LAS VEGAS (AP) — Sergey Kovalev was knocking out everyone put in front of him when his handlers went to HBO a few years back asking for a coveted spot on one of the network’s boxing shows.
Not so fast, the network said.
“You got two problems with this guy,” promoter Kathy Duva remembers an HBO executive saying. “One, he’s a light heavyweight. Two, he’s a Russian.”
Two problems, indeed. The combination isn’t particularly attractive to boxing fans, or the network that buys many of the biggest fights.
But on Saturday, it doesn’t matter that Kovalev is a champion at light heavyweight, a division that historically has gotten little respect. Not when he’s got unbeaten Andre Ward in front of him in a classic slugger vs. boxer matchup that is perhaps the most anticipated fight of the year.
And the Russian part? Well, it helps that Kovalev now lives most of the year in Los Angeles and has quickly picked up the English language.
“I learned English only with reporters,” he said this week, displaying a gift for gab in his new language with a small group of boxing scribes.
Seven years after coming to the United States to seek fame and fortune, Kovalev is on the brink of both. A devastating puncher who has not lost in 31 fights, he will try to do what no one has done in 20 years — win a fight against Ward, the last American man to win boxing gold in the Olympics.
If the fight isn’t compelling enough, Kovalev’s story should be enough for some to pony up the $64.95 to watch it at home. His Russian fans will get the fight free, with the nation’s Channel 1 lined up to broadcast the bout live in his home country.
“America gave me opportunity. It’s two great countries for me,” Kovalev said. “I love both countries, which is why I have two houses, in Russia and America.”
Kovalev comes from a fighting family, though he is the only one to actually put on gloves and do it in the ring. His mother, he says, used to beat up people as a child in Chelyabinsk, a factory town, where she works in a liquid metals plant.
“My mother fought a lot of times on the street growing up, even with boys,” he said. “She grew up in poor area.”
Kovalev grew up poor, too, with the family of five living in two rooms of a three-room apartment they shared with an unrelated elderly woman. He fought in the amateurs, though he never got a shot at making the Russian Olympic boxing team, before deciding to come to the U.S. and turn pro.
Hooking up with Egis Klimas, a Lithuanian immigrant who now manages a number of Russian and Eastern European fighters, he fought for a few dollars here and there in tiny places he describes as “garages.”
Kovalev was undefeated in 17 fights but still a relative unknown when he returned home to face Roman Simakov in a fight that turned tragic. Kovalev stopped Simakov in the seventh round of the December 2011 fight, and Simakov fell into a coma and later died.
The death devastated Kovalev, and it might have unraveled his career like it has other fighters who have killed men in the ring. He would later reach out to try to take care of Simakov’s family, but the pain still lingers to a point he rarely will talk about the fateful night.
Kovalev’s big break came when he was signed by Duva’s Main Events promotional company. Duva would get the HBO dates she sought in that first meeting, and it didn’t take long for the boxer they call “Krusher” to become a regular on the network.
He dominated the ancient but still crafty Bernard Hopkins in 2014, forcing him into retirement, at least temporarily. And two knockout wins over Canada’s Jean Pascal in Montreal cemented his status as the best 175-pounder in the world.
Now he takes on Ward, the former 168-pound champion who has fought only three times in the last three years. Bookies in this gambling town make Ward, a defensive specialist and extraordinary boxer, a slight favorite, but Kovalev believes he will prevail.
“He doesn’t have a punch like Mike Tyson, but he’s very smart and has good defense,” Kovalev says. “It’s not dangerous, but he’s a tough target. He does very smart things in the ring.”
Kovalev has been doing some smart things, too. Perhaps none smarter than taking a chance and coming to the U.S. with nothing in his pocket and only his dreams.
“I love this country,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with the people and the boxing in America.”