his own camp.
"I listen to the advice if it's the right advice," Kovalev said. "I can hear what he's saying, but if the coach is telling me I had a good round or didn't have a good round, believe me, I understand myself how the round was. I have a filter when it comes to advice and my ears don't hear bad advice. [Jackson] didn't give me good advice, but I'm happy now with my coach, and it's really important that we speak the same language. That's so important that we understand each other 100 percent. I understand everything he's telling me, the idea of what he wants from me. It's easier when you have that understanding."
While Kovalev's English has improved greatly since his first fight in the United States nine years ago, he still struggled understanding what Jackson wanted him to do -- and that language barrier played a factor as well, he said, in failed working relationships with his previous trainers, Don Turner and Abel Sanchez.
"When I came to America and worked with Don Turner and then Abel Sanchez and then John David Jackson, I never felt a connection," Kovalev said. "They didn't really work with me personally. It felt like they clocked in and clocked out. There was no connection. It also hurt that I didn't really understand English, especially when I first got here, so I didn't have a connection outside of the drills they told me to do. What I knew as an amateur is what I did in the ring as a professional, and I think that led to my two losses, but I think I'm in a better place now thanks to my trainer."
Kovalev's two losses to Ward are the only blemishes on his resume (32-2-1), but he is finally at peace with how those two fights turned out because they not only led him to Tursunpulatov, but a renewed energy for boxing that simply wasn't there last year going into his rematch with Ward.
"I thank God for my two fights against Andre Ward," Kovalev said. "It changed something inside of me and around me. I changed my team and my coach. Now I'm writing the next chapter of my boxing career, and it's going to be a very successful chapter."
As he prepares for his third fight since his loss to Ward last year, he still vividly remembers telling his manager, Egis Klimas, that everything had to change as they left Las Vegas. He needed to hit the rest button after the worst fight of his career.
"The next day after the second fight against Ward, I knew I had to change my coach," Kovalev said. "My coach didn't help me. I'm a different fighter than I was then. The fight would be different if it happened today. The second fight, I was mentally broke. I wasn't ready for the second fight. I didn't train for four months after the first fight, and I didn't really start to train for the rematch until two months before the fight. I was mentally broken. I wanted to kick his ass after the first loss, but everyone told me I wasn't ready for the rematch and when it came time to get ready for the rematch, I felt alone and I was killed mentally."
While Kovalev thinks a third fight with Ward would turn out differently, he isn't holding his breath that Ward will come out of retirement. He has, for now anyway, closed the book on that chapter of his career as he looks forward to Saturday's fight with Alvarez and perhaps two or three more championship fights by the end of next year in the hopes of unifying the light heavyweight championship.
"I don't care if [Ward] comes back or not, I'm not looking to fight him again," Kovalev said. "It's history. I'm still fighting and he's retired. My goal is to unify all the titles; that's no secret to anybody out there that I want to be the undisputed champion. That's my goal, and I'm going to fight for it until I get it.
"In my head, I have an idea of what I want to do. I don't want to look past Alvarez because he's a big test for me, but after I get a victory over him I'm looking [for] an unification bout. In my mind, I have a painting of the schedule for a tournament to unify the championships by next year. I see who the champions are fighting next and when I can fight them."
If all goes as scheduled in Kovalev's mind, he will beat Alvarez on Saturday and perhaps next fight the winner of the Dmitry Bivol-Isaac Chilemba WBA light heavyweight title matchup taking place on the undercard. As Kovalev talked about being in the best shape of his career and being an undisputed champion next year at 36, he reached into his gym bag and showed a book given to him by his promoter, Kathy Duva.
It was titled "Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age" and touches on athletes reaching their prime in their 30s.
"I really like this book," Kovalev, flipping through pages he had highlighted and underlined. "I feel great. I think this next chapter of my career will be the best one."