Undefeated Russian brick thrower Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev was a big hit at his open workout at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn this week. The undefeated Russian who is 25-0-1 and 13-01 with 13 knockouts in his past 14 fights says he’s ready to finally put an end to 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins’s remarkable reign as the golden grandfather clock of elite boxers.
Kovalev will meet “The Executioner” turned “Alien” at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Saturday in an HBO light heavyweight unification bout extravaganza that has boxing fans licking their chops. With all optimism, Kovalev expects to end his night blowing kisses to fans wildly waving Russian flags in his victory as he’s draped with championship hardware—the physical spoils of what’s sure to be a mentally-draining endeavor.
Hopkins stamped his legend on the boxing world years ago when he made 20 defenses of the middleweight title and demolished every living idol that crossed his path. He’s continued to apply that shock therapy to doubters and disbelievers, putting a pounding on younger, notable light heavy weights
After years on the underground circuit scratching his way to the top, the ferocious Kovalev made his entrance to a national boxing audience in January 2013 with a third-round TKO of Gabriel Campillo on NBCSN's "Fight Night."
When he defeated Nathan Cleverly by fourth-round TKO that August, Kovalev became the first Russian-born fighter to hold the WBO light heavyweight belt since its 1988 inception.
Kovalev has never fought beyond the eighth round and he’s never faced a boxing beast the caliber of Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs), who is looking to once again break his own record as the oldest boxer to win a world championship and rival what he accomplished as a middleweight in 2001, when he unified the IBF, WBA and WBC belts in that division.
Kovalev was last in the ring for a second-round stoppage of Blake Caparello in August, rising from a first-round knockdown to drop Caparello twice in the final round. Caparello represented the third defense for Kovalev, who feels like he has the guts, the grit, the power and the hardbody come up to complete the challenging task of taking on one of boxing’s living legends, craftiest boxers and mental strategists.
At Gleason’s, in between shadow sparring and bag work he was in great spirits and more than willing to kick it.
Sergey Kovalev: Bernard likes to play mind games and always pushes everywhere inside the ring and out. The war has already started. We have already begun fighting. I’ve already been fighting against him for two months because I’m getting ready. Going to the gym everyday and he is too. Thinking about the fight and getting ready for the fight. Age is just a number. If he’s old he needs to be in a retirement home, but he’s still fighting so he has no excuses.
The Russian Come Up
Kovalev, 31, began boxing in his native Russia at age 11. He spent a large part of his childhood throwing hands with the other local kids and challenging anyone that would oblige his desires to a fight. Kovalev would victimize and make guinea pigs of neighborhood kids with techniques he learned watching martial arts and action movies.
An invitation from a friend who worked out at a local boxing gym soon led to Kovalev's ditching school to hone his boxing skills in a more instructional atmosphere.
He says he took some beating that first year, but his coach inspired him to stick with it because it was his destiny.
By age 12, Kovalev achieved success in city championships. He fell just short of representing Russia in the Olympics and decided to go pro in 2008 with the guidance and support of manager Egis Kilmas. Together they formed an inseparable bond and embarked on a rough, action-packed three-year journey full of sacrifice and belief in each other.
Kovalev: I can turn back the clock and tell you everything I’ve been through, but I won’t because it’s a really terrible way to get to this station, this level in boxing. I don’t think everybody knows that I boxed three years for free just looking for any promoter...any… but nobody wanted to sign me. But in 2013 Kathy Duva of Main Events signed me and my career started going up… got better.
Duva said she worked closely with Golden Boy vice president Eric Gomez, as well as with Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya, to finalize the deal.
"The fight got made in 30 hours, from the start of negotiations on to the signing of the contract [Friday] afternoon," Duva said. "It didn't take very long. When you don't have obstructionists in the middle of a deal, it's not that hard to do. I felt like it was the old days. HBO did their part, we did our part and Golden Boy did their part."
The fight marks the return of Golden Boy to HBO for the first time since the network publicly severed ties with the promotional company in March 2013.
12 Rounds From Glory
With a win, Sergey can become the new “Golden Boy” of HBO, but the Russian brawler would have never gotten to the precipice of boxing greatness without his manager Egis Kilmas who he met in Russia.
Kovalev: My manager invested a lot of time and money in me. For my opponents, for my food, for my rent…everything...my cars, my traveling tickets, hotels, my clothes. He invested a lot of money for these three years. I fought 18 fights for free. In my 19th fight I got my first purse of $5,000 for rematch against Darnell Boone.
I asked Kilmas how much of that purse Sergey actually got to keep after a half decade of free living.
Egis Kilmas : I didn’t do any investments looking at him and thinking I’m going to make money. I just helped him. I was never chasing money. We just went together and I saw a good talent in him and saw he was going to make something special of himself. I was just helping and helping and never stopped. I had no doubt he was going to become a champion. I never chase the money. He’s very dedicated and a very hard worker. When he trains, he trains! As a person I like him from the first day we met. It was perfect match.”
The Boone fight was Kovalev’s first rumble since his tragic battle with fellow Russian Roman Simakov. Kovalev knocked Simakov unconscious and he was dead three days later. As much as the boxing community’s biggest fear is death inside the ring for an athlete, it’s such a rare occurrence that despite the guilt and regret a boxer may feel for inflicting such a punishment on an opponent, it adds to his marketability, degree of pre-fight intimidation and makes the casual fan take notice of his boxing prowess.
