Light heavyweight boxing champion Sergey Kovalev never doubted a return to the apex of the sport. Or a return to Las Vegas, where he lost his unified light heavyweight titles to Andre Ward and some of the luster that accompanied his nickname, Krusher.
“I never stepped back and thought I would stop my boxing career by losing. My goal is to stop my boxing career like a champion,” Kovalev said, sporting a cap embroidered with his nickname. “After this fight, I will have (many more fights at) the same level.”
Though it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
Instead of the brute punching power that propelled him atop the division, Kovalev, 36, is drawing on experience and skill to beat three-division champion Canelo Alvarez in their WBO light heavyweight title fight. He no longer trains three times a day, spars 14 rounds at a time or relies on the force of his right hand.
Not anymore, and certainly not against a tactician like Alvarez in what Kovalev calls the biggest fight of his career.
“I don’t have a choice. I got a call. ‘Let’s make a fight in the light heavyweight division against Canelo.’ I am ready. I never said no. I always agreed,” the Russian juggernaut said. “This is the highest point of (the) professional dream, right?”
Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 knockouts) has been here before, thanks to the power he relied on since turning pro in 2009. He battered his way to superstardom in the light heavyweight division, knocking out 26 of his first 31 foes en route to a 30-0-1 record and unified titles.
But then he fought the skillful, technical and undefeated Ward, who defeated him twice in Las Vegas — first in 2016 and again in 2017 — and tainted some of his mythology.
“If a guy is winning by knocking everybody out, that’s what they stick with,” said Kovalev’s trainer, Buddy McGirt. “There’s going to come a time that you hit a guy who’s not going to fall down. Now you’ve got to resort to what you know best, and if you’re not reminded of that, then you’re not going to do it.”
Kovalev lost again last fall to Eleider Alvarez before turning to McGirt, a veteran who’s worked with champions like Arturo Gatti and Antonio Tarver among others. The two have altered Kovalev’s aggressive approach and reincorporated the skill he always had.
Kovalev defeated Eleider Alvarez by unanimous decision in February to win the WBO light heavyweight title. He defended the belt in August with a TKO over Anthony Yarde while impressing Canelo Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs) in the process.
“He says ‘Buddy, I’m the Krusher.’ And I said, ‘Cool, be the smart Krusher,’” McGirt said. “You don’t always have to be the Krusher that has to smash a guy right away. Sometimes you’ve got to set it up. And that’s what he did. It was easy. … He has it all, he just never displayed it.
Kovalev says McGirt hasn’t changed his style, but rather he’s been reminded of the techniques he cultivated during a storied amateur career. His jab is still intact, his straight right still strong, the light heavyweight division still his.
Or so he says.
“If he wants to make history, who’s going to fight him in light heavy?” Kovalev said of Alvarez. “I’m the best in light heavy. I want to make this a dangerous fight for him.”