Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sergey Kovalev Vs. Isaac Chilemba: No Easy Night for The Krusher

By Peter Silkov

Today is a time when most boxing fans are feeling more than a little cynical about the state of their sport with its never ending politics, which seems determined to deprive them of seeing the best contests being made between the best fighters, even when the fighters in question wish to make the fights.  Then, we have some boxers today who seemingly do not want to make the kind of matches that the fans want, and do not want to meet their most dangerous rivals.  Yet, there are exceptions to this. Take for instance the WBA, WBO and IBF World light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (29-0-1, 26koes.) Here we have a world champion who is lined up in November to defend his titles against Andre Ward, considered by many to be one of boxing’s finest fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world.  It is a clash that many are hoping will be the biggest fight of 2016; a year that has so far been painfully lacking a ’superfight’ of any kind.

As is the way with modern boxing, it wasn’t an easy fight to make at the beginning. Certainly Ward took some coaxing before he agreed to sign on the dotted line and part of the deal was that Ward would fit in a number of ’warm up’ fights before meeting Kovalev.  Finally the deal has been made, and on November 19, Kovalev will defend his world titles against Andre Ward at the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, about 18 months after negotiations for the fight first began.

For Kovalev it is a huge fight.  Although he is the champion, he is meeting a fighter who is regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound boxer of his generation. A victory for Kovalev will take him a step closer to genuine ’greatness’ himself. This is the kind of clash, which the great champions of the past thrived on.  

The only problem for Kovalev is the wait until the fight with Ward.  With such an important career-defining fight coming up, most champions would be content to wait it out, and not risk anything in any kind of ’warm up’ or ’keep busy’ fight in the mean time.  Many champions today are content to have one or two fights a year, especially if those fights are ‘big‘ fights.  But, Kovalev is a throwback to the champions of the past, both in his fighting style, attitude in the ring, a desire to be a busy fighter, and an active champion. 

Instead of waiting it out, and simply relaxing for a few months before facing Ward this winter, Kovalev has opted to fight. Rather than just take a keep busy non-title fight or a soft tough voluntary defence, ‘The Krusher’ will be defending his world title belts against a tough and tricky opponent who will be doing his very best to spoil ‘The Krusher’s’ future plans. 

On Monday, July 11, Kovalev will defend his titles against Isaac Chilemba (24-3-2, 10koes) at the DIVS, Arena, Ekaterinburg, and Russia. Rather than being simple ‘keeps busy’ fight, this is a real live defence for Kovalev.

Chilemba is a skilful and crafty counter puncher; capable of making anyone look bad, and giving the very best at his weight a tricky night.  The South African turned professional in 2005, but throughout his career, has often found it hard to get fights due to his difficult and slippery style.

In 2013 he fought Britain’s Tony Bellew twice, and was very unlucky to only get a draw in the first fight, and lost a close decision in their second fight.  Since these fights, Chilemba has won 4 out of 5 contests, with his only defeat coming in his last fight on November 28, 2015, when he lost on points to unbeaten, Eleider Alvarez, which was seen by many as yet another robbery against Chilemba.

Chilemba has never been stopped in his career, and has speed, technique, and the ability to frustrate.  One thing that Chilemba does lack is a knockout punch, but he has the skills and ring guile to make this an interesting fight, and perhaps a dangerous one if Sergey turns up with his mind partly upon the Ward fight.  Many champions of the past have been tripped up in such a way, when looking past their most immediate fight, to another fight in the future. 

It’s not too difficult to see why Kovalev would choose to take on a fighter like Chilemba, just before he faces Ward.  While no one would claim that Chilemba is on the same kind of level as Ward, he does nevertheless have a similarly elusive and awkward counter punching style that is akin to Ward’s.  In this way, Chilemba will make an excellent prelude for how Kovalev will deal with Ward’s counter punching skills.

Kovalev has already dealt with one master counter puncher, in the form of ‘The Alien’ Bernard Hopkins, whom he beat on points, in what was close to being a shut out match in November 2014.  He is likely to fight Chilemba the same way as he fought Hopkins, with constant pressure, but not just from power punches, but with heavy use of his jab and underrated technical skills.

