Top Tips: Kovalev By KO (Paddy Power 2/9),  Shabransky on points (33/1 Paddy Power)

After suffering back-to-back controversial losses against the now retired Andre Ward, the once fearsome Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev returns to action Saturday (November 25) night at The Garden, and the question we’ll all be asking will be: “Is the Krusher still Crushing?”

Former WBO/IBF/WBA light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev gets a chance to regain one of those belts when he returns to action this weekend at the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York, and takes on Vyacheslav Shabranskyy of the Ukraine for the vacant WBO crown. The WBA, IBF and WBO titles were made vacant by the shock retirement last month of Andre Ward. 34-year old Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs), the one-time “Bogey Man” of the light heavyweight division, lauded for his ferocious punching power and ruthless, “take-no-prisoners” mentality, lost his cloak of invincibility after suffering back-to-back defeats at the hands of Ward, although both results were controversial, to say the least.

Ward Twice Beats The Krusher Controversially

In their first encounter at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in November 2016, Kovalev started fast, floored Ward for the first time in his career in the second round, and dominated the first half of the fight with his aggression and accurate, heavy hitting and solid boxing. However Ward is no slouch. A former longtime super-middleweight champion, winner of the Showtime Super Six event, conqueror of such 168 lb. standouts as Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham, and perennial top-three contender for that mythical pound-for-pound crown, the American weathered the storm and was much more competitive in the second half of the fight.

Nevertheless, Kovalev had seemingly won the fight comfortably on points, only to discover that all three (and all from the US) judges had voted unanimously for Ward. It was a devastating setback for the Russian, but one many fans believed he would rectify when the two met again seven months later at the Mandalay Bay Casino, also in Las Vegas.

Their return encounter was cagier than the first, with Ward staring much faster this time, but the larger, rangier Kovalev still dominating the early action with his ramrod jab and powerful straight right. By the middle rounds however, Kovalev seemed to be struggling with the pace of the fight and was clearly tiring. Ward, almost as famous for his mastery of boxing’s dark arts (i.e., dirty tactics) as for his ability to defuse any fighting style he’s faced with, had been using his usual array of head-butts, elbows and low blows on Kovalev, and it was a series of such low blows which floored the Russian late in the eighth round, whereupon referee Tony Weeks incredibly chose to stop the fight and award victory to Ward. It was a truly shocking call, one of the worst in living memory, and even staunch Andre Ward supporters – such as his friend and fellow boxing color-commentator Paulie Malignaggi called BS on Week’s decision.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Kovalev, for several years considered head-and-shoulders above everybody else in the light heavyweight division, indeed a throwback to the eras of dominant, no-nonsense 175 lb. rulers like Bob Foster and Michael Spinks, men who might not have been the flashiest, but they sure hit the hardest. Kovalev may not have had the dazzling skills of a Roy Jones or even a Virgil Hill or a Chad Dawson, but technically he was sound in the way that most boxers hailing from of the former Eastern-Bloc invariably are. He seemed immune to punishment and had the same knack as countryman Gennady Golovkin (a Russian born in Kazakhstan) – current WBC/WBA middleweight champion – of being able to hurt an opponent with every punch he lands.

Kovalev – The Early Years

Kovalev first attracted attention among boxing’s hardcore fans in early 2013 when he “krushed” the then highly rated Spaniard Gabriel Campillo in three one-sided rounds. Campillo, himself a former WBA light heavyweight champion, had seemingly been the victim of a robbery when he was beaten on points in a title challenge against IBF champion Tavoris Cloud months earlier. Tall, rangy, and skillful, the Spaniard was considered a massive step-up in class for Kovalev, and yet the Russian passed the test with flying colors. Campillo looked rattled as soon as he sampled Kovalev’s power in the opening round. The cagey veteran used every trick he’d learned in tough title fights with Karo Murat, Beibut Shumenov and Cloud, but to no avail; three knockdowns in the third brought an end to what had been a one-sided beatdown. Kovalev had announced himself in spectacular fashion.

Later that year, Kovalev challenged the unbeaten and highly regarded Nathan Cleverly for his WBO belt. The Welshman was known for his great chin and superb physical fitness and stamina which enable him to outwork opponents in drawn-out wars of attrition. Cleverly’s corner had worked out a sound battle plan designed to take the Russian – who had gone eight rounds only once – into deep waters, but at the bell, Cleverly instead went hell-for-leather and attempted to go slug it out with Kovalev, despite not having nearly as much power as his challenger. Cleverly paid dearly for his bravery, going down twice in the third before being stopped early in the fourth, a crushing defeat that he never really overcame.

Mastering B-Hop

No sooner had he become WBO champion than Kovalev began hunting down the other belt holders, particularly WBC champion Adonis Stevenson of Canada, a man blessed with even greater one-punch power than he had, if only in his left hand. It became obvious very early on that Stevenson wanted no traffic with Kovalev, so the Russian turned his attention to the legendary America Bernard Hopkins, holder of the WBA and IBF belts.

After making three easy defenses against nondescript opposition, Kovalev faced Hopkins in a unification fight at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in November 2014. Hopkins, a genuine modern great, had made 20 defenses of the world middleweight title as well as unifying the division while in his late 30s. Defying any kind of logic, whilst in his 40s Hopkins stepped up to light heavyweights, winning the WBA, WBC and IBF versions of the title, and in doing so broke his own record as the oldest title winner in ring history. Unsurprisingly, Hopkins’ record looked like a “Who’s Who” of boxing, studded with names like Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik, and Roy Jones Jr in the win column.

Hopkins still held the WBA and IBF belts when he faced Kovalev, but by that time be wasn’t just facing the most fearsome light heavyweights in the world, he was also taking on that undefeated ring legend known as Father Time. Hopkins was almost 50 when he climbed in the ring against Kovalev, and after tasting the Russian’s power in the opening round and hitting the deck, the wily vet’s focus was on lasting the distance, a feat he would achieve whilst losing every round on all three scorecards.

The victory over Hopkins proved that Kovalev was much more than just a brutal puncher; he was also an excellent boxer. More title defenses followed, highlighted by a pair of crowd-pleasing stoppage victories over Jean Pascal in Montréal. However, South Africa’s Isaac Chilemba exposed Kovalev’s limitations in a dull fight in 2016, losing on points but avoiding any real punishment in what turned out to be Kovalev’s eighth and final title defense.

After seeing how Chilemba avoided any serious damage against Kovalev, former super middleweight champion Andre Ward – now campaigning as a light heavyweight – decided the time was right for him to have a crack at the Krusher. As we know, Ward would go on to win back-to-back encounters with Kovalev, both in controversial fashion, so much so that many die-hard Kovalev fans would argue that the Russian has a case to claim victory in both bouts.

Rebuilding Brand Kovalev

So now begins the task of rebuilding “Brand Kovalev.” After falling out with his trainer John David Jackson following the second Ward fight, Kovalev has brought in a fellow Russian as a replacement, Abror Tursunpulatov, while yet another Russian, Aleksandr Sedov, will take over strength and conditioning duties. Jackson claimed that Kovalev drank vodka throughout his training camps for Ward, and that was the reason for his lack of stamina in both fights, and his apparent vulnerability to body shots in the rematch. Kovalev has since stated that he is no longer drinking during training camp, and the lack of booze calories has resulted in him making weight easier and retaining more of his body strength. Kovalev was also involved in a car crash after the second Ward fight, an incident that he claims has given him a completely new perspective on life.

The highly astute, vastly experienced Kathy Duva remains Kovalev’s manager, and she believes that even at 34, his best years are ahead of him. He is still has his lucrative contract with US cable giant HBO, and that network could be rewarded for their loyalty with an all-action thriller when Kovalev takes on Shabranskyy at MSG this Saturday.

Who Is Vyacheslav Shabranskyy?

30-year old Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (19-1, 16 KOs) stands a shade under 6’4″ – at least three inches taller than Kovalev, with a similar reach advantage. After an extensive amateur career, Shabranskyy chose to turn pro in the US and has been based there ever since. His only defeat thus far was a seventh-round KO loss to the highly ranked (WBA no.1) Sullivan Barrera of Cuba in a four-knockdown thriller last December.

Shabranskyy turned pro in 2012 and going into the fight with Sullivan Barrera, his standout wins were a third-round TKO of previously unbeaten Paul Parker, and a majority decision over contender Yunieski Gonzalez, both in 2015. The following year he fought Barrera, hitting the deck in the opening round, flooring his opponent in the second but going down again in the fifth and seventh before the referee called it off.

It was a tough setback, but one Shabranskyy has dealt with extremely well. He has won two fights since, most recently a seventh-round TKO of the highly touted Philadelphia prospect Todd Unthank-May in August of this year. In that fight, Shabranskyy looked the total package, showing great boxing skills, excellent foot movement plus power in both hands. By the seventh Unthank-May was taking a shellacking, and at the end of the round the ringside doctor called it off.

So Who Wins?

Shabranskyy is in excellent form, and his confidence will be sky-high after the Unthank-May victory. By comparison, Kovalev might be wondering if he still has that supreme confidence he used to carry into all of his fights, and he won’t know the answer to that until that first bell rings on Saturday night. Both men are great technicians, but both can be tagged, especially Shabranskyy, although he does hold a shot well usually.

Both men can dish it out, but here is where the gulf in class lies; Kovalev is a truly vicious, world-class puncher. If Kovalev hurts Shabranskyy early in the fight and stamps his authority on the contest, the Ukrainian will face an enormous uphill battle. With his leaky defense task and lack of the power needed to keep Kovalev at bay, the Russian wins by a TKO inside six rounds and regains his WBO title (Paddy Power 2/9).

If Kovalev doesn’t get Shabranskyy out of there early, and the Ukrainian grows in confidence with each passing round, this could well be the fourth consecutive fight where Kovalev has faded badly in the second half. If that is indeed the case, look for Shabranskyy to pile it on and force a late-round TKO (14/1 Paddy Power) or win a points decision (33/1 Paddy Power).

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