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What’s next for Sergey Kovalev? Canelo is the money fight, but other options out there

The clock is ticking for Sergey Kovalev, and he’ll probably chase the money.

Kovalev vs Yarde boxing show in Chelyabinsk, Russia Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Sergey Kovalev’s win this past Saturday in Chelyabinsk, Russia, was one that requires some dissection.

Yes, Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KO) stopped Anthony Yarde in the 11th round, finally dropping an exhausted challenger who had put together a highly respectable and game effort, but all the same came in untested at a high level and whose unorthodox training habits may have ultimately betrayed him.

Yarde, the younger man, was quicker and more athletic, looked much fresher in the earlygoing, and had his bits of success. Kovalev, though, was simply the better boxer, and certainly better equipped to swim in the notorious deep waters of a fight, once Yarde had fully gassed.

Experience made the key difference. But Kovalev, at 36, is not what he once was, and maybe he never really was “what he once was.” It’s now a pretty commonly accepted idea that Kovalev is something of a frontrunner, that he doesn’t always respond exceptionally well to adversity in fights. If Yarde had been a more experienced and polished contender, he might have broken Kovalev down when Sergey got hurt in the eighth round. Instead, Yarde couldn’t capitalize, and Kovalev took over.

But a win’s a win, too, and the win means that Sergey Kovalev remains a titleholder at 175, as well as a top name in the division. It also means it’s time to consider what’s next for him.

Canelo Alvarez

Canelo Alvarez v Daniel Jacobs Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The teams for Canelo and Kovalev had legitimate discussions this summer about potentially matching the two this fall, but it all fell through. The idea was — and would be — for Canelo to move up to 175 pounds and fight for Kovalev’s WBO title.

With the deal not getting done, Kovalev instead had to take care of Yarde, his mandatory, and Canelo now appears — though nothing is certain — to be headed for a 160-pound unification fight with Demetrius Andrade. Alvarez, who was stripped of his IBF belt and “elevated beyond” his WBC strap, still has the WBA title, while Andrade has the WBO.

It seems certain that Canelo will fight in October or November after giving up his planned Sept. 14 date when a suitable fight couldn’t be made in time. (And there has also been a lot of chatter about Alvarez not exactly being on the same page with the office guys at Golden Boy, but they’ve denied any friction, as they would.)

Canelo probably won’t fight Kovalev next. The fight could theoretically happen in December, but Kovalev might not want to jump back into a training camp that quickly for a fight of that magnitude.

The more likely scenario is Alvarez facing Andrade — which is no easy fight on paper — and then perhaps looking at a Kovalev fight for Cinco De Mayo weekend in 2020.

It would be an obvious move for Kovalev, a chance at a huge fight against a guy he will have natural size advantages against, but for Canelo, it’s a much more intriguing option. Moving up to 175, even for a one-off, could carry some risks — he’d have to bulk up some for that fight to carry the weight properly, and shedding that weight to go back to 160 or even 168 later might be riskier than necessary. And if Alvarez were to do the Kovalev fight in May, it would mean once again putting off a potential third fight with Gennadiy Golovkin, and also a much-discussed matchup with Callum Smith at 168.

But there’s some obvious shrewdness here, too. Alvarez could claim a world title in a “third” weight class, having won belts at 160 and a secondary title at 168, and he could do so by targeting a well-known, accomplished fighter with name value, who also is at the back end of his career and is known to not deal with body shots very well. Boxing matchmaking is often largely about opportunism, getting the fans in the door and not caring how they feel when they leave. This would be an opportunistic gamble for Alvarez, one that might not be the risk it will be sold to be, and that a large portion of people will accept it being, perhaps to be let down by a faded Kovalev in the end.

Light heavyweight unification

Jose Ramirez v Amir Imam Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Canelo fight just plain might not happen, though. It may have been an idea that came up for “the right time” that just won’t make sense for Alvarez’s side now, or maybe the Kovalev side won’t get the sort of deal they want for it.

