Nathan Cleverly has been the WBO light heavyweight titleholder for three years but as yet he is still to face a former or reigning world titlist. That is an incredulous statistic and one that irks the undefeated Welshman but the high quality match up he craves has finally arrived.
Cleverly, THE RING’s No. 2-rated light heavyweight, will face off against formidable power puncher, Sergey Kovalev, in what promises to be a fierce encounter on Aug. 17 at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff.
Kovalev, THE RING’s No. 3-rated contender, is arguably the most feared fighter in the 175-pound division and he has serious backing in the United States. His record (21-0-1, 19 knockouts) is for real with two stunning back-to-back knockouts of former beltholder Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White highlighting his recent devastating form.
The Russian also won 193 of 215 amateur bouts and allegedly never touched the canvas once during his unpaid tenure.
Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs) seems to have waited forever for a chance to break out from the pack but a victory over Kovalev would be an enormous boost. HBO will screen the bout live and, if everything goes to plan, the pressure would be on rival titleholders to meet Cleverly in a unification fight.
Still, getting that far is not a formality and Kovalev, who resides in Fort Lauderdale in Florida, will venture to the UK with the soul intention of destroying the champion. This won’t be a fight for the faint hearted but Nathan Cleverly has finally had his wish granted.
RingTV.com spoke to Cleverly about Kovalev and his endless wait for a champion’s recognition.
RingTV.com: Before we talk future business what were your thoughts on your last performance against Robin Krasniqi?
Nathan Cleverly: I was pleased with my performance. Krasniqi was a potential banana skin who was unbeaten in his last 38 fights and he was very hungry. At the pre-fight press conferences he had a real air of confidence, like he knew the world title was his, but I prepared myself for a very tough fight. I felt alert, sharp and focused although I was disappointed that I didn’t get him out of there. Early in the fight I thought it was a matter of time but Krasniqi kept plugging away because he was extremely fit. I just couldn’t nail him down but I won every round and it’s onwards and upwards.
RTV: Next up is a thunderous collision against the unbeaten Sergey Kovalev. How did you feel when you were advised this fight had been made?
NC: I was delighted. I asked my promoter about this fight just over a month ago because I’d heard Kovalev was making a real name for himself in America. He stopped (Gabriel) Campillo in three rounds and that is a tremendous achievement because nobody knocks out Campillo like that. Kovalev did it with ease and followed that up with another great win against Cornelius White. This is a great fight, not only on paper but in reality, and it’s going to be explosive. Kovalev will be coming to knock me out and I’m not one to take a backward step.
RTV: Given the fact that Kovalev was being lined up as mandatory challenger for IBF champion, Bernard Hopkins, were you surprised to get this fight and could you hazard a guess as to why Kovalev’s team have chosen you over “The Executioner”?
NC: This fight was always going to go ahead because Hopkins would rather watch a fight between me and Kovalev than take one of us on. His preference will be Karo Murat who was his original mandatory and the visa issues which threatened that fight have been sorted out. Kovalev and I are two fresh guys who come to fight and Hopkins would rather let us settle things before fighting the winner.
RTV: Tell me about Kovalev. When did you first become aware of him and what are his strengths and weaknesses?
NC: I first heard about Kovalev a couple of months ago when I was in training camp over in Spain. One of the trainers in the gym mentioned a Russian, who killed an opponent in the ring, was due to take on Campillo. That was how this guy put it. When I got home I checked the result and knew straight away that Kovalev was a big player in the division. A win over him will open people’s eyes because this guy has destructive power.
Editor’s note: Roman Simakov passed away three days after his bout with Kovalev due to injuries sustained in the contest, which took place Dec. 5, 2011.
RTV: Your chin is beyond reproach but Kovalev is likely to punch harder than anyone you’ve faced. Are you confident you can take Kovalev’s best shots and keep on trucking?
NC: I’ve got major belief in my ability to hold a shot and that has been a strength of mine since I was a kid. Sometimes I have the tendency to get reckless and leave openings, so I need a good chin to support my attacking style. Still, Kovalev will be the hardest puncher I will have come across and there is no way I can allow this guy to tee off on me. We’re looking at a world-class opponent who has the potential to take me out so it is important that I don’t rely on my chin too much. At this level you have to box smart but I am still 100 percent certain that I can deal with Kovalev’s power.
RTV: What are we likely to see from you in this fight that we perhaps haven’t seen in some of your more routine defenses?
NC: With this fight you’ll see an opponent who is really going to put it on me and ask me questions. Can I respond and deal with that kind of pressure? To be honest I think it will bring out the best in me. I will react in a positive manner, adapt to the style and conquer a dangerous opponent. That is what is expected of me in this fight and that is what boxing is all about. I’m out to answer a lot of questions.
RTV: The light heavyweight landscape has changed considerably. What did you make of Chad Dawson vs. Adonis Stevenson?
NC: Adonis Stevenson taking out Dawson wasn’t a huge surprise because Stevenson has been a dark horse for a long time now. He’s a good fighter, with a massive punch, who took his chance when the opportunity presented itself. The light heavyweight division is wide open now with Stevenson, Kovalev and Andre Ward potentially taking a step up to 175 pounds. We all represent a new era for this division.
RTV: There’s been some animosity between yourself and Carl Froch recently. Any messages for the super middleweight champion?
NC: It would have been a fantastic event for the UK. You have two world champions from Britain and that would be a stadium fight, capable of generating huge public interest. I think we should strike while the iron’s hot because Froch is at the top of his game and I want to be involved in the big fights. I was prepared to move down in weight to get it done because if you wait around for these match ups then someone invariably loses and it all falls through. Anyway they declined the fight and they don’t want to fight. We now have to look ahead to Kovalev, who is a lot more dangerous.
RTV: Is Kovalev likely to feel the wrath of all the frustration which has mounted over the last three years?
NC: I will certainly be bringing plenty of enthusiasm because I want to reach that next level and I have to beat this guy to do that. Kovalev will come up against the best Nathan Cleverly available and he’ll also be at his best because this is his chance to become world champion. It’s a massive opportunity for him but it’s also an opportunity for me to showcase my ability. American television is on board because this is a top class fight.
RTV: What factor will be decisive in making this a successful title defense for you?
NC: I think I’m a better all-round fighter with a solid chin and I respond well when under attack. I just think I’ll have too much for Kovalev.
Photos / Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Main Events (Kovalev)
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing