Sergey Kovalev was an unknown not too long ago. A Russian-born fighter now living in Florida, Kovalev made his pro debut in 2009 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and fought in the mid-Atlantic and mid-south region through much of his early career, and wasn't tested until he ran into Darnell Boone in his 10th pro fight in Atlanta.
Boone, a well-known prospect checker who for years had a .500ish record that didn't represent his actual ability, gave Kovalev all he could handle, but the Russian escaped with an eight-round split decision win on scores of 76-75, 76-75, and 75-76. It was the first time Kovalev had to go the distance, and gave his handlers confidence that he was on the right path.
Perhaps most important for Kovalev's career, though, was what didn't happen after that fight. Kovalev and manager Egis Klimas went to Florida to speak with promoter Don King, far past the days when King was doing more than letting his fighters stagnate on the sidelines.
Klimas and Kovalev expressed hope of signing with King, under the assumption that Don would lead them to the promised land. Kovalev wound up not signing with King, and though Klimas later said that he spoke with both Golden Boy and Top Rank, among other promoters, nobody seemed particularly interested in Kovalev.
It turned out to be their loss. In 2012, following a win on NBC Sports Fight Night over Lionell Thompson, Main Events stepped in and signed the explosive fighter. In three rounds, Kovalev completely rolled over Thompson, a replacement opponent for contender and former light heavyweight titleholder Gabriel Campillo. Kathy Duva and Co. had been evaluating Kovalev, and the win over Thompson was all they needed to see.
Main Events, Klimas said, believed in Kovalev's talent and his ability to become a top dog in the light heavyweight division.
About three months later, the fight with Campillo was rescheduled. A tricky southpaw veteran who had twice given Beibut Shumenov hell in a win and then a robbery loss, and was later robbed by Texas judges in a fight with Tavoris Cloud, Spain's Campillo figured to be a potential trap for Main Events' newest prize client.
But Campillo was also known to be a slow starter, and Campillo and trainer John David Jackson took advantage of that, blitzing Campillo and bombing him out in the third round with three knockdowns. It was a statement fight for Kovalev. What loomed as a possible night of exposure became an arrival, and it was clear to those paying attention that Kovalev needed to be taken seriously in the 175-pound division.
Not long after in 2013, Kovalev moved into the title picture. When IBF mandatory Karo Murat had to cancel a fight with Bernard Hopkins due to visa issues, there was some talk of Hopkins facing Kovalev. However you want to view the way it went down, one thing is certain: Showtime stated that they had no interest in televising Hopkins-Kovalev, and that extinguished the fight's chances of happening. Without TV, there is no fight, at least at that level in American boxing.
Some believed that Hopkins and Golden Boy were flat-out avoiding facing the big punching Kovalev, a guy that trainer Freddie Roach had called "the best prospect in boxing," lauding his skills and immense pop. The idea that Showtime was agreeable to televising Hopkins against Murat, a fighter with no U.S. TV exposure and even less of a name here than Kovalev, but was not interested in televising Hopkins against Kovalev -- well, it reeked a bit. Stephen Espinoza of Showtime Sports said that he didn't think the division was all that deep.
Hopkins-Murat would be televised later in the year by Showtime when the fight was put back together. That came after a surprise announcement that Kovalev would travel to Wales to face WBO titleholder Nathan Cleverly. A June beatdown of Cornelius White -- Kovalev won in his standard three rounds -- had us wondering two days later if Kovalev, and not Adonis Stevenson, was the real biggest threat out there to Bernard Hopkins.
But we didn't wonder long, as just a few days after that, Cleverly-Kovalev was signed. Main Events had been speaking with Frank Warren, Cleverly's promoter, about a possible August fight. Kovalev had been named the IBF mandatory after Murat's failure to get to the States to face Bernard in the summer, but Kathy Duva didn't see that fight happening. She was probably right to fear the worst for her fighter in that situation, and she worked around it. It cost Kovalev a mandatory ranking with the IBF, which had earned by beating White, but she had a deal in place, one that came with TV.
Feeling that it was the guaranteed world title bout, Duva jumped on the WBO shot against Cleverly, rather than playing any games with Hopkins, whom she felt did not want to face Kovalev, and would sooner vacate his title, leaving her fighter to face someone else for a vacant belt. That would have also held no guarantee of HBO televising, which she had been assured for the Cleverly fight.
