Record: 31-2-1 (27 KO) ... Streak: W1 ... Last 5: 3-2 ... Last 10: 8-2 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’0” / 72½” ... Age: 34
Thoughts: Kovalev bounced back strong after his two losses to Andre Ward, which just bringing those up will bring the pro-Kovalev crowd in to scream about unjust decisions and low blows, so let me say that, yes, both losses to Ward had some controversy.
His November return to action saw him look like the old “Krusher” Kovalev, working with a new trainer, and more importantly, frankly, matched with someone well below Ward’s level. He blasted through former prospect Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in less than two rounds, dropping Shabranskyy twice in the first and once in the second. It was never a contest.
But even considering Shabranskyy is no Ward and not a top-flight contender, Kovalev came in on a mission, and he achieved it. He was physically and mentally dominant. At 34, he’s starting the approach toward the end of his career, much closer to that than the start, and his prime years are slipping away. He needs to have that confidence and that demeanor to stay on top, and really, he still deserves to be considered the top light heavyweight in the sport. He was before Ward moved up, and the only guy he’s lost to is Ward.
On paper, this fight with Igor Mikhalkin is more akin to the Shabranskyy bout, or Kovalev’s wins over the likes of Isaac Chilemba and Nadjib Mohammedi, than it is to Ward or Bernard Hopkins or even Jean Pascal. Mikhalkin could surprise, but this is designed to be a stay-busy title defense for Sergey as they get ready for something bigger later this year.
Record: 21-1 (9 KO) ... Streak: W10 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 6’1” / N/A ... Age: 31
Thoughts: I don’t know much about Mikhalkin. You can see a little bit of him on YouTube, including wins over Thomas Oosthuizen and Doudou Ngumbu, and you can also see his 2010 loss to Aleksy Kuziemski, the lone blemish on the Russian southpaw’s pro record.
Going by that bit of footage, Mikhalkin is, frankly, not a big threat to Kovalev. He’s never fought on the true world class level, and he didn’t exactly dominate Ngumbu (with whom he’s had a trilogy between 2009 and 2017) in his last outing, either, though he did deserve the victory. Ngumbu is, at best, a fringe contender. Mikhalkin may not be much more.
That said, Mikhalkin isn’t a bum. He’s a capable, competent boxer who will get his shot at a world title. Worse fighters fight for them pretty regularly. Whether or not Mikhalkin has even a round of success against Kovalev is another story. On paper, he’s overmatched.
Matchup Grade: C-. There’s not much to get excited about here, but the design to get Kovalev through a title defense and then on to a big fight in the summer or fall against the Bivol-Barrera winner is sound, so I can’t totally hate what’s going on. Bivol had to fight Barrera right now, so just doing Kovalev-Bivol (or Kovalev-Barrera) wasn’t really an option. If this were Kovalev and team avoiding a better fight, I’d be harsher, but that’s not the case. It’s the system, man, the SYSTEM.
- Dmitry Bivol vs Sullivan Barrera: The better reason to tune in to HBO on Saturday comes in the co-feature, where WBA “world” light heavyweight titleholder Bivol (12-0, 10 KO) takes on Barrera (21-1, 14 KO), a top contender whose only loss came against Andre Ward, a win that looks better and better for Ward as time goes by. Since losing to Ward, Barrera has beaten Shabranskyy, Paul Parker, Joe Smith Jr, and Felix Valera, all convincing victories. It was Barrera who handed top prospect Shabranskyy his first loss, and he did it in style. Meanwhile, Bivol has been ripping through everyone put in front of him, and the 27-year-old Russian has started to look like the potential future of the division. Which is all well and good against the aforementioned Valera, Robert Berridge, Samuel Clarkson, Cedric Agnew, and Trent Broadhurst, but Barrera is a big step up for Bivol. If he’s the real deal, we’ll know on Saturday. If he’s not, Barrera is plenty good enough to show us. This is a matchup between two top fighters at 175, with an even bigger fight probably on the line. Matchup Grade: A-