Kovalev is a legit killer. He’s chopped, clubbed and carved a name for himself and his battle against Hopkins can be compared to when Ivan Drago met Apollo Creed in Rocky III. Kovalev already knows what it feels like to kill a man in the ring. For all of Hopkins’ street experiences and technical mastery, spirituality and sagacious offerings, Kovalev has one up on him. Two, if you count the fact that the 31-year-old knockout king with his 88 percent demolition rate (second among active title holder according to CompuBox), is almost 20 years younger than his opponent.
Boxing's New Hybrid System
Boxing experts agree Hopkins hasn’t fought a boxer of Kovalev’s ilk since he lost to Chad Dawson easily in 2012. Team Kovalev, which includes trainer John David Jackson and recent addition, strength and conditioning coach Quan Paxton (Coach “Q”) from Detroit, think Bernard’s never met a fighter that matched his dedication to excellence, hunger and discipline.
Coach “Q”: Sergey’s greatest weapon is also his discipline. Hopkins is not the only boxer who eats right and works out like a monster. I didn’t have to tell Sergey to go run. He would already be running. It was exciting to work with him and I’m a part of family now. Sergey is like family for me now. So look for us to work together to win more fights. His major advantage on Saturday is that he’s a smarter boxer than Bernard thinks he is and his mindset is that he’s ready to take on the responsibility of being king, because you know, you have to have a level head to hold the throne and this is a business. I think he’s ready for all of that now. He’s such a humble guy. I want it for him and we want it together. So we train like we are broke and we will always train like that
Behind every boxer is a great team. If Kovalev wants to rise to the highest levels of his craft and be a new face of boxing, his team has to possess those capabilities as well. Team Kovalev has combined the irreplaceable old school knowledge of Jackson with the fresh insight of Paxton, who has worked with a lot of B-level fighters and NFL, NBA and NHL athletes in the past.
Coach “Q”: Strength and conditioning is worldwide and now boxing is at another level versus the old school conditioning approaches. I boxed when I was younger as well. So my job is to mix the old school with the new school. Throw in a bit of Marvelous Marvin Hagler with some new Mayweather type stuff. Blend it in. Sergey’s a powerful guy and accomplished between the ropes. I just added to that power.
Paxton says his team hopes this hybrid formula will offset the decades of boxing advantages B Hop holds over his younger opponents looking for a come up.
Coach “Q”: This is my first camp with the team, so it’s been a great ride. Sergey and I reported to Big Bear for about two weeks and then John came for the last week. I’m a boxing instructor and trainer in Marina Del Rey and Sergey’s manager Egis Kilmas recruited me and he found me there.
My job is to keep him strong, get him stronger, make sure his cardio is immaculate and add on to the beautiful cake that he already has. When you are dealing with pro’s you want to add onto what they already have. You don’t want to do change too many different things, so I came in and added on as far as making him do low weight, high volume reps and crazy core work. When you see his stomach, you’ll be impressed, but you know… that’s a boxer, core and legs. Egis said it has to be a great marriage, whereas I have to add on to what he’s doing and that’s what we’ve been doing. We had a tough, vigorous camp. But a great camp.
Former middleweight champ Jackson, Kovalev's trainer for the last two-plus years, has focused on getting Sergey to churn out more body blows, which should work in his favor in a long battle with Hopkins.
Hopkins is obviously well-versed in long, grueling battles and once Sergey hits those later rounds, he will be in unfamiliar territory. Hopkins will try to grind him slowly, frustrate him and go in for the late kill. Or just rest on his resume and his scientific brilliance and take home the 12-round decision.
Jackson, who trains multiple title holders and contenders out of his Fort Lauderdale gym, has known Hopkins for years. He last met Hopkins in the ring in 1997, when he lost by TKO in the seventh round to the then IBF middleweight champ. He also trained Hopkins in 2006 ahead of his 2006 title fight versus Antonio Tarver.
"How does an old man really summon the kind of energy from his body that he did when he was 25 or 30?" Jackson marveled.
Paxton says nobody will be asking that question after Saturday. It’s the type of fight that Paxton says Hopkins has no business taking. No reason to risk fighting a guy who literally catches bodies with his gloves.
Coach “Q”: I feel like Bernard is an old legend. An old lion against Sergey the young lion, who eventually takes over the kingdom. Even when we looked at that Lion King story with Simba; You know Simba eventually took over the kingdom.
So with Bernard…he’s great legend I take nothing away from him, but he’s in there with a young lion that’s willing to go to the depths of the end of the earth to beat him. And that’s what our camp was about just really pushing Sergey too the furthest limits man. We would leave training with a floor drenched full of sweat and I still want even more out of him because that’s my job to push him further and further and further. We’re expecting a great fight, but I’m expecting him to eventually take over for the old lion and we’re going home with the belt.
Of course, Paxton has to be confident. No more confident than the prominent players in Hopkins’ camp. Besides, Paxton’s destiny is tied into Sergey’s success because if he wins it will not only signify a new day in boxing, unification of the belts and the closest thing we have to an undisputed world title holder, but Paxton’s legitimacy as a top flight trainer and strength conditioner elevates to world championship props. In that case, a win for Kovalev is a rare win for mother Russia and the city of Detroit.