Typically, when I analyze a boxer, I look to highlight the things he does well. Most of my articles focus on fighters at the top of their games, and usually at the top of their respective divisions to boot. So, naturally, there's a lot of good to be said. It also helps to analyze what a name boxer does well because, this being the sport that it is, big names are very rarely matched up against other big names, and when they are the matchups are so carefully planned as to heavily favor one fighter. Why point out the flaws in a fighter's style if they're almost certainly not going to be exploited by his next opponent?
On the surface, this weekend isn't too different. Sergey Kovalev is a surging light heavyweight--actually, he's already surged, and he's fresh off a completely dominant win over Bernard Hopkins, one that earned him every belt in the division not already held by lineal champ Adonis Stevenson. His opponent, on the other hand, is anything but surging. Despite a recent impressive win over fringe top boxer Lucian Bute, the overwhelming public perception of Jean Pascal is that he's either past his prime, or too inconsistent to tell. The people saying that aren't necessarily wrong.
But styles make fights, and Pascal has the tools to give Kovalev serious trouble. Whether or not he'll use them effectively remains to be seen, but he has just enough potential to warrant a different kind of analysis. So today, instead of simply lauding Kovalev for his considerable skills, we will look at him as an opponent would, with an eye for his weaknesses as well as his strengths. By the end, we should have a firm idea of how to beat the man with the tremendous punch.
Let's make like Jean Pascal, and spend a little time contemplating the Krusher.
Kovalev has lived up to the promise of his nickname in all but three of his professional fights, stopping 23 opponents in seven rounds or less. Until that impressive win over Hopkins, Kovalev was riding a 9-fight knockout streak that included credible names such as Blake Caparello, Cornelius White, Gabriel Campillo, and the master journeyman Darnell Boone--not world beaters, but not exactly scrubs, either. The point is that Kovalev has proven time and again his uncanny knack for flattening opponents with either hand.
The Russian puncher is far from perfect, however. Kovalev does his crushing in the manner of an avalanche, rolling downhill and overtaking everything in its path. The longer the slope, the more tremendous the impact at the end. Kovalev needs distance to build momentum, and momentum to string his punches together.
Given an opponent who goes on the defensive and backs up, Kovalev is able to put together stunning combinations, like this one against a stunned Nathan Cleverly.
If we watch the sequence carefully, we start to see some of the prerequisites for Kovalev's combination punching. Firstly, he needs to be moving forward. Note how Kovalev actually prefers to shift punch with his left hand, stepping momentarily into southpaw, rather than pivoting and following Cleverly's movement with a more traditional left hook.
The reason for this is simple: while it is possible to throw a left hook while moving forward, the punch requires the bodyweight to be moving backward, making it a slightly more complicated proposition than a shift step, which allows the fighter to simply walk forward alternating his punches while still putting enough weight on them to hurt. The shift step also allows Kovalev to quickly change angles without having to reposition himself in his orthodox stance. It's a somewhat risky proposition, but it gives him the freedom to do what he does best: move forward, improvise combinations, and hunt for the finish.
Kovalev also likes to get opponents on the defensive. When the other fighter is forced into a long string of defensive reactions, Kovalev can get into his punching rhythm, throwing and throwing until, ultimately, he times his retreating opponent with a powerful punch.
The solution seems simple enough: to beat Kovalev, a fighter must deny the raging Russian those opportunities to attack full-steam, or catch him making mistakes when he does. Bernard Hopkins didn't come close to beating Kovalev, but by going all 12 rounds he did give future opponents a whole lot of data on the Krusher's limitations.
Hopkins, in large part by accident, revealed just how important forward momentum is to Kovalev's game. Much of the fight played out like this, with Kovalev attempting to generate offense, finding limited success, and then resetting.
Kovalev is no true pressure fighter. Rather, he is a boxer-puncher who relies on forward movement to deliver and set up his punches. Because Hopkins spent so much of the fight with his back to the ropes, as in the sequence above, Kovalev struggled to string his punches together. He clearly wants to use that beloved shift punch after the right hand, but Hopkins isn't retreating. Even given an opponent who was almost entirely on the defensive, Kovalev couldn't combine his shots as he was able to do against Cleverly. Kovalev doesn't want an opponent standing on the end of his punches--he wants an opponent that he can chase.
