There are thousands out there just like him. That’s what Sergei Kovalev figures. Those hard-luck types.
Boxing has been always littered with them. Thousands of fighters that can punch like him. Box like him. Have the same abilities he has.
Thousands of guys who tried boxing to escape an uncertain future. That tried to take the same path he has, only to be swallowed by the potholes, never fulfilling their promise.
Thousands wondering how they were snagged by the swallowing potholes. Kovalev isn’t.
Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 knockouts) figures his powerful hands have been forged from a hardscrabble existence that began on the streets of Chelyabinsk, Russia, doing everything from washing cars to hawking newspapers and every other crummy job that no one else wanted.
It’s why he thinks he’ll knock out WBO light heavyweight titleholder Nathan Cleverly this Saturday on the HBO Boxing After Dark split-card tripleheader from Cardiff, Wales, also featuring IBF middleweight champion Daniel Geale taking on Brit Darren Barker and IBF junior featherweight beltholder Jhonatan Romero defending against Kiko Martinez in Atlantic City.
Kovalev’s journey has come in steps, one menial job at a time.
“I wanted to have a better life, and my mother and father weren’t able to make enough money after the Soviet Union broke up,” recalled Kovalev, through interpreter Daniel Bagdasarov. “I had to do it. I think it’s what led to boxing. You find doing hard jobs that it’s something you don’t want to do the rest of your life. We lived with five people jammed in an apartment.
“You grow up appreciating that you have air in your lungs and that’s it. I don’t want to sound like my childhood was desperate and for people to feel sorry for me. There are many people that grew up like that. It was difficult. There were times when I didn’t have anything to eat, and those are times I don’t really like talking about. But it’s something I do carry with me every time I fight. You can’t forget those times. A lot of people in boxing had worse times than me.”
He began boxing at 11 because his parents could no longer afford ice hockey equipment. A friend invited him to a gym close to his school, and Kovalev began training.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he remembers, laughing. “It was a place I could go that was better than washing cars or thinking about everything going on around me. I didn’t see a future in the sport then, but I liked it, and there was a trainer there [Sergei Novikov] who liked me and started showing an interest in me. I just had a habit of fighting like I was on the streets, because I suppose in a way I came from the streets. That’s what I knew about fighting before I put on gloves and started boxing.”
His punching power, like his progress, came in stages. Kovalev didn’t knock opponents out until he got older. As a young amateur, he focused on his boxing ability and even had Olympic aspirations, but when politics got in the way of those dreams, Kovalev opted to come to the United States and turn pro.
“Growing up hungry, you never forget being hungry, so yes, sometimes it is like I am fighting for food when I get in the ring,” Kovalev said. “It’s an attitude, and everything has played a role in the success of where I am today. I always go into fights to win, and I need to do whatever I have to do to win. I think that drive comes from the way I grew up.”
Maybe Kovalev believes it’s an aspect that Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs) is not fully versed in. Kovalev says he’s aware Cleverly is undefeated, he’s aware he’s a champion, and he’s also aware that Cleverly “talks too much.”
“I think Cleverly is really scared of me,” Kovalev said. “It’s why he makes really loud statements how he’s going to knock me out or take me apart. Maybe someone else is helping him say that, I don’t know. I know he’s a very difficult boxer, he has good stamina, but he says he’s going to do this and do that and I don’t think he can.”
Kovalev would one day like to get into the ring with another light heavyweight world champion, the ageless Bernard Hopkins. But he has to take this step first.
“I don’t know if Hopkins is afraid of me or not, but I think it’s interesting that he doesn’t want to fight me. I first have to beat Cleverly and that’s my only priority right now,” Kovalev said. “Cleverly is a home-made champion; he only fights at home. I remember things. Cleverly didn’t choose me, HBO chose me. I am greatly honored by HBO looking at me like that. I still don’t think I’m the best light heavyweight in the world. I’m not a champion yet.”
Photos by Emily Harney