Boxing - Cleverly must evolve for Kovalev

By Michael Nashed: On Saturday August 17th, WBO light-heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly (26-0) will defend his title against one of boxing’s fastest rising stars -  Russian Sergey Kovalev (21-0-1). Cleverly will enjoy home advantage, yet many are touting this fight as the Welshman’s toughest test to date.

Boxing - Cleverly must evolve for Kovalev

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Cleverly must evolve for Kovalev

While Cleverly has amassed an impressive unbeaten record, 'toughest test' is likely an understatement in the minds of those who are familiar with Kovalev’s track record. It may be more realistic to say that Cleverly faces a daunting, uphill battle in which the champion is unlikely to prevail unless he is able to stylistically adapt for this opponent.

On the surface, Cleverly/Kovalev is an appealing style match-up, featuring two habitual brawlers, neither of whom have often been seen to take a step in reverse. From a spectator’s perspective, the action should excite. However, a slugfest would not seem to favor the home towner, whose hands are not as heavy as those of Kovalev. 

Russian born Kovalev, who resides in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has raised a few eyebrows this year with knockouts of top-level contenders in his two most recent fights. In January and June respectively, Kovalev floored Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White three times each en-route to third round knockouts. 

In the opinion of many ringsiders, Campillo had previously out-pointed then IBF champion Tavoris Cloud in February of 2012, only to be robbed by judges. Cornelius White (21-1) was no slouch either, having been ranked fifth by the IBF prior to his demolition at the hands of Kovalev. 

Two fights is  a small sample size on which to judge a boxer, and the fact that both were nationally televised in the USA will likely breed cynicism among those who may consider Kovalev to be over-hyped based on flashes of brilliance.  These cynics need to think again, however.

Kovalev is not just another contender with a padded record who has benefited from some well-timed publicity. The latest in a line of Eastern European fighters to turn professional at an advanced (by boxing standards) age, the Russian was victorious in 193 of 215 amateur bouts, and was, reportedly, never knocked down.

He is a relentless, two handed power puncher with an iron chin and a stunning 86 per cent knockout percentage as a professional. Only three of Kovalev’s 22 professional fights have lasted beyond three rounds.  Ironically, prior to his most recent televised appearances, Kovalev was best known in boxing circles for a match with fellow countryman Roman Simakov; a well regarded prospect who carried a 19-1-1 record into the bout.

Simakov was game enough to withstand a sustained beating from Kovalev, but was eventually counted out after a seventh round knock down.  Simakov lost consciousness after the fight and, tragically, died 3 days later. In the most unfortunate of cautionary tales, Simakov stood toe-to-toe with Kovalev for nearly seven rounds and absorbed a great deal of punishment.

Like Simakov, Nathan Cleverly is a brave fighter who is often drawn into fire fights, but before we start envisioning Apollo Creed/Ivan Drago, lets not forget that Cleverly is a Cardiff University-educated mathematician.  Presumably, he is smart enough not to bring a knife into a gun fight.

To his credit, Cleverly sought out Kovalev, so one would assume he has a plan.  If he chooses, however, to stand in front of and trade with Kovalev, as he did against Tony Bellew in his most notable fight to date, you can bet that the result will differ from that which we saw against Bellew.

In addition to his power, Kovalev is a solid technical boxer and is very difficult to hurt. The only man to manage it so far is the enigmatic Darnell Boone who, despite a 19-21-3 professional record, is famed for being the only fighter to deliver a knockdown to pound-for-pound stalwart Andre Ward, as well as scoring a sixth round knockout of current WBC light-heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson. 

In spite of these three impressive moments in time, not much can be learned from the feast or famine history of Darnell Boone. Rather, and ironically because many believe that he should be fighting in Kovalev’s place on August 17th, IBF light-heavyweight champion, Bernard Hopkins’ ring history could certainly provide Cleverly a blue print on how to defeat Kovalev. 

The ageless Hopkins has confused and dismantled many young, power-punching champions (Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik, Felix Trinidad) with sheer guile and intelligence. Hopkins is certainly crafty and knows what to do, but more importantly, he knows what not to do. In Cleverly’s case, he must not engage Kovalev in a fists-flying free-for-all.  Instead, he needs to box, move and choose his moments to launch combinations wisely.

We already know that Nathan Cleverly has a solid chin, good speed and can sustain a high work rate. What we will learn on August 17th is how clever Nathan is.  Can he win a fight in which he is not the stronger puncher?  Does he have the mind of a champion in addition to the great heart that he has often displayed?  Can he be Bernard Hopkins-like? 

If the answer is yes, he will march on to bigger fights, the first of which will likely be against Hopkins himself.  If not, a star will be born in Sergey Kovalev.  After all, boxing promoters love power punchers because they sell. 

Pavlik, Tarver and Trinidad all sold multiple pay-per-view events, yet, ultimately; each met his demise against Hopkins who never cared about selling anything. Nathan Cleverly must be of the same mind - win today, sell some other day.

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