By Eric Lunger
Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) returned Saturday night to the Madison Square Garden Theatre, defending his WBO World light heavyweight strap against fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs) in a twelve-round bout on HBO Championship Boxing. Kovalev, now age 34, was looking to continue his comeback in the division, after losing two tough fights to now-retired Andre Ward.
Photo Credit: HBO Boxing Twitter Accoun
Having dispatched Vyacheslav Shabranskyy with relative ease three months ago, Kovalev’s appeared to opt for a second tune-up against little-know Mikhalkin, who was making his first appearance in the United States. The challenger, a six-foot-one southpaw, came into the bout with a decent record, but no big names on his resume. Scoring only one knockout in his last eight outings, Mikhalkin would have to put on a boxing clinic in order to compete with the heavily-favored Kovalev.
Kovalev dominated the first round, landing stiff jabs and occasional power punches. Mikhalkin stayed behind his guard, and kept his hands home as though trying to gauge what exactly he had in front of him. The second was more of the same, as Kovalev landed hard shots for which his opponent has no answer. In a slightly more competitive third round, Mikhalkin found the range to land a few shots, but Kovalev continued to dictate the pace.
As the rounds wore on, Kovalev did not look particularly sharp, with some sloppy footwork marring his performance. Still, Kovalev staggered Mikhalkin in the fifth, but the challenger’s southpaw stance seemed to stymie the Champion. In the sixth, Kovalev opened a nasty cut under Mikhalkin’s right eye with a brutal left hand. In addition, Mikhalkin had a significant cut on the bridge of his nose. The seventh was hard to watch. Mikhalkin was beaten and beaten up. With 35 seconds left in the round, the ring-side doctor (rightly) stopped the fight. Kovalev wins by TKO in the seventh.
The co-main event, also in the light heavyweight division, featured WBA Champion Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs) of Kyrgyzstan versus Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) of Miami, FL, by way of Cuba. Barrera, having fought Ward (loss), Shabranskyy, and Joe Smith, Jr. (wins), is familiar to American fight fans, while Bivol is highly-touted for his fundamentals and speed, but is less well known.
In round one, both fighters tried to establish the jab and both fighters did good work to the body. Bivol showed a high level of confidence, not seemingly fazed by the big stage. Barrera opened a slight cut over Bivol’s right eye in the second — replay showed that it was a head butt — and seemed to gain confidence as the round went on, countering Bivol and looking smooth and comfortable. The third was more competitive, as Bivol started to initiate and throw combinations. The pace slowed slightly in the fourth, both fighters standing in the pocket and trying to impose their game plan on the other. Bivol looked to jab and throw combinations, while Barrera was attempting to time and counter his Kyrgyzstani opponent. It was clean and attractive boxing, with no clinches or running.
In the fifth, Bivol began to show a combination of footwork and hand speed unusual at this weight class, and Barrera had no answers. The Cuban showed real resilience in the sixth, mounting a sustained body attack while absorbing some straight right hands from Bivol. The seventh ended with a flurry from both fighters, but Bivol seemed to land the more accurate shots.
Going into the eighth, I saw the fight as fairly close — but in that round Bivol looked fresher and more confident, bouncing on the balls of his feet, dropping his lead left hand, and throwing combinations. Barrera started to look tired for the first time in the fight. Nonetheless, there was no quit, no resignation in Barrera in these later rounds: he continued to battle and look for opportunities. He just couldn’t find any.
The championship rounds saw Bivol continue to box, showing impressive conditioning, while Barrera could not match the younger fighter’s speed and distance control. In the twelfth, Bivol caught Barrera standing sideways to him. It was an error by the Cuban, and Bivol pounced, landing a jab that stunned Barrera, setting up a straight right. Barrera beat the count, but referee Harvey Dock waved off the bout. Dmitry Bivol boxed cleanly, intelligently, and athletically. It was an impressive performance.