From Russia With Love: Kovalev, Golovkin & the Rise of the Eastern European Boxer
By Tyson Bruce
This weekend, from the Boardwalk Hall and televised on HBO, yet another Eastern European boxer, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev, will attempt to stake his claim at greatness by taking on the legendary and ageless Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins. This comes just two weeks after Gennady Golovkin turned in a star-making performance against veteran Marco Antonio Rubio. It seems like every other month some new fighter from Eastern Europe is putting his name on the boxing landscape.
Just look at how many ex-Soviet block fighters are now top ranked contenders or champions: Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine), Kubrat Pulev (Bulgaria), Gennady Golovkin (Kazakstan), Sergey Kovalev (Russia), Vasyl Lomachenko (Ukraine), Artur Beterbiev (Russia), Victor Postol (Ukraine) and Ruslan Provodnikov (Russia).
And that’s just naming a few guys that have already cracked the top ten: many more prospects and star amateurs could make major waves at any time.
It left me contemplating: where boxing would be at this moment if not for this new influx of talent?
The most difficult task these fighters face doesn’t seem to be their fighting ability, but rather capturing a fan base in the absence of a large ethnic following in North America. Boxing has always been an ethnically driven sport that capitalizes on patriotism and racial tensions to sell fights. This is a path of least resistance strategy in a sport that is cursed by a lack of imagination when it comes to marketing fighters.
Golovkin and his promoter Tom Loeffler may have cracked the enigma code with the “Mexican Style” campaign in Carson, California for the Rubio fight. It was a smash success—selling out the Stub Hub Center and doing the second highest television figures of the year.
The event itself overshadowed what was a fairly uninspiring matchup. Witnessing thousands of Mexican fans wearing tri-colored “GGG” hats/shirts and cheering with a deafening fervor, it was obvious that a new boxing star was being born. With the smile and unintentional comedy of a young Manny Pacquiao and the terrifying aura of a prime Mike Tyson, Golovkin is quickly becoming the face of a more globalized boxing market. Like Tyson in the 80s, the fans didn’t appear to care who he was fighting, but were instead drawn by the desire to see something simultaneously violent and exciting.
The only potential hitch in Golovkin’s ascendency is that at thirty-two years of age, time is not on his side. With top opponents avoiding him like an infectious disease, there is a lurking possibility that his best years could be behind him by the time the top dogs work up the gumption to face him in the ring. You get the sense that Golovkin is just one major fight away from exploding into the mainstream consciousness of sports fans. Lets hope that time comes sooner rather than later.
Within the last two years, Sergey Kovalev has become a favorite amongst boxing’s hardcore fan base. His fighting style and menacing personality stand in stark contrast to the affable Golovkin, but comes with its own appeal. Kovalev is a scary and mysterious figure that appears to take great pleasure in inflicting vicious pain on his opponents. He makes thrusting motions when his opponents quiver on the canvas and wears a shirt that says, “I will crush you” to public events.
Kovalev is probably the hardest puncher in the entire sport (Wladimir Klitschko might argue — ed) and is the only fighter I can recall breaking someone’s ribs and scoring a knockout with a jab to the body—as he did against the hapless Cedric Agnew and Blake Caparello. He certainly hasn’t faced the quality of opposition that other top fighters have, but the fact that he obliterated Nathan Cleverly, who had never been down as pro, in just four rounds speaks volumes about his punching power. Much like Golovkin, this has caused top opponents to become petrified of fighting him. The lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson switched networks and possibly committed career suicide all in an effort not to have to fight Kovalev.
The perception within boxing circles is that Kovalev is a pure puncher without the overall skills of a Golovkin or Klitschko. This could be a dramatic misconception. Golovkin’s style has been morphed from the traditional standup European style into a hybrid American/Mexican style that is very familiar to fans. Kovalev boxes in a more traditional Russian style that consists of more straight punches and an upright stance. This certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess great guile and skills though. His fights are so brutal and short that it’s impossible not to fixate on his power, however, upon closer inspection he does some very clever things in the ring.
Kovalev is not the traditional puncher-pressure fighter that we’ve become accustomed to watching. While a guy like Antonio Margarito or Omar Figueroa tactlessly come forward and try to overwhelm opponents with aggression and power, Kovalev is a great deal more thoughtful in his approach.
Everything Kovalev does comes off the jab, which he throws with great power from a variety of angles. Kovalev is also highly proficient at shifting—switching stances to create more power—a lost art among modern fighters. Although he has one-punch knockout power he always punches in combination, throwing well over the light heavyweight average. He cuts off the ring very well and is defensively responsible after he punches, a product of nearly three hundred amateur bouts. Calling him a one-dimensional puncher because he has a ninety percent knockout ratio is simply intellectually lazy.
This point was comically brought home by his trainer John David Jackson who stated that Kovalev, known as more of a boxer in the amateurs, was concerned about turning pro because he didn’t think he hit hard enough.
What can legitimately be questioned about Kovalev is his ability to take a punch and his stamina over the course of a long bout. Kovalev has never been past eight rounds as a pro, and that was a lackluster split decision victory over journeyman Darnell Boone. Another alarming and much less discussed issue with Kovalev is his proclivity for suffering cuts. Kovalev suffered massive cuts against Cedric Agnew and Cleverly despite hardly being touched. In a more grueling and competitive fight this could be detrimental.
It’s fitting that a terrifying and avoided fighter like Kovalev will get his audition into the big time against the least scarred fighter in the sport in Bernard Hopkins. At forty-nine years of age and with twenty plus years of ring experience, Hopkins is as experienced as Kovalev is inexperienced. Despite his age, Hopkins remains one of the most gifted defensive fighters in the sport. Hopkins has made a career off exposing offensive-oriented fighters, as witnessed by his classic destructions of Felix Trinidad and Kelly Pavlik. Hopkins hones in a fighter’s best weapon and uses it against him—its almost impossible to not look ridiculous fighting “the Alien.”
If Kovalev were to bulldoze Hopkins–something that no one has even came close to doing—it would instantly make him one of boxing’s premier stars. Kovalev can take solace in the fact that the bookies have him a 5-2 favourite to do just that. Though Hopkins is the far more experienced and proven fighter, Kovalev presents a much more difficult fight than any of his opponents since the Chad Dawson fight. Jean Pascal, Beibut Shumenov, Tavoris Cloud and Karo Murat were all solid fighters in their own right, but present no where near the kind of physical challenge he figures to receive from Kovalev.
Golovkin seems well on his way to becoming a star because of his continued destruction of opponents, unique charisma and successful courting of Mexican and Mexican American fan bases. He could be the fighter who opens the door for a whole new generation of fighters from ex-Soviet block countries that do not have the benefit of having a history of professional sports to rely on. He could lay a marketing template that simply wasn’t present for the previous generation of Eastern European fighters like Vasily Jirov and Kostya Tyszu, who sadly went largely unnoticed by the American sporting public for most if not all of their careers.
What then for Kovalev, who is forging his own destiny at the same time?
His golden ticket appears to be fear. America, with its pronounced notion of exceptionalism, has always been afraid and simultaneously curious with everything that is “Russian.”
If Kovalev keeps hip thrusting and blowing people away, then Joe the Plumber might just find an Ivan Drago personified in the Russian light-heavyweight. There is a warped charm in this which seems perfectly in keeping with the culture of boxing.
As with Golovkin, however, future success depends upon Kovalev’s continued destruction of opponents.