In fact, Kovalev desires the bullrush so much that he will even attempt to simulate it. Take a look at this.
Here, Kovalev initiates with a jab from too far away, without even stepping in to close the range. Next he feints a right hand to set up a left hook, but once again doesn't use the feint as an opportunity to cover distance. Normally the jab and feint would force the opponent into a retreat, allowing Sergey to bound after them, but Hopkins refuses to back down. By this point in the fight, Kovalev has already learned that Hopkins doesn't retreat recklessly or even easily, and so he creates a situation in which he can punch as if chasing down an opponent, without the opponent ever having to actually move.
But again, there is only so much space to cover when the opponent doesn't step back. Kovalev gets off his first left hook, a pseudo-shift punch that causes him to square his feet, and by the time he has thrown his next punch he is completely out of position to continue punching. Feet not set, too close to the opponent, balance compromised. Just as in the last sequence, he finishes his charge, takes a few awkward steps back, and prepares to do it again.
All of this brings us to the question: how do we strategize for these tendencies? How do we turn these risky habits into exploitable faults? How does Jean Pascal beat Sergey Kovalev?
Does he deliberately put his back to the ropes, as Hopkins did, and try to play the part of the counter puncher? Probably not. That might put a damper on Kovalev's devastating combinations, but it's certainly no way to win a decision.
Case in point: Kovalev did a great job of using his jab and straight right when he had Hopkins against the ropes. It wasn't enough to set up his killer combos, but it kept him well ahead on the scorecards and allowed him to take full advantage of his reach. So laying back isn't the answer.
A better option would be to move forward, even if only intermittently. Kovalev doesn't just rely on momentum mid-combination--he also needs to feel a sense of momentum in his fights. A pure rhythm fighter, Kovalev struggles when he isn't given the chance to fall into his rhythm, find his pace, and chip away at his target. This wouldn't be such an exploitable trait if Kovalev weren't so easily deterred by interruptive punches.
Cedric Agnew managed to give Kovalev pause by punctuating the big man's attacks with those of his own. Take this sequence for instance. Kovalev starts to get into that dreaded rhythm, touching Agnew's gloves and using that contact to guide his more powerful punches around and through the guard. Then, steeling himself, Agnew throws back.
His punches aren't pretty. They don't land clean. But they give Kovalev pause, and that's all Agnew needs. Sergey's change in demeanor is remarkable. The man who had been happily swinging away moments before suddenly finds himself tentatively pawing at a smaller opponent's guard, feinting and nudging forward in a vain effort to get back into the rhythm so utterly destroyed by Agnew's three simple punches. Another Agnew punch, this one a wild overhand left, misses the mark badly, but once again forces Kovalev onto the back foot, and convinces him to reset.
Fighting back and pressing forward, counterintuitive as it may seem, is the surest way to get Kovalev off-balance and keep him from putting together meaningful combinations. As Bernard Hopkins learned, however, it is no longer as safe to charge forth at Kovalev as it may once have been.
Kovalev has added some respectable counter punches to his game, which he uses to keep opponents from staging any rallies once he's started to break them down. Lest Pascal end up like Hopkins, who was dropped with a counter right in the first round and spent the rest of the fight defending, he will need to discourage Kovalev from countering.
Agnew managed to give Kovalev considerable difficulty by fighting back intelligently. Compare Agnew's successful attack here to Hopkins' failed attack above.
First, Agnew doesn't lead, he counters. Dangerous as Kovalev's punches are, he consistently puts himself off-balance and out of position while throwing them (more on that in a moment). Attacking Kovalev when he is poised and ready, as Hopkins did, is a recipe for a heavy-handed counter. But by getting Kovalev to lead and then countering him, Pascal will be able to catch the big man in a compromised position.
Second, Agnew stays low. When Hopkins attacked, he first telegraphed and then leapt into his left hook, both feet leaving the floor and his legs straightening out. Standing up tall without a firm base, he was easy to knock down for balance reasons alone, and compromised balance means a compromised chin. In contrast, Agnew bends his knees to roll under Kovalev's hook, and stays in that lowered position throughout his entire combination.
