Today's Boxing After Dark feels like somewhat of an anomaly. Not only does it have a co-feature without a single US fighter on the card - instead dominated by fighters from those boxing hotbeds: Australia, Russia, Wales - but it's also one that, refreshingly, doesn't have a runaway betting favourite in sight either.
The phrase 'it's a pick-em fight' is often overused among commentators of the sport; generally blissfully unaware that their apparent 50/50 is listed with the oddsmakers as a lopsided mismatch. There are a thousand other betting-related turns-of-phrase that, when misused, irritate me immensely, but since when was this my soapbox? (Just so you know, Jim Watt, after a fighter's won five straight rounds and scored a knockdown, then yes, he probably HAS just about gone odds-on favourite with the bookies.)
The good news here - and a testament to fine matchmaking as it is - is that even the most woefully misinformed can call Daniel Geale vs. Darren Barker and Nathan Cleverly vs. Sergey Kovalev coin tosses of contests on paper and not be too way off the mark.
Indeed, in the case of Cleverly-Kovalev - the more compelling of the two bouts - there's not a single bookmaker (at least not among the 20+ listed on the betting bible oddschecker.com) that makes either light-heavyweight wider than a -125 favourite. Both have favouritism, however small, depending where you look. What's really interesting - and very rare it is, too - is that the prices, the marginal shifts here and there across the market, fluctuate either. Fancy backing Cleverly at slight odds-against (+105)? Fancy backing Kovalev elsewhere at even money? Is it obvious that this is the sort of quirk I get far too excited about?
There are a few bookies here who've gone down the traditional (and indeed, strictly speaking, accurate) pick-em route - -110 the pair. It's no surprise, then, that seems to be a fight that's polarising opinion - perhaps excessively so in places - and certainly there's a case to made for backing either man.
Certainly, you'd think Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KOs) would have his work cut out to get a judge's nod on the road at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, in front of what is, obviously, going to be a partisan and pro-Cleverly crowd. Home advantage could be enough of a factor as it is, but, to reinforce his claims further, Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs) has an eye-catching, often flashy style, backed up by a tremendous punch output and a Calzaghe-eque tendency for dropping his hands and taunting his opponent, even when perhaps he's not as totally in control of the contest as he'd like to think. It's worth noting that that's not entirely a criticism - he's a physically impressive young boxer, technically decent, with fast hands and a knack for generally turning bouts into the type of fight he wants them to be, irrespective of opponent.
The big question here (1 of 2) is whether he can get himself into position to do the same, to fight in his own signature way, against an opponent who figures to be a considerable step-up from the lucky beneficiaries and competition winners among the WBO's ranking system who somehow earned themselves a world title tilt. The second big question is whether he has enough power to keep the heavy-handed Kovalev at range for the distance.
A slight height and reach advantage may help his cause, but while Cleverly throws plenty in bunches, he doesn't have notable power - just two stoppages in his last six - and may have to rely on sheer workrate to discourage the Russian. As you'd expect, a Cleverly win by stoppage is the rank outsider (draw withstanding) of the available outcomes in the Method of Victory markets - at a best-priced +750, it's rated by the compilers as even less likely than a Russian coming over to Wales, via Florida, and walking away with a decision over the hometown man (+700).
Make no mistake though, this is a step-up for Kovalev too. Just as Cleverly's wins over Tony Bellew and Karo Murat stand out as career-best performances in a sea of otherwise unremarkable fare, Kovalev's burgeoning reputation - while bolstered by a string of brutal KOs - has been built largely on that three-round demolition of, at the time, the then-highly-rated Gabriel Campillo. It's worth considering, though, the finer detail here: Campillo came into the Kovalev fight after a nine-month lay-off after, frankly, getting screwed against Tavoris Cloud in Texas. Prior to that, he fought to a draw with the aforementioned Murat (who also held a contentious decision win over Campillo three years prior), who Cleverly largely made look silly before stopping him inside ten rounds. Campillo, too, has since been flattened by the modest Andrzej Fonfara, and so using the Spaniard as any kind of yardstick as to how good the Russian actually is feels slightly problematic.
Nonetheless, it's been hard to not be hugely impressed by Kovalev thus far, particularly based on recent form, and when you combine sound technical prowess and intelligent offensive work with mule-like power it's a safe assumption that people will get excited (see also: Gennady Golovkin, Lucas Matthysse). It could well be that Kovalev's biggest hurdle here - assuming he's as good as he's hinted he might be - is a mental one: how does he react to being the road fighter against a man, in Cleverly, who won't give him room to operate or time to think? Unlike Campillo, Cleverly starts fast, which - given the Russian's recent run of early knockouts - could spell fireworks in the first half of this fight. This, really, is a fascinating match-up, full of intangibles, what-ifs, and what would appear to be a superb mesh of styles. So where's the angle?
It's easy to make an argument for two main outcomes here: Cleverly outworks and hurries his man, basing his attack on simply throwing more and using what should be a marked speed advantage to move out of harm's way. Dropping his hands all fight, as he's so known for doing, hardly feels well advised, but it feels safe to say that the Welshman won't have any intention of letting the visitor set the pace. On that basis - factoring in home advantage - there are worse bets you'll place than the market-best +162 for the Cleverly decision, but when using the same logic it's the unanimous decision at +250 that's the far more appealing.
But what of Kovalev? Opposing the hot streak is probably the most difficult aspect to overcome in the approach to finding a bet on this fight, and it's by no means the right thing to do. Kovalev's recent sequence of round totals somehow almost feels closer to binary code than a professional boxer's KO round tallies - remarkably, in 22 fights, he's only fought 57 founds - just over 2.5 rounds per contest, and the average hasn't been raised by recent progress in opposition - going back as far a two-round technical draw two years ago, the sequence reads 3-3-3-2-7.
Those backing the Kovalev stoppage here can do so at +150 - the marginally-favored outcome with the books - but there's perhaps scope to be a little bolder. The Russian doesn't generally earn his KOs by gradually wearing down his opponent - and, indeed, this is something that could bode well for Cleverly should he be able to weather what's likely to be an early storm - and so it's easier to side with the trend.
That seven-round stoppage of Roman Simankov is the latest Kovalev has stopped an opponent, and so the +350 that he gets the job done anywhere in the first half here looks the more attractive option to him taking Cleverly into the trenches in the later rounds. Interestingly, too, those knockouts have come early or generally not at all - Simankov excluded - and so narrowing the bracket from 1-6 to 1-4 at +600 could be worth a look. In all 19 of Kovalev's stoppages, the round mean works out as 2.15 rounds, and there's +1200 on offer for those audacious enough to back that he does the business in the first six minutes here, although the fact that Cleverly is of an unquestionably higher pedigree that the guys Kovalev has been knocking back to Chelyabinsk doesn't lend itself to the statistics. Finally, the draw is a flat +2500 across the board, but holds scant appeal here.
Daniel Geale (-150) vs. Darren Barker (+170)
Jonathan Gonzalez (+110) vs. Giovani Segura (-120)
Jhonathan Romero (-350) vs. Kiko Martinez (+333)