This Saturday, at the Bell Center in Montreal, WBO, IB, and WBA (Super) Light Heavyweight champion Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev (26-0-1, 23KO's) makes his first defense of 2015 against experienced former champion Jean Pascal (29-2-1, 17KO's). Other than venerable Bernard Hopkins, Jean Pascal is one of the most experienced opponents of Kovalev's relatively young professional career.
2014 was a good year for Sergey Kovalev. The dangerous Russian ruthlessly defended his WBO Light Heavyweight belt with two stoppage victories before he challenged the ageless IBF and WBA (Super) Light Heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins is the oldest man to ever hold and defend a world title in boxing, and at almost 50 years of age, has fought a who's who across the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. With victories over names the like of Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver, and Kovalev's opponent Jean Pascal, Hopkins has boxed the ears off challengers two decades his junior. Many thought that Hopkins' veteran guile, clinch control, and defensive prowess would give him an advantage over Kovalev's power and relative inexperience with top competition. However, Sergey scored a knockdown in the 1st round and then proceeded to completely shut down Hopkins in a one-sided affair. Kovalev fought a brilliantly technical bout-never overcommitting on his power shots, denying Hopkins' fabled clinch game, and forcing the older man on the defensive nearly the entire fight. Now holding three of the major belts, Kovalev looks to knock off another top heavyweight before making a case for a unification bout.
Jean Pascal is in a strange place in his career. Since his draw with Bernard Hopkins back in late 2010, Pascal has barely fought five times in the next four years. The former WBC Light Heavyweight champion has been in the ring a number of formidable opponents and his only losses have come by top boxers Carl Froch and the aforementioned Hopkins. However, with only one fight a year since then, against mid-tier opponents, many are questioning Pascal's commitment to the sport. The former champ looks to silence the doubts by jumping back into the mix with the most dangerous matchup available at 175lbs. Despite how dangerous Kovalev is, this is a very low risk-high reward bout for Pascal. If he loses to Sergey, Pascal loses nothing in terms of standing, but a win would turn the Light Heavyweight division completely on its head.
Kovalev is probably one of the most efficient boxers in the light heavyweight division. The Russian doesn't have the largest arsenal of punches, almost exclusively relying on the left jab and straight right, but his fundamentals are top-notch and he carries fight-ending power in both hands.
At least 80% of Kovalev's (red trunks) fights look like this. He adopts a long stance and potshots his opponent from range with either a lead right or a jab to the body or head. Except for his lead hand placement, Sergey's jabs follow almost picture-perfect amateur form: he steps in with the punch, guards his chin with his shoulder, and then immediately steps out again to avoid the counter. If Kovalev gets a good pop off of his probing left, he'll follow up with a decapitating 1-1-2 double jab-straight right combination that is the bread and butter of his offense.
Though simplistic, few opponents have found ways to successfully avoid or counter Kovalev's offense because he is so good at ring-cutting to set up his long right hand.
Here, Kovalev backs his opponent (Hopkins) into the ropes with a long jab to the body. As Hopkins rebounds and tries to establish some distance, Kovalev closes in and keeps his lead foot ahead of Hopkins' back foot, forcing Hopkins to stay locked in in front of him. By stepping ahead of Hopkins, Kovalev places Hopkins in a dilemma because if he continues to move to either side, Kovalev will continue to step with him while closing the distance, but if he tries to step around the Russian, he'll have to contest with Kovalev's power. Hopkins then begins using more preemptive head movement in anticipation of Kovalev's offense as Sergey's pressure forces him into the corner. A light flurry causes Hopkins to believe that Kovalev will rush in with strikes, and as Hopkins dives forward to neutralize what he thinks will be a Kovalev flurry, the Russian steps back and times a beautiful overhand right that drops Hopkins cleanly.
Kovalev also possesses perhaps the finest body jabs at light heavyweight. Bernard Hopkins is one of the slickest defensive fighters in the sport, and Kovalev's body jab took away all of his options. By backing Hopkins to the ropes and repeatedly digging a stiff jab to the body, Kovalev completely neutralized Hopkins' offense because he was constantly using both arms to guard his torso. The body jab occupied Hopkins' arms and forced him to rely on head movement to avoid the Krusher's dangerous right hand, and he would lean and attempt to roll punches off of his shoulder. This forced Kovalev to throw his straight rights almost with a chopping motion, but their impact was undeniable. This versatile punch's ability to force opponents completely on the defensive gives Sergey plenty of time to pick his dangerous power shots.
