As of late 2016, Sergey Kovalev was undefeated, owned three light heavyweight world title belts and was one of most feared fighters on the planet, rising up the pound-for-pound rankings thanks to a series of big knockouts and significant victories against Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal.
And then Andre Ward came into his life and beat him twice in a row, the first time via highly controversial decision to take his belts in November 2016. That was followed by an eighth-round knockout in the June 2017 rematch, in which Ward appeared to break Kovalev mentally as much as he had physically.
But Kovalev regrouped. He said he stopped drinking and partying. He parted ways with trainer John David Jackson, with whom there had been much tension, to go with Abror Tursunpulatov. And he spent four nights at a Greek monastery, using the experience there to recharge mentally.
“I cleaned up my mind and body,” Kovalev said.
While Kovalev handled his end of things, manager Egis Klimas and Main Events promoter Kathy Duva brought him back to the ring responsibly.
They didn’t match him too tough, giving him a chance to adjust to his new trainer and regain the confidence that Ward seemingly had shattered. HBO also stuck by him, giving him two fights against lesser foes.
In Kovalev’s first fight back following the Ward debacles, he knocked out Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in the second round in November to win one of the belts Ward had vacated upon his retirement. Then Kovalev stopped the unknown Igor Mikhalkin in the seventh round in his first defense in March.
With his confidence soaring again, and with him having adjusted to Tursunpulatov, the time has come for Kovalev to face a far more highly regarded opponent in the second defense of his second title reign.
He was supposed to face unbeaten 2012 U.S. Olympian Marcus Browne, but when Browne ran into legal problems, Duva dropped him from the fight in April and secured an even more highly regarded opponent for Kovalev in Eleider “Storm” Alvarez, the long-avoided mandatory challenger for world champion Adonis Stevenson.
So for the first time since the two fights with Ward, Kovalev will find himself in against an opponent many give a good chance to win when they meet on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at the Mark G. Etess Arena at the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The fight will headline the first major boxing card in once-boxing-heavy Atlantic City since Kovalev’s dominant decision win to unify three titles against Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall in November 2014. If Kovalev wins, there’s a good chance he will eventually face fellow titleholder Dmitry Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs), who will make his third defense in the co-feature when he faces onetime Kovalev victim Isaac Chilemba (25-5-2, 10 KOs).
“It’s a big test for me. He is very motivated. He’s hungry for this fight and for a victory,” Kovalev said of Alvarez. “He’s undefeated. It’s not an easy fight, and I must be ready for what he will bring. He’s dangerous. I cannot say whether I can knock him out or get a victory by points. It’s a good fight for the boxing fans.
“I never said that I don’t want to fight this guy because he’s very strong. I’m ready for everybody. As a champion, as a boxer, I’m ready for anybody.”
Alvarez (23-0, 11 KOs), 34, a Colombia native who lives in Montreal, earned a shot at Stevenson by virtue of his majority decision win over Chilemba in 2015, but for reasons never made clear, he never got the chance to fight Stevenson. But he did stay busy and scored important wins over Montreal rivals Pascal and Lucian Bute, both popular former world titleholders.
When it was clear that, despite pressing the issue, Alvarez would again not get a shot at Stevenson, who was planning to fight Badou Jack in May, Yvon Michel, promoter of Stevenson and Alvarez, was able to quickly make a deal with Duva after Browne was dumped from the card.
“You have a guy in Eleider Alvarez who has been waiting for his title shot for over two years, and a guy in Sergey Kovalev who jumped at the chance to give Alvarez the opportunity,” said Main Events matchmaker Jolene Mizzone. “You have to give both guys their props for stepping up and taking this fight. As a matchmaker, it is refreshing to see a fight like this happen and for both guys to accept the challenge.”
For Alvarez, a 2008 Olympian, the opportunity to fight for a world title has been a long time coming.
“I waited for three years and a half for my chance. This is my biggest fight,” Alvarez said. “I never let the past decide me. I’m gonna be ready for this. When I fought Isaac Chilemba, it was a do-or-die fight. When I fought Lucian Bute, it was the same thing. I had the same pressure when I fought Jean Pascal, so I am used to have the kind of fight that it’s a do-or-die.
“I am well prepared for the biggest challenge of my career. I suffered in training and I am at my peak right now. I think it will be a difficult fight for me, but also for Kovalev. I am excited, and I can’t wait to fight. I am ready for everything that he is bringing. It is my chance, it is my time. I can’t stop smiling right now because [on Saturday], the whole world will know who Eleider Alvarez is.”
Said Michel: “We are convinced that Eleider has all the tools and everything it takes to come back to Montreal with the WBO world title in his luggage.”
Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs), 35, a Russia native living in Los Angeles, hopes that a victory will lead to a unification fight so he can begin reclaiming the rest of the belts he lost to Ward.
“In this division, it’s tough [to unify]. We don’t have the opportunity to make a World Boxing Super Series,” Kovalev said. “We don’t have a tournament series in this division. But in my head, I have a schedule of my tournament. I am driven to win championships. Everybody wants to make unification fights, I hope. Everyone who is a champion in the light heavyweight division wants to get all the belts together. We want to see who is first between us.
“I’m ready to fight any champion, because my goal is to get all four titles, to be undisputed champion.”
But first up is the serious business of Alvarez.
“He is a good test for me. I saw a couple rounds in a couple of fights,” he said. “I see enough to get the style he has. … It’s not the biggest fight in my life, but it’s a big for me because it’s the next chapter in my boxing career.”