Russian war machine Sergey Kovalev returns to action on Saturday night in a fight with all the competitive merits of a tussle between an ant colony and a brat brandishing a Zippo and bottle of hairspray. Yet, if you can believe it, Kovalev’s scrap with the soon-to-be-supine Cedric Agnew, slated for The Ballroom in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, is actually supposed to fan the flames of intrigue surrounding “Krusher.” Seem like an odd move? Well, in a sport where wearing a green alien mask somehow adds to your legend, a squash job is as sensible a promotional strategy as any.
To be fair, Saturday’s mismatch was, along with the May 24th fight between Adonis Stevenson and Andrzej Fonfara, part of a grand scheme to deliver a scrap between two light heavyweight sleep doctors. Stevenson-Kovalev was high on HBO’s priority list, and with good reason—it was one of the best fights HBO could make.
There is growing doubt that Kovalev, Fort Lauderdale via Chelyabinsk, Russia, was ever anywhere near Stevenson’s radar, however. When questioned about Kovalev, Stevenson has at various times refused to utter the man’s name, been reduced to the type of slanderous tirades that betray the real roots of reticence, or spoken in paradoxically vague terms about adequate compensation. In February, Stevenson added a boom-blocker to the Kovalev negotiations by retaining the services of HBO’s persona non grata, Al Haymon, whose stable was all but banished from HBO last year. That move alone may have been sufficient to scuttle the fight.
Stevenson’s relationship with HBO only complicated matters further. He was never bound exclusively to the network, which had only a “matching rights” deal with “Superman.” When HBO declined to match Showtime’s offer for the Fonfara fight—a decision made for them by Stevenson’s hesitance to face Kovalev later on—Stevenson was free to relocate. Even if HBO could have secured a deal with Stevenson that committed him to Kovalev after the Fonfara fight, that would have meant crawling back into bed with Haymon (a creeping inevitability, though one HBO might delay as long as possible). Beyond that, it is hard to imagine Haymon, master manipulator of the risk-reward ratio, would advise Stevenson, 36, to commit to any deal that included Kovalev. Whatever the explanation for Stevenson’s move to Showtime, it appears his days at HBO are over.
What is next for Stevenson, if not Kovalev? According to Steve Kim, Showtime’s offer for the Fonfara fight included an opportunity to face Bernard Hopkins in the near future. Preferring a potential befuddling to a beheading, Stevenson has had his sights set on Hopkins for some time. And it is easy to see why Hopkins would be keen on the fight as well: he has a history of dominating southpaws, and Stevenson, for all his power, has more left feet than left hands. The promise of Hopkins means Stevenson has a future without Kovalev, making Kovalev-Agnew, for all intents and purposes, pointless.
With Stevenson out of reach, Kovalev, 30, will have to be satisfied with headlining HBO cards and short-circuiting less glamorous opponents. Barring reports of flying pigs, that is what he will do Saturday night. When he is not playfully menacing for the cameras or modelling the diamond ring given him by promoter Main Events, Kovalev, 23-0-1 (21), is knocking people senseless. And like Dexter St. Jacques, he is doing it well. Culling the light heavyweight division like it were a rookery of baby seals, Kovalev has not gone—or perhaps it is more accurate to say his opposition has not gone—past the fifth round since he stopped Roman Simikov in seven rounds in December of 2011. The typically tricky Gabriel Campillo was bounced off the canvas before being flattened in the third round. Even referee Terry O’Connor, whom half-carried him to his corner at the end of the third round, could not save the overmatched Nathan Cleverly from Kovalev. The lanky Ismail Sillah, expected by some to trouble Kovalev, was left snoring in the fetal position in less time than it takes to make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Complimenting crunching power with a charming streak of destructive malice, Kovalev delivers performances bordering on spectacle. All signs point to Agnew, Chicago, Illinois, looking up at the lights Saturday night.
Sure, Agnew, 26-0 (13), is undefeated as a professional, but that hardly tells the full story. Before being extended the distance in his recent decision over the frayed Yusaf Mack, Agnew fought back-to-back six-round fights against fighters with a combined record of 34-53-4. Only nine of Agnew’s wins have come against fighters with winning records (and three of those men had fewer than three professional fights at the time). Digging further, Agnew, 27, has fought only one fighter coming off consecutive wins! He has made a career of beating people there to be beaten. Unfortunately for Agnew, Kovalev is anything but that. Yes, Agnew is a professional fighter, trained to render men unconscious, and that training, hitched to a Mack truck of luck, could leave Kovalev in the ditch. But chances are Agnew’s luck, however great, was exhausted when he inked a contract to headline an HBO card. Any luck leftover might see him safely through a few rounds—which is a few rounds more than warrant televising.
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