In my opinion, Jean Pascal is more of an elite athlete than an elite boxer. A broad and powerfully muscled fighter, Pascal relies on his natural power and reflexes over good boxing technique to catch and pound on his opponents. Often, Pascal's most effective offense looks like this.
Pascal (fuchsia trunks) tends to probe with a jab, and if he sees his opponent react defensively (as Chad Dawson leans back in his sequence), Pascal will lunge in with a flurry and do his best to run over his opponent with power punches. When he gets wild like this, Pascal's form is just awful. He throws with his chin up and often slaps hooks, punching for the sake of hitting the opponent rather than thinking about effective shot placement. However, the Canadian's explosive athletic ability allows him, for the most part, to get away with his defensive flaws due to the sheer volume and power with which he flurries, often getting his opponent more worried about defense than about exploiting Pascal's openings. When Chad Dawson eventually turns out of the flurry, Pascal wings a right hook to his body, misses, and pulls his head out of the way of a counter to reset his distance and find an opening to flurry again.
Pascal's entire offense is centered around finding opportunities to unleash the "Jean Pascal Bum Rush". You'll almost always see the bum rush off of a pumping double jab. Pascal throws it as a measuring stick to gauge how close he is to his opponent rather than as a damaging combination. If he can get his opponent to pull back or off-balance themselves, Pascal will typically leap in and follow up with a circular punch, be it a lead hook off of said jab or a whipping right hook to the body, before wildly unloading shots at his opponent. It is an incredibly sloppy method of boxing that relies heavily on Pascal being strong enough to catch and muscle around his opponent.
Building off my earlier assertion that Pascal relies more on his natural ability rather than proper understanding of boxing fundamentals, this sequence against Hopkins in their second bout illustrates a number of glaring weaknesses in Jean Pascal's offensive game: namely his poor footwork and head movement.
To start, Pascal's footwork also leaves something to be desired. He circles almost exclusively to the left in wide arcs, pumping that double jab combination or digging with a single long left to the body to open up opportunities to lunge in. This is good in theory, but the issue is that Pascal throws punches starting way too far away from his opponent without moving his feet. Pascal initially jabs too far away from Hopkins, and is forced lean back and break his stance as Hopkins feints two counterjabs (we'll talk about his head movement in a moment). Furthermore, Pascal's leftward circling and the placement of his hands also leave him susceptible to right cross counter.
Pascal has fast lateral motion, and covers a large amount of distance quickly, but his attacks almost always occur in straight lines because of his tendency to lunge into a flurry. In the second half of the second sequence (at the 1:34 mark), you'll see Pascal look light on his feet, bouncing left and right, but when he steps in to in to throw a 1-1-2, beyond his initial deep step with his left, Pascal's right foot remains stationary. This reduces the distance his right hand can cover and forces Pascal to drag his foot forward as he overcommits to the right straight, allowing Hopkins to easily step out of range. Pascal's tendency to attack in straight lines also causes him to have difficulties punching while pivoting. At the 1:39 mark, Pascal attempts to counter Hopkins after he slips a jab, but Hopkins' movement carries him around to Pascal's left. The Canadian, in order to compensate, throws a left hook while he swings his back foot to readjust to the new angle, essentially winging a wide punch on one foot.
Not only are Pascal's attacks in straight lines, but his defensive movement occurs in straight lines as well. Pascal has a bad tendency of leaning backwards and throwing up his left shoulder to avoid and block incoming punches. He can typically avoid the first few punches as he backpedals, but retreating directly backwards is never a good idea against an aggressive opponent. In a ring, there is only so much space one can use to move backwards, and without lateral defensive movement, a fighter will more often than not find themselves in compromising situations on the ropes.
For the first four rounds, this fight may be competitive due to Pascal's sheer athleticism and explosive offense. However, once Kovalev finds his range and timing, the Russian's clean technique and adherence to boxing fundamentals should give him the edge over Pascal. Kovalev's rangy style is a nightmare to an opponent that doesn't close distance well, and his powerful right hand will give Pascal issues if he continues to only circle to the left. If the fight gets into the later rounds, Kovalev's long body punches, that were so effective at sealing Hopkin's movement, should have no issue pinning down the Canadian. Pascal has brought in Roy Jones Jr. to help with his camp, and thus maybe will show some new wrinkles in his game, but on paper, Pascal's defensively-porous style does not bode well for him in this bout against the Krusher.