Sergey Kovalev: The Controversial ‘Krusher’ Quietly Returns On Fury-Usyk Undercard

April 27, 2024
3 months
Sergey Kovalev returns to the ring on the Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk undercard

One of the most historic nights in boxing will take place on May 18 in Saudi Arabia as Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk contest the first undisputed heavyweight world title bout of the four-belt era.

Fury will gamble his WBC belt and lineal champion status against the IBF, WBO, and WBA belts held by Usyk.

It’s a fight that’s been generating plenty of headlines over the past few months, in part due to the two delays but mainly because it will genuinely be one of the biggest nights in boxing.

On such a momentous occasion, it’s also an opportunity for the undercard fighters to shine as the eyes of the boxing world all train on Riyadh’s ‘Ring of Fire’.

The co-main event is a worthy chief support act as cruiserweight superstar Jai Opetaia aims to become a two-time world champion in a rematch with Mairis Briedis. One fight before is another world title bout, which sees IBF super-featherweight champion Joe Cordina make his second defense against Anthony Cacace.

Further down the card and earlier in the evening, though, boxing fans would be forgiven if they needed to do a double-take when they noticed the name Sergey Kovalev.

Kovalev Returns After Two-Year Absence

Is that the Sergey Kovalev? The same Kovalev who once dominated the light-heavyweight division, held multiple world titles, went toe-to-toe with Saul Alvarez during the peak of Canelo’s powers, and lost a razor-thin decision to the great Andre Ward?

Indeed, it is the same Kovalev, now 41 years old and making his return to the ring after a two-year absence and having fought only once in the past four-and-a-half years.

There has curiously been very little attention paid to his presence on the card, where he will face the unbeaten Robin Sirwan Safar – a heavy-handed Swede, who has won all 16 of his professional fights including three successive knockout victories. He is ranked in the top 15 by the WBO at 200lbs.

Due to Kovalev’s inactivity in recent years, there is little reported on the Russian, which makes it both difficult and intriguing to assess anything concerning this bout.

There are no betting odds available yet, which could at least give us an indication of how the markets believe this fight might go. A couple of online boxing forums have been getting fans to vote and around 70 percent are picking Sirwan Safar to win.

There have been no press conferences or media interviews with Kovalev yet. Given the volume of boxing YouTube channels, you might have thought one of them would have contacted the Russian for a chat.

There have even been very few news reports even announcing Kovalev’s return.

Krusher Pushed Ward To Limit

With just three weeks to go until fight night, it’s a strangely quiet build-up for one of the most exciting, dominant, and controversial world champions of recent years, albeit one clearly past his prime.

Kovalev quickly earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous fighters in the game when he eased to 21 victories in his first 22 fights (his fight with Grover Young was called a draw after an accidental foul on Young). He won all but two by knockout.

The Russian then announced himself on the world stage in August 2013 with a destructive fourth-round stoppage of Nathan Cleverly to claim the Welshman’s WBO light-heavyweight world title.

Three successful title defenses followed – all won by knockout – before Kovalev became a unified world champion by defeating the great Bernard Hopkins on points to add the IBF and WBO belts to his collection.

After four more knockout victories – including two against former world champion Jean Pascal – Kovalev entered the most high-profile bout of his career. In November 2016, he put his three world titles on the line against Andre Ward, arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

Sure, the ‘Krusher’ had irresistible power but how would he fare against one of the most skilful and technically gifted boxers of his generation?

That question was answered emphatically. Kovalev put Ward down in the second round and boxed brilliantly throughout, only to come up narrowly short on the scorecards as all three judges awarded victory to the American by a single round.

Kovalev Came Up Short Against Canelo

Many within boxing, including Larry Merchant, Gareth A Davies, and Max Kellerman, all had Kovalev winning by at least a couple of rounds. “It was a classic hometown decision, Kovalev won the fight,” Merchant said after.

Ward, however, left no room for doubt in the immediate rematch seven months later, stopping Kovalev in the eighth round.

The Russian quickly bounced back, though, and after Ward announced his retirement and vacated the titles, Kovalev reclaimed the WBO belt in his next fight – a second-round battering of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy.

He then suffered his second knockout defeat, to Eleider Alvarez in August 2018 after being dropped three times in the seventh round but became a three-time world champion by beating the Colombian on points in the rematch.

An impressive late stoppage win over the young and powerful Anthony Yarde followed, before the biggest fight of his career against Canelo in November 2019. The Mexican was making his light-heavyweight debut but was considered the best boxer in the world.

Kovalev gave him a close fight and it was competitive through 10 rounds until Canelo landed a left-right combination to stop the Russian in the 11th.

That proved to be Kovalev’s last night of big-time boxing. It was also around the time he was embroiled in a criminal case after being arrested on a felony assault charge for punching a woman in the face in June 2018.

Why Is Kovalev Returning Now?

The case would drag on for more than two years until Kovalev was sentenced to three years of probation and two days of time served. He was also forced to pay court costs and undertake an anger management course.

He returned two-and-a-half years later in May 2022 for his cruiserweight debut and impressed with a points win over the previously unbeaten Tervel Pulev.

So, as Kovalev makes his latest return, it would be interesting to understand his motivation. Is it purely financial? For a fighter who earned somewhere between $15-20 million during his career, he and future generations should be set for life. Does he just love the sport? If that’s the case, then it’s strange he’s been so inactive in recent years.

When the boxing media world congregates in Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks, Kovalev will have the opportunity to discuss his ambitions.

As for the fight itself, Sirwan Safar might be considered the favorite among the fans, but the Swede has never shared a ring with a fighter as experienced or accomplished as Kovalev.

If the Russian earns the victory and keeps himself active, he may be in line for a late-career surge.