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Kovalev vs Shabranskyy: Fight preview and matchup

Sergey Kovalev returns to the ring on Saturday to face Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in an HBO main event.

Sergey Kovalev

Andre Ward v Sergey Kovalev 2 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Record: 30-2-1 (26 KO) ... Streak: L2 ... Last 5: 3-2 ... Last 10: 8-2 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6'0" / 72½" ... Age: 34

Thoughts: A year ago, “Krusher” Kovalev was seen as an all but indestructible force at 175 pounds, an elite fighter in the sport, pound-for-pound top five guy, someone who had thoroughly dominated the competition since his big HBO debut in August 2013, or even his couple of fights on NBC Sports Network before that.

Things change. Here’s the list of victims who fell short against Kovalev on HBO airwaves:

  • Nathan Cleverly (TKO-4)
  • Ismayl Sillah (KO-2)
  • Cedric Agnew (KO-7)
  • Blake Caparello (TKO-2)
  • Bernard Hopkins (UD-12)
  • Jean Pascal (TKO-8)
  • Nadjib Mohammedi (KO-3)
  • Jean Pascal (RTD-7)

Pascal stands out, a former champion at 175, but he was past his best. Hopkins, of course, stands out, too, a no doubt Hall of Famer, but one who was 50 years old and at the end of his career.

Other than that, it’s a group of light heavyweight also-rans. This is not meant to be a shot at Kovalev, just to set up the next part of this.

A year ago, Kovalev faced Andre Ward. He had a claim for victory in a tight 12-round affair, but it went to Ward. And in the rematch, earlier this year, Ward stopped Kovalev in the eighth round.

Kovalev, now 34 and loser of two straight fights, has blamed everyone and anyone he can think to blame for the defeats. Judges. Referees. His ex-trainer, John David Jackson. Even himself, to some degree, after he got the rest out of his system.

But here’s the real question: is Sergey Kovalev, with Ward retired, still the best light heavyweight in the sport? On paper, I think so. The other serious contenders are Adonis Stevenson, who holds the WBC title; Badou Jack, who just moved into the division; and Sullivan Barrera, who also has only lost to Andre Ward.

In practice, we’ll have to see. Careers in boxing can unravel quickly, and Kovalev is at an age where it could just all go sour for him. If he’s not mentally there anymore to the degree he was when he was wrecking shop against everyone who would face him, then things could get ugly in a hurry.

I think he’s taking a calculated risk with this fight. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy is not some total no-hoper, he’s a guy with skills who was a celebrated prospect for a good reason, and the timing could be right for the underdog.

We’ll see at least some evidence as to whether or not Kovalev is still the best at 175, or at least has a good argument for that top spot.

Vyacheslav Shabranskyy

Sergey Kovalev v Vyacheslav Shabranskyy Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Record: 19-1 (16 KO) ... Streak: W2 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6'3½" / 75" ... Age: 30

Thoughts: Shabranskyy, as I just said, is not a chump. He lost a fight to Sullivan Barrera in December 2016, and has won a couple of bounce-back type fights this year in April and August. And that loss to Barrera has only looked better over time, as Barrera has emerged as a serious contender.

This is a big shot for him. The vacant WBO title is on the line, and it’s a crack at a top name fighter in the division. Shabranskyy is taller and a little longer than Kovalev, he’s younger and certainly fresher as a professional. Can he match skills with Kovalev? Maybe not, but with a new trainer and reeling from two straight defeats that seemed to take a toll on him mentally, will Kovalev even be the same fighter he was before? Again, maybe not.

Look, Shabranskyy is the underdog here, and he should be. If it’s the same old Sergey Kovalev we saw before the fights with Andre Ward, I don’t think Shabranskyy can beat him, and I’d even say Kovalev should get a stoppage. Barrera battered Shabranskyy and exposed his flaws a year ago, after all.

But the timing is what matters most here — if Shabranskyy has caught Sergey Kovalev at the right time (or wrong time, if you’re Kovalev), then we could be looking at a late year upset.

Matchup Grade: B-. I’m higher on this one than some are, I suspect, because of the mental aspect on Kovalev’s side. I think he could be vulnerable. If he is, we might get something memorable in a Shabranskyy upset. And if he’s not, then we see a rebirth for Kovalev. Both guys can bang and I don’t expect a dull affair.

Undercard

  • Sullivan Barrera vs Felix Valera: Barrera (20-1, 14 KO) was served up to Andre Ward as a tune-up before Ward fought Kovalev in 2016, and lost to Ward in Oakland, a clear decision to defeat. But he came out of it looking a decent fighter, and proved he’s dangerous when he knocked out Shabranskyy nine months later. Since then, he’s beaten Paul Parker and the hot Joe Smith Jr. Valera (15-1, 13 KO) has a puncher’s record, and he’s formidable, too, as he went a full 12 with Dmitry Bivol in May 2016, going down twice but lasting the distance. This one has quiet potential to be a really fun fight. The winner of this facing the winner of the main event would make sense. Matchup Grade: B-
  • Jason Sosa vs Yuriorkis Gamboa: Gamboa (27-2, 17 KO) is here as a late replacement opponent, and this could be the last time we see the 35-year-old Cuban on HBO if he doesn’t perform. He was valiant but overwhelmed against Terence Crawford in 2014, his first pro loss, and was beaten around pretty good by Robinson Castellanos in May of this year, too, stopped after the seventh round. He last fought in August, losing three points on fouls and escaping Cancun with a majority decision win over Alexis Reyes. Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KO) is a solid, tough fighter who is coming off of a hopeless loss to Vasyl Lomachenko in April, but he had strong wins over Javier Fortuna and Stephen Smith before that one. Both of these guys badly need the win. Matchup Grade: C+