The fight's announcement also ended any hopes of Hopkins facing Cleverly in a unification bout, which he repeatedly stated he was open to doing, even if he had to travel to the United Kingdom to do it.
"I decided to take the first opportunity that was offered to me," Kovalev said after signing to face Cleverly.
On August 17, he went about his business. Trainer Jackson had predicted that Cleverly wouldn't go longer than three rounds against his fighter, boldly stating that not only did Cleverly not deserve to be considered in league with the other titleholders in the division, but that his paper-thin record didn't even qualify him to be ranked.
Cleverly surpassed Jackson's expectations on fight night, but barely. In the third round, Kovalev put Cleverly on the canvas twice. From the get-go, it looked something like a man meeting a boy. With all respect to Nathan Cleverly, he was truly exposed in the fight, smashed by a fully-developed, world-class fighter, a victim of his own promoter's kiddie-gloves handling after a 2011 scare against Tony Bellew.
Facing the likes of Tommy Karpency, Shawn Hawk, and Robin Krasniqi had not prepared Cleverly for the power and precision of Kovalev. This was no fringe contender, and no also-ran club fighter plucked from obscurity. In Kovalev, he was faced with the daunting task of overcoming maybe the most powerful puncher in the division, and one with pretty good offensive boxing skills, to boot. He proved unprepared, and though it probably should have been stopped in Jackson's predicted third round, it was allowed to go into the fourth, where Kovalev finished the deed.
HBO and boxing fans became interested then in a fight between Adonis Stevenson and Kovalev, two big-punching titlists -- Stevenson the lineal champ of the division, too -- who figured to give a savage, brutal fight if they could be matched with one another. They were placed in a November 30 doubleheader, with Stevenson stopping Bellew in the main event, and Kovalev smashing former top prospect Ismayl Sillakh in two rounds in the co-feature, knocking him clean out.
A war of words in the media between Kovalev and Stevenson has followed. Stevenson has also signed with adviser Al Haymon -- one of the handful of fighters Haymon represents who is not promoted by Golden Boy -- which makes the fight if not impossible, certainly tougher than before to put together, given the chilly relationship between Haymon and HBO.
Kovalev has called Stevenson a coward. Stevenson has said he'll fight Kovalev -- if the money is right.
But that's not what we have lined up next. This Saturday night, Kovalev (23-0-1, 21 KO) headlines for the first time on HBO, as he's in the Boxing After Dark main event against Cedric Agnew, an unbeaten American whose thin record and lack of name makes him a likely candidate for most marginal HBO main event fighter of 2014 when the year has ended.
Coming off of a win over Yusaf Mack, the 27-year-old Agnew (26-0, 13 KO) steps up at least a couple of levels in the hopes of scoring a massive upset and the WBO title. Few if any see this as a remotely competitive matchup, and chances are that Agnew will be a sort of pitstop title defense for Kovalev, who is eyeing bigger game in Stevenson, if the sides can actually get that fight done.
What's most encouraging about the rise of Kovalev on American TV is that it has shown how well a secondary boxing series can work if done right. Main Events' NBC Sports Fight Night show is not going to be confused with HBO or Showtime any time soon, because with all respect to some very good fighters who have been on the show, it's just not at that level. The budget isn't there, the talent rosters aren't there as a result, and it takes good, mindful effort to book a fighter like Kovalev from being an unknown knockout artist on the undercard of a smaller show, all the way to an HBO main event, no matter if it is or isn't truly HBO-worthy.
What's obvious is that HBO is behind Kovalev 100%. No doubt, the network absolutely wants Stevenson-Kovalev, as that's one of the very best fights that any network could possibly put together in the United States. The likely highlight-reel worthy win in the wings over Agnew might be a stay-busy fight more than a serious challenge, but what matters is that HBO is invested enough in Kovalev to put that sort of fight into this sort of position. Even if they can't eventually make Stevenson-Kovalev a reality, they're putting their weight behind a guy who has fought his way into the spot by winning, and winning impressively, with the sort of approach that guarantees action.
When you consider how many fighters -- and good ones -- there are in the world today, a very small number of them will ever headline an HBO event. Kovalev is here.