HBO World Championship Boxing Preview: Kovalev vs. Shabranskyy
By: Ste Rowen
This coming Saturday the Madison Square Garden Theater, New York sees the return of Sergey ‘The Krusher’ Kovalev as he looks to regain the crown in the light heavyweight division after his two controversial defeats to Andre Ward. In his way stands Ukrainian fringe contender Vyacheslav ‘Lion Heart’ Shabranskyy, a man looking to establish himself as a frontrunner for a world title shot.
Photo Credit: David Spagnolo/Main Events
Twelve months ago, Sergey Kovalev (30-2-1) was reeling from his first professional career defeat. An unjust defeat to many. The highly anticipated bout between Sergey ‘The Krusher’ Kovalev and Andre ‘S.O.G.’ Ward neither disappointed, nor set alight into a real classic however, it did decide who was the consensus number one P4P fighter in the word. Unfortunately for the Russian, it was Andre who was given that crown, and the belts he held before their 19th November bout last year.
Almost seven months later he looked a completely different man to the feared light heavyweight juggernaut who stepped into the ring for the first bout. Rumours of needle between himself and trainer, John David Jackson did nothing to help convince those who backed Ward to a get a second win without any controversy this time.
Controversy is what unfolded though. Unlike the previous fight the Russian struggled to beat Ward to the punch and there was no knockdown in his favour to make the scorecards close even before the stoppage. Ward did what many thought was impossible, not the TKO victory, but the fact that Kovalev looked broken, and searching for a way out.
The old ‘Krusher’ wouldn’t have complained about Ward’s low blows, ‘The Krusher’ of previous fights would’ve fired back his own illegal shots ala Ricky Hatton vs Kostya Tszyu, but instead, after six unanswered punches to head, body, and almost definitely lower, the referee stepped in and called off the bout as Kovalev leant on the ropes almost folded in half.
In a recent interview with ‘Fight Hub TV’ Sergey said he’s cleaned up now, dropping the one or two beers he drank a day, and sticking to only water. He looks in supreme condition now, another criticism that followed Sergey going into the rematch with Ward, S.O.G. calling him soft bellied due to the training camp vodka Kovalev was supposedly enjoying. He also has a new trainer in tow but there remain questions over whether Abror Tursunpulatov is the man to rein Sergey back in if he’s lacking discipline in the fight itself or in camp.
Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (19-1-0) himself twelve months ago was a relatively feared light heavyweight picking up notable victories over Paul Parker & Derrick Findley via stoppages, and a majority decision over, then 16-1-0 Yunieski Gonzalez. Momentum was slowed abruptly though when he was handed his first defeat comprehensively in December last year by Cuban, Sullivan Barrera, who fights on the undercard of Saturday’s main event vs Felix Valera.
In previous fights Vyacheslav has looked quick on his feet, constantly on his toes, looking for the opportunities to fire off quick left and right hooks. In his longest bout when he went ten rounds with Gonzalez, Shabranskyy took a more methodical approach, working behind the jab, counter-shots and short spurts of hooks; but last December there seemed a gulf in class between himself and Barrera.
Despite all the signs seemingly being that this would a well-matched fight, perhaps leaning toward the Ukrainian, after the first bell rang, Shabranskyy was ruthlessly dominated. Despite dropping the Cuban in round two, he himself was dropped in the 1st, 5th and 7th when the referee called the fight. He’s steadily built himself back into winning form with a routine win over journeyman Larry Pryor and a fight ruled a TKO victory for the Ukrainian, in an ugly encounter with Todd Unthank May; the fight stopped in the seventh due to cuts.
Shabranskyy is not as polished as Kovalev despite his amateur background. If allowed to attack he will hit the throttle and test what resolve Kovalev has left after the two Ward fights. The Ukrainian however, leaves his chin wide open for the counter, and even if Saturday night’s Kovalev isn’t the Russian of 2015, if the power is still there, Kovalev will only need a few opportunities to put it on his opponent and turn the fight.
At his best, ‘The Krusher’s’ jab was king, and if he’s able to throw it as he did in fights before the second defeat to Ward, it will be a sure sign the Russian is back somewhere close to his best. Another positive for Kovalev is that it was evident in Shabranskyy’s sole defeat, he couldn’t work out how to get around the jab, which setup his eventual downfall in the fight.
Like most fighters returning from a possibly career defining loss, the big question is, ‘Will Kovalev be motivated to keep on fighting?’ He achieved light heavyweight supremacy, even if the WBC title held by Adonis Stevenson alluded Sergey. The WBO strap will be on the line for the weekend’s bout, a belt Sergey won back in 2013, when he beat up recently retired Nathan Cleverly for four rounds.
The current light heavyweight division, even without retired Andre Ward, is one of the most stacked. To name just the current title holders, newly crowned IBF and WBA champions respectively, Artur Beterbiev & Dmitry Bivol, along with WBC Champion Adonis Stevenson. Then add in contenders, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Badou Jack, Sullivan Barrera, Eleider Alvarez and Marcus Browne.
There will be no easy fights for any of the light heavyweights who dare to unify.