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Kovalev vs Sillakh preview: HBO sleeper matchup has upset potential

Sergey Kovalev has become a fan favorite due to his punishing knockout power, but the WBO light heavyweight title could be in danger in his first defense on Saturday night against Ismayl Sillakh.

Scott Heavey
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Sergey Kovalev has emerged as one of the stars of the light heavyweight division. A few years ago, Kovalev wasn't on the radar. Ismayl Sillakh, however, was making waves as a prospect to watch, and figured to become a contender, possibly a champion, sooner than later.

Back in 2010, Doug Fischer of The RING put together a scouting report on Sillakh, then a 25-year-old barely-known who needed the publicity. Fischer wrote of Sillakh, "Standing almost 6-foot-4 with the wingspan of a heavyweight and possessing above-average speed and power it's obvious that Sillakh has the physical tools to compete in 175-pound division. Factor in the technique and poise he carries from his decorated amateur career -- which includes 2001 World Junior and European Junior Championship gold medals in the middleweight division and a 2007 European Championship silver medal in the open light heavyweight division -- and it's possible that Sillakh could be something really special."

Cryptically, Fischer then noted a weakness. "The word from the European amateur scene is that for all his skill and talent, Sillakh does not take a good punch. He had trouble with aggressive and hard-punching amateur standouts such as Russia's Artur Beterbiyev (who scored a standing 8-count en route to a points win at the 2006 European Championships) and Ireland's Andy Lee (who out-pointed Sillakh at the 2002 World Junior Championships). In the pro ranks, he was rocked by an overhand right from Whittom during their fight but defended himself well while he quickly recovered to return fire before the round had ended."

For the next couple of years, though, Sillakh continued on as a hyped prospect, beating the likes of Daniel Judah, Rayco Saunders, Yordanis Despaigne, Hamza Wandera, and Ali Ismailov. He looked like what had been promised: a skilled boxer with good power, a polished game, and some special offensive abilities.

Then, the weakness was put under the spotlight. As he was rising as a new regular on ESPN Friday Night Fights, Sillakh was dominating Denis Grachev on April 27, 2012, having floored the crude former kickboxer in the third round. Sillakh was on cruise control, to the point that ESPN's Teddy Atlas wondered in round eight if the Ukrainian prospect was costing himself money.

"It doesn't help him in the money-making department," Atlas said. "He's looking to make money. He's not putting himself forward right now, stamping himself as an exciting fighter. Good fighter. Polished fighter. Effective fighter. Not exciting."

Putting together sharp punches that Grachev all but shrugged off as he plodded hopelessly, Sillakh turned up the heat a bit just after Atlas made his remarks. With about a minute left in the round, he landed a crisp left hand that Grachev flinched on just a bit. Then suddenly, Grachev pushed Sillkah into a corner and went to work.

Likely, the Russian underdog sensed this was his only chance. Winging rights and lefts straight out of the 16-bit era, Grachev kept getting them in just enough that he shook Sillakh up, and as the showcased fighter slowly moved his way out of the corner, a final pair of shots caught him clean and unaware, putting him on the canvas.

Before Sillakh had touched the mat, referee Rocky Burke had stopped the fight, a stunning turnaround win that gave Grachev a real boxing career, and put Ismayl Sillakh back to square one.

Since that night, Sillakh has gone 4-0 to up his record to 21-1 (17 KO), beating lesser opponents in an effort to get himself back on track, and perhaps return his confidence to where it was during the seven-plus rounds he was schooling Grachev.

The hope for he and his team is that it was a learning experience. Sillakh, after the hype turned into further exposure, looked a talent who wasn't quite sure how to get the most out of his tools and gifts. But he's still just 28 years old, and there's a lot of future.

That future comes in the form of Kovalev on Saturday night, as the two fight for Sergey's WBO 175-pound title in the co-feature on HBO Boxing After Dark. It's really a sleeper matchup that pits two guys with good skills and big power, though the obvious favorite is Kovalev, who is coming off of a four-round smashing of Nathan Cleverly in August.

Kovalev (22-0-1, 20 KO) really grabbed the boxing world's attention in January of this year, when he flattened longtime contender Gabriel Campillo in three rounds, following that with a win over solid fringe contender Cornelius White, and then the trouncing of Cleverly.

His package of skills seems a bad fit for Sillakh if indeed the once-cocky Ukrainian does have a truly troublesome chin. Cleverly said of Kovalev after their fight, "Every shot he threw was a thudding shot. It was like a hammer. He wasn't rapid fast, he had good timing, good distance and his punches were just so hard. ... This guy is on a mission, he's unbeaten, he's knocking everybody over, he's going to be a hard guy to stop. It's just like a tank coming towards you and he just bulldozes his way through you. He's very good."

With that thudding, clubbing power in both hands, plus good boxing skills and a basic, efficient approach, Kovalev could indeed be all wrong for Sillakh, who could find himself suffering the same fate as Kovalev's recent foes, none of whom have lasted into the fifth round in his last five fights.

But Cleverly also said that Kovalev could be beaten by a slick boxer, and Sillakh has those skills. If he can make Kovalev miss and get the titleholder off of his normal game plan, not let him establish his usual rhythm, he's got a good chance in this fight. Sillakh is a good enough talent to outbox Kovalev. The question is, is he a good enough talent to keep Kovalev from imposing his will?

Kovalev's confidence is sky high right now. He likely feels unbeatable. Ismayl Sillakh felt that way once, too.

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