Finally, Agnew attacks with more than one punch at a time. Combinations are the bane of the counter puncher because they present a variety of rapidly changing threats. A single strike is easy to prepare for, easy to avoid, and therefore easy to counter. But a string of punches means that the evasive movement that negated the next punch might find you right in the path of the next one. Countering a combination puncher is a much taller order, and given how recently Kovalev has started to develop his countering skills, that's an advantage that Pascal would do well to press.
Now, about Kovalev's compromised position. Here, we see him attacking Bernard Hopkins with a long combination of punches, using his trademark forward momentum to pursue and hurt the retreating veteran.
As you can see, Kovalev has a problem keeping both feet on the ground. In particular, his right foot drags, floats, and skips across the canvas on a very regular basis--practically whenever Kovalev really commits to an attack.
Kovalev's trainer John David Jackson has gone on record stating that Kovalev came to him possessing punching power--that wasn't something that Jackson had to teach. Watching the Russian fall into his punches, it's quite clear that no one ever bothered to teach him how to punch, at least not properly. Whenever Kovalev commits to a punch, his weight ends up almost entirely on his front foot. Many fighters get away with this by immediately pulling their weight back, returning themselves to their original stance and regaining a safe, balanced position. But Kovalev only works himself further and further out of position with each subsequent punch. After throwing himself forward, he stays there, his left foot staying rooted to the ground while his rear foot scoots around behind him, even coming off the floor when Kovalev twists into his hooks. The farther that right foot gets from Kovalev's torso, the more vulnerable he is to being hurt and knocked down by punches. As an example, let's watch an exchange of left hooks between Mike Quarry and a light heavyweight legend with even more power than Kovalev, Bob Foster.
Note the sharp contrast between the left hook of Foster and that of Quarry. Not only is Quarry's the far wider punch, the body mechanics behind it are vastly inferior. While Foster pulls himself back over his rear leg, ripping his bodyweight into the punch and through Quarry's jaw, Quarry's back foot is too far from his torso, his weight too far forward from his overcommitted right hand for him to return to the safety of his stance. To compensate for his weakened position, Quarry straightens out his legs and simply twists over his lead leg, sending his bodyweight not toward his right foot but back and to his own left, past the foot that already bears his weight. It's no coincidence that Foster's hook sends his body sprawling in that direction.
Compare the movement of Quarry's body to that of Kovalev in the previous example, specifically the moment when Kovalev misses on a left hook as Hopkins pulls away and ends up, for one treacherous moment, perilously teetering on one leg. Jean Pascal is no Bob Foster, but he has more than enough power in his hands to hurt a man who so readily compromises himself. Even Bernard Hopkins managed to do it on one of the rare occasions when he worked up the gumption to counter punch.
Here, Hopkins catches Kovalev with a left hook as he loads up to throw his own. Though the punch doesn't land clean--it's only a cuffing slap--it sends Kovalev staggering, struggling to regain his balance. That's a sure sign that a clean shot would have hurt the Russian.
This sequence also underlines the importance of countering Kovalev to break his rhythm. Once Hopkins hits Kovalev, he forces him to think. Kovalev doesn't want to think--he wants to act. So much of his fighting style is predicated on the concept of uninterrupted forward movement that even a semi-clean punch is enough to give him pause. And in that moment of uncertainty, Hopkins attacks, lunging into the lead right that has become his specialty of late. Kovalev, still mentally unbalanced from the counter hook, isn't ready for this punch as he was Hopkins' last naked lead, and consequently fails to counter it.
Jean Pascal can do these things--whether or not he can do them consistently enough to keep ahead of Kovalev on the scorecards--or well enough to keep Kovalev from eventually falling into his deadly rhythm--is still up for debate. But as boxing fans we know the power of a good gameplan. Kovalev came prepared with one to beat Bernard Hopkins, and cemented himself as a top player at 175 pounds. If Jean Pascal prepares even half as well as Kovalev and John David Jackson did for their last big bout, he'll have a decent shot of shocking the world.
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode focuses on the style known as out-fighting, the preferred method of UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who defends his title this Saturday in the main event of UFC 185.