Opening Bell: Kovalev reassessment
FRISCO, Texas -- As recently as 2016, Sergey Kovalev, then with three major light heavyweight world title belts and an impressive resume that included lopsided wins against Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal (twice), was viewed by most as an unstoppable force and one of boxing's elite pound-for-pound talents. Even after he lost an extremely controversial decision and his belts to the undefeated lock future Hall of Famer Andre Ward in their first fight in November 2016, Kovalev was still very highly regarded.
But the view of Kovalev's future career changed dramatically in June 2017 when he faced Ward in an immediate rematch in which he was stopped in the eighth round. Some argued that the stoppage was unfair because there were punches in the closing sequence that strayed below the belt. But the reality was that Kovalev had been broken mentally long before those punches, and physically by a right hand earlier in the round. Low blows or not, Kovalev essentially quit against Ward, and whether he would ever be a force again remained to be seen. I certainly didn't think so and I was definitely not alone.
Promoter Kathy Duva of Main Events brought him back safely and properly. He got two gimme fights -- a second-round knockout of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy for one of the belts Ward vacated upon his September 2017 retirement and a seventh-round knockout in a defense against Igor Mikhalkin last March.
When it came time for his second defense this past August, Kovalev was matched with the talented and undefeated Eleider "Storm" Alvarez. This was a real fight, but Kovalev was still the heavy favorite and looked on his way to victory halfway through the bout.
Then came the disastrous seventh round in which Alvarez, not a big puncher by any means, scored three punishing knockdowns for the upset knockout victory.
Kovalev then did what many fighters did when they lose. He made excuses, or so it sounded. He called the loss "an accident" and said he overtrained, a line he had used after losing to Ward.
He also changed trainers for the third time in five fights, as he went into the rematch with Alvarez on Saturday night at the Ford Center at The Star because the loss had to be the trainer's fault, not his. I was not alone in predicting another Alvarez victory.
The prevailing thought was that Kovalev (33-3-1, 28 KOs), at 35, was slowing down. That he had some hard fights. That his admission of drinking too much was an issue. That mentally he was shattered from the Ward and Alvarez knockouts. Going into the rematch, he surely must have been distracted by the felony assault charge that could land him in prison for four years.
As it turned out, none of that mattered. He not only defeated Alvarez (24-1, 12 KOs) by unanimous decision -- 120-108, 116-112 and 116-112 -- he looked pretty good doing it.
He didn't come close to scoring one of the devastating knockouts that earned him his "Krusher" nickname, but he outpunched, outthrew and outhustled Alvarez in a performance he credited to the work that new trainer Buddy McGirt and strength and conditioning coach Teddy Cruz did with him.
McGirt and Cruz helped resurrect the career of the late Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti in the early 2000s and they were brought in to do the same with Kovalev. It was a move Duva, who also had promoted Gatti, said she wanted Kovalev to make a few fights ago. It looks like it was the right call.
This was a huge win for Kovalev, one that saved his career (assuming he doesn't serve jail time), because a loss would have rendered him as an opponent with a good name. Now he's still the biggest name in the division, has a world title and, because of the deal Main Events made before the fight with Top Rank, the door is open for major unification fights with world champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk, titlist Artur Beterbiev or super middleweight titlist Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez, who plans to move up in weight for his next fight.
Ward was ringside for Kovalev-Alvarez II, calling the fight as an ESPN analyst. He and Kovalev never much cared for each other during the acrimonious buildup to their fights, but Ward gave him credit for his performance.
"Obviously, stylistically, he looked a lot better (in the rematch with Alvarez) because of whatever he and Buddy have been working on," Ward told ESPN at ringside after the bout. "Working smarter, not harder, in camp translated in the ring, and I think the way that he took punches and responded was impressive. Alvarez had moments where he tried to press the action. He landed a couple of big shots, but Kovalev never let him steal the play and that's why Kovalev was allowed to box and look the way that he looked."
Ward and I agreed that Kovalev will never turn back the clock to his pre-Ward form but that writing him off was wrong and that he still has something left for big fights.
"He's never going to regain that [form from earlier in his career]," Ward said. "When you go through what he went through in our two fights, when you quit like that, there's a piece of you that's always left back there, but he's still good enough to deal with a lot of light heavyweights in the division. He's in every one of those fights [against the other top opponents]. He can win every single one of them. Will he? I don't know, but he can. He has enough left in the tank. He is getting older, but if he boxes like he did tonight, he's going to be hard to deal with.
"Again, there's a piece of him that's still back there in Las Vegas from our second fight, still back there in Las Vegas from our first fight and still back there [in Atlantic City, New Jersey] from his first fight with Alvarez. You don't just whisk over that. What he still has left is enough to deal with a lot of people in the division. He's earned it."
Fights you might have missed
Saturday at Tokyo
Junior lightweight Kenichi Ogawa (23-1, 17 KOs) W10 Roldan Aldea (12-7-1, 6 KOs), scores: 99-92, 98-92, 97-93. In December 2017, Ogawa won a heavily disputed split decision over Tevin Farmer to win a vacant junior lightweight world title in Las Vegas. However, Ogawa, 31, of Japan, tested positive for a banned substance, was stripped of the title, had the result of the bout changed to a no contest and was suspended for one year. With the suspension lifted, he returned for his first fight in 14 months to face journeyman Aldea and cruised to the shake-off-the-rust victory over the game 24-year-old Filipino southpaw, who lost his third decision in a row.
Friday at Rochester, N.Y.
Super middleweight DeAndre Ware (13-1-2, 8 KOs) W10 Ronald Ellis (15-1-2, 10 KOs), scores: 96-94 (twice), 95-95. In a mild upset that served as the headliner on Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation," Ward, 31, of Toledo, Ohio, shook off an eight-round decision loss to prospect Cem Kilic in September and took a majority decision from the taller and longer Ellis, 29, of Lynn, Massachusetts. Ware pressed the action from the outset, and though Ellis threw more punches, Ware was a bit more effective with his shots. From the fourth round on, Ellis seemed to have an issue with his right hand, which he has had issues with in previous fights.
In the opening bout, lightweight Will Madera (13-0-2, 6 KOs), 28, of Albany, New York, scored an upset eight-round decision win over Thomas Mattice (13-1-1, 10 KOs), 28, of Cleveland, via scores of 78-74, 77-75 and 77-75. In another bout on the card, light heavyweight Dominic Wade (19-1, 13 KOs), 28, of Largo, Maryland, fought for the first time in nearly three years since being starched by then-middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin in the second round in April 2016. Wade scored two knockdowns and knocked out Martin Fidel Rios (23-19-4, 13 KOs), 26, of Argentina, with a left hook at 1 minute, 48 seconds of the first round.
Thursday at Alpine, Calif.
Junior bantamweight Aston Palicte (25-2-1, 21 KOs) KO2 Jose Martinez (20-1-2, 13 KOs), title eliminator. In the first card of Roy Jones Jr. Boxing Promotions' three-year deal for up to 72 cards to be streamed by UFC Fight Pass, Palicte, 28, of the Philippines, earned another shot at four-division titlist Donnie Nietes. They fought to a draw for a vacant belt in September and Nietes went on to win the vacant title in December. Now he'll have to face Palicte again in a mandatory defense after Palicte made quick work of Martinez, 26, of Puerto Rico. Palicte dropped Martinez with an overhand right in the second round and then dropped him again with the same shot moments later. He beat the count, but after Palicte unleashed a flurry of unanswered punches, referee Raul Caiz Jr. stopped the fight at 2 minutes, 18 seconds.