After a quiet few weeks the new season begins on Saturday night with a solid Frank Warren card on Boxnation. The headline fight between Nathan Cleverly and Sergey Kovalev is an intriguing match-up between a skilful and fairly established champion and a big punching challenger who has yet to be tested in a hard, long fight.
To be fair to Kovalev, the main reason he hasn't been pushed to the limit in a long fight is due to his high knockout ratio (19 of his 21 victories have come inside the distance). The longest he's gone is eight rounds against Darnell Boone late in 2010. That performance is the worst of Kovalev's career, he somehow managed to scrape a split-decision after an insipid performance that showed plenty of weaknesses.
He seemed to run out of ideas when he failed to bludgeon Boone out in the opening couple of rounds. After four rounds of reckless swinging he was breathing hard and was leaving his chin unprotected when throwing his own shots – a fault he has improved on but is yet to fully eradicate.
Kovalev has had a dozen fights since that meeting with Boone and has showed steady improvement, although it's apparent he's still overly reliant on his punching power, which is a trait of a lot of knockout artists. And the mallet-fisted Russian is definitely a knockout artist, every punch he lands clean seems to have an effect. He's the sort of puncher where the decent shots sicken opponents and the good shots knock them out, and not just to the head either, he possesses a brutal left hook to the body.
After emphatically dismantling Boone in their rematch of last year, Kovalev has put in three impressive 3rd round knockouts in his last three fights, most notably against the usually teak tough Gabriel Campillo. Campillo was a former world champion and had pushed Tarvoris Cloud all the way (well, beat him but got robbed on the cards) in his previous fight.
Many, myself included, thought Campillo would be a bit too skilful for Kovalev and would benefit late in the fight from his vastly greater experience. Surprisingly, Kovalev showed he was a match for Campillo in terms of skill, and the Spaniards experience counted for nothing as he was hurt repeatedly and dropped numerous times in the third and, what proved to be, final round.
Whilst Cleverly has faced the slightly better opposition overall, I'm not too sure he's faced anyone better than Campillo, maybe Tony Bellew but that's not clear cut. He certainly hasn't faced anyone who hits as hard as Kovalev does, and despite possessing what looks like a granite chin, Cleverly would be wise to avoid engaging in a similar toe to toe battle in this bout like he did in the one against Bellew.
The Welshman has been a world champion for a couple of years now and I feel it's fair to say his record isn't littered with top class opponents. Bellew is good, although it remains to see how he copes at world level, Robert Krasniqi is a good European level fighter and that's about it. The likes of Shawn Hawk, Tommy Karpency and Aleksy Kuziemski shouldn't be getting world title shots, which may sound harsh but really is beyond question.
Despite being undefeated and usually looking comfortable in beating his opponents, Cleverly certainly hasn't won over all of his detractors yet. There's still a feeling that he's been protected and hasn't been willing to face dangerous opponents, which some fans would call a typical Frank Warren way of promoting. I'm sure Warren would argue that he's building a fighter the correct way and providing them with better career longevity, either way, Saturday’s fight will put the theory to bed once and for all, if Kovalev isn't seen as a serious threat then no-one will be.
There aren't any major weaknesses in Cleverly's make-up – he's well-schooled, has decent speed, good footwork and a solid chin, and whilst he isn't heavy handed, he does hit hard enough to detract his opponents from barrelling forward. The only slight flaw is that he likes to put on a show for the fans and is willing to stand and trade punches when he doesn't need to, although he only seems to do it when he's in full control of a fight. One imagines he may avoid his inclination for this rash bravado against Kovalev.
The fight should come down to how the first four rounds play out, when Kovalev will be at his most dangerous. Cleverly has a significant advantage in speed and should have ample opportunity to counter-punch his challenger, who leaves himself wide open at times, usually when he's lunged in with a looping left hook. The obvious danger is what will happen if Kovalev finds a way of pinning Cleverly down and landing clean shots, that's when it will get interesting.
Personally, I feel Cleverly's speed and footwork should be enough of an advantage for him to not only see out the first four rounds but to have a lead on the cards going into the mid rounds. What happens from there on depends on Kovalev's stamina and chin. If he struggles like he did against Boone the first time they met then I can see Cleverly giving him a bit of a shellacking as the rounds wear on, most likely culminating in a late stoppage.
If Kovalev's stamina has improved, which it should have, he can still pose a threat to Cleverly for as long as the fight goes on, although I feel he'll be getting out-boxed for the majority of the fight. Cleverly will have to put in a disciplined performance, one slip could result in him visiting the canvas. If the champion can stick to the game plan and not take too many heavy shots, I feel he has the quality to easily out-box Kovalev to retain his title on points, he will have to be very wary early on though.