Like Hopkins did, Chilemba (and Andre Ward in the near future) will find out that Sergey Kovalev is not simply a dynamite punching slugger, he is also a very technically astute boxer when he needs to be. He has an excellent jab, and patience, which should help him avoid falling into the kind of traps that a counter punter like him relies upon.

Kovalev should be able to win this fight by using his underrated technical skills alongside his much-vaunted punching power.  He may well become the first man to stop the strong-chinned Chilemba, which in itself will be an impressive performance. 
Failing a stoppage or a knockout victory from Kovalev, a point’s win would be a workmanlike win for ’The Krusher’ and may well be what he needs before taking on Andre Ward.

Yet Monday’s defence is important for Kovalev for yet another reason, beyond his opponent Chilemba.  It marks the first time that Kovalev will be fighting in his homeland of Russia since December 5, 2011.   And his last appearance in a Russian ring is a day that will be forever embedded upon Kovalev’s mind. His opponent that day, Roman Simakov, fell into a coma after being stopped in the 7th round, and died of his injuries three days later.

It is one of those fights that you watch and wonder why no one in Simakov’s corner, the referee, or the ring doctor, thought to stop the fight earlier.  Kovalev, though noticeably cruder than he is now, was winning the fight from the beginning, and constantly landing his heavy shots to Simakov’s largely unprotected head.  Simakov was viewed as a rising prospect, with a record of (19-1-1.) He had no answer to Kovalev’s overwhelming power and strength, except his own strength and courage that allowed him to continue to take punches that he shouldn’t have been allowed to keep taking. He was finally rendered helpless in the 7th round and the fight was finally stopped.  By then it was already too late.

In a perverse twist, the aftermath of Simakov’s death found Kovalev being blamed for the tragedy, rather than Simakov's own corner or the doctor or referee, all of whom could have stopped the fight sooner.

Usually when tragedies like this strike in boxing you hear about the families of the fighter who has passed away not wishing to lay any blame upon his opponent.  Unfortunately in this case, Simakov’s Father not only blamed Sergey for his son’s death, but also sought to have charges brought against him.  Even after an official investigation, in which Kovalev and his team cooperated fully, including submitting the gloves, which Sergey wore on the night of the fight, Simakov’s family is still understood to be bitter and angry with Kovalev.

Until now, Kovalev has never talked publicly about this tragedy that, for a time, made him question his future in the sport.  Eventually Kovalev came to the realization that he had to carry on following his path of being a boxer, after having devoted his life to since the age of 11 to boxing.  But, the tragedy remains a dark scar that he will always carry.

Perhaps after blocking this tragedy away for the past 4 and a half years, Sergey Kovalev has come to the decision that it is something that he now needs to come face to face with again.  When he returns to a Russian boxing ring on Monday against Isaac Chilemba, it will be the same ring and in the same DIVS Arena, where he fought Roman Simakov on that tragic night in December 2011.

Fighters are a tough breed and Sergey Kovalev is among the toughest of them.  He is a throw back to the fighters of the past who had the hunger that can only be understood by someone who has grown up in the harsh reality of real poverty.

When he returns to the DIVS arena this Monday, Sergey Kovalev will not simply be looking to defend his world titles successfully against Isaac Chilemba, or keeping busy before his much anticipated November showdown with Andre Ward, he will be hoping to make peace with the past.

Roman Simakov’s parents are believed to still live very near to the DIVS arena, and Sergey has spoken about his wish to see them, something that did not happen in the acrimonious aftermath of Simakov’s death.

Asked what he would say to Simakov’s family if he does come face to face with them, Sergey said “I don’t know,” With his voice betraying the strength of emotions that he is usually able to keep at bay. “I won’t [ask] them to come to the arena, because it’s not a good memory. I’m not going to do that. But I’d like to see them. I don’t know what I can say to them. Just hello, and I’m sorry.”

Sergey Kovalev Interview about upcoming fight:

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