Saturday night's HBO event, a light-heavyweight unification between Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev, marks the last truly intriguing major fight of 2014. It's a year that, in truth, has been a largely insipid one for the sport, and more so in direct comparison to the previous 12 months - a vintage by the standards of the recent decade.
It's an intriguing fight for all the right reasons, too. Rather than a triumph of promotional glitz and pre-fight hype, Hopkins-Kovalev came together because, largely, it had to. While it may be true that Adonis Stevenson - lineal champion and WBC titleholder - passed on the chance to make his own decisive stamp on the picture at 175lb, few made any complaints when Hopkins and Kovalev signed contracts instead. It's an intriguing fight because it's a classic style clash, if not one guaranteed to produce fireworks; intriguing because it represents a possible - and genuine - passing of the torch from a dead-cert, first-ballot, Hall of Famer to an all-action younger man; intriguing because it should simultaneously answer a host of questions about who each man is at this point in time.
As we knew when the bout was first announced back in August, the unbeaten Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) is the betting favorite, but, given the vast scale in which we're used to seeing big fight odds cover, not massively so. Having opened as a 4/11 (-275) shot in the summer, there's been but a little movement in his price since, with the most competitive of books now listing him at -250. Firmly odds-on though he may be, this is the best price we've seen on Kovalev bar the near-even-money he went off at prior to wresting away the WBO strap from Nathan Cleverly in the Welshman's own city. He's racked up a further three knockouts since that night with little ado, but each time under the banner of a lopsided favorite, against Ismael Sillakh (-800), Cedric Agnew (-3300), and Blake Caparello (-1000).
Conversely, then, there's been only minimal jostling on the Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) price in the past few months. Having opened as a 2/1 (+200) shot, there are a few major books who have been happy to position themselves slightly longer, with each of Bet365, SkyBet, and Coral offering a more generous 11/5 (-220), or 9/4 (-225). Of the big names, only Sportingbet care offer below that initial twos, at a marginally-more-cautious +195 (or the rather awkward 39/20, fractions fans!). Hopkins will know that, again, he's being written off by many against the younger, stronger, more dynamic opponent and, frankly, he's right not to care one jot, having made a mockery of the respective favouritism of Tavoris Cloud (-165), Jean Pascal (-150), and Kelly Pavlik (-350). Granted, he's taken some softer touches of late - not necessarily of his own choosing - and went off fancied against both Karo Murat (-600) and Beibut Shumenov (-250). For both men on Saturday, though, this is, clearly, a step (back) up to the very top table.
While it'd be a bit of a stretch to say that the two are polar opposites in style, the manner in which they generally triumph provides a marked contrast. Let's look at the numbers: Sergey Kovalev - remarkably - has never been past the eighth round of any of his 26 professional contests. He's stopped his last nine opponents inside a combined total of 33 rounds - an average of roughly three-and-a-half rounds rounds per fight. Hopkins, on the other hand, last won by stoppage against - yep - Oscar De Hoya in 2004, over 10 years and 16 fights ago (15 if we exclude that no-contest against Chad Dawson). All bouts since - win, lose, or draw - have gone the twelve-round distance.
Looking at the Method of Victory market, then, there's clearly an argument to be for or against each. As you'd expect, Hopkins by KO/TKO is the rank outsider (+1600), with Kovalev by decision next down the list. That's not an outcome that the layers are particularly wary of, given Hopkins's guile and knack of getting it done over the twelve (he's +275 to do so again here), and the fact that Sergey Kovalev doesn't know the meaning of the phrase ‘championship rounds'. It's slight odds-on that Kovalev wins by stoppage, with -125 most generally available. That's obviously noteworthy in itself, but there's two starkly opposing viewpoints here: is it a huge price because of this Kovalev knockout rampage (streak: 9) and the fact he's up against a near-50-year-old man? Or does such an outcome really deserve to be odds-on, and does a Hopkins decision represent the value, given that Kovalev has never tested at this level, and is in against the craftiest, most awkward operator in the game, a man never stopped in 26 years and 65 fights?