So if that doesn’t happen, there’s always unification at 175. Unification is something we as fans continue to yammer on about, while many of us simultaneously desire a dismissal of title belts in general, and also stubbornly refuse to accept is often completely futile, as sanctioning body politics almost always inevitably get in the way, and the unifications don’t last. All we really mean is that we want the best to fight the best, and often the best do have belts.

175 is a great crop of titleholders right now. Kovalev has the WBO, Dmitry Bivol the WBA, Oleksandr Gvozdyk the WBC (and LINEAL!!!!!!), and Artur Beterbiev the IBF. Gvozdyk and Beterbiev are set to unify on Oct. 18 in Philadelphia, which is a fantastic matchup.

Kovalev against Bivol or the Beterbiev-Gvozdyk winner would be a really good fight, though at this point I would have to consider Kovalev a legitimate underdog against any of them. They’re all closer to their best years; Bivol is 28 and right in his prime, and while Gvozdyk and Beterbiev aren’t crazy younger than Kovalev at 32 and 34, they have a lot less mileage. Of the trio, I actually think Kovalev would have the best shot of beating Bivol, but that’s just one man’s opinion.

A plain old WBO title defense

Vasiliy Lomachenko & Gilberto Ramirez Media Workouts Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Let’s say no Canelo and no unification fight, which is entirely possible. What then?

Bob Arum, whose Top Rank have a hand in promoting Kovalev these days, even though his promoter of record is still Main Events, has suggested Kovalev against former super middleweight titleholder Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez or Jesse Hart, a couple of in-house TR contenders.

Ramirez is a guy Top Rank would love to become a star, and you can see why. He’s a Mexican fighter with a built-in fan base, 28 years old, unbeaten at 40-0, and has had some good fights when actually challenged, including both of his bouts with Hart. He moved up to 175 with a win over Tommy Karpency in April, and officially vacated his WBO 168-pound title after deciding the division felt good.

Hart, 30, is no elite fighter and never will be, but he’s hard-nosed and gritty, stereotypically (in a good way) “Philly.” He’s 0-2 in world title fights, losing the two very narrow decisions to Ramirez, but moved up to 175 with a really solid win over longtime contender Sullivan Barrera in June.

Sure, Ramirez or Hart would be “Option C” of what we’re discussing, but not bad options, either. Both are interesting matchups for Kovalev at this stage of their careers and his.

Callum Smith

Anthony Joshua v Andy Ruiz Jr. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

There’s been at least a little talk here and there of Smith, the unbeaten top super middleweight, moving up to face Kovalev. Smith is an enormous guy at 168 and will still be really big at 175, standing 6’3” with a 78-inch reach. (Kovalev is listed at 6’0” with a 72½-inch reach, for comparison.)

Of the actually intriguing options out there, this one is probably the least likely, but it’s actually not hard to imagine a way it does come together. Smith is itching for a big fight, and Top Rank and Matchroom have proven entirely willing to work together for big fights, even in this ESPN “versus” DAZN era of the sport. If this winds up being the right deal, it could happen, I don’t think any politics would get in the way.

Something nobody wants

It’s boxing, so this is always at least somewhat in play. As of the most recent WBO rankings, you can find the likes of Dominic Boesel, Umar Salamov, Maxim Vlasov, Robert Pareczewski, Emil Markic, Blake Caparello, Lenin Castillo, Steve Ward, Fanlong Meng, and Alfonso Lopez ranked in the top 15.

There’s also Joshua Buatsi, who isn’t going to fight Kovalev for various reasons, and Eleider Alvarez, which would be a trilogy fight nobody is really asking for after the second fight.

For whatever it’s worth, Kovalev already beat Caparello back in 2014, a TKO-2 on HBO, so you can probably count that out, and this doesn’t seem a likely option because Kovalev is at the making money stage — if he’s going to fight, he’s going to want the fight to matter, and none of those guys would move the needle as an opponent.

If I were a betting man, I, uh, wouldn’t bet on this one. There are too many variables here — the Canelo situation is a unique one, the Callum Smith situation is intriguing, the unifications are potentially interesting, and then Zurdo and Hart are also fine options. Too many moving parts to make a really confident guess, I think, but the good news is there are a lot of ideas that don’t suck at all.

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