ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Kathy Duva, the CEO of Main Events Promotions, has a dream to one day make Boardwalk Hall as special for Sergey Kovalev as it was for the late Arturo Gatti, whose matches were the hottest ticket in town no matter the opponent.
“Atlantic City has been looking for a guy like Sergey since Arturo left,’’ said Duva, whose company also promoted Gatti. “The same working class, blue collar, real boxing fans who loved Arturo because he was a tough, hardnosed, bad ass, are going to love Sergey.’’
Let the love fest begin.
Kovalev will defend his WBO light heavyweight title against Cedric Agnew in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in an HBO “Boxing After Dark’’ show on Saturday night. It’s not the big room. However, Duva would like to add “yet’’ to the end of that sentence as far as Kovalev is concerned.
Hopefully Kovalev stuck to the boardwalk and the view of the Atlantic Ocean and didn’t venture out the front doors of Caesar’s Palace on Thursday afternoon.
For several hours that day, just out the front door of Caesar’s, was a crime scene and the body of a man, covered by a pink sheet, lying in the middle of Atlantic Avenue. The man was shot and killed by police following a car chase through three towns that ended within a block of Caesar’s after he jumped from his car and started firing a gun at police.
It’s not the kind of “Welcome to Atlantic City’’ that the Convention and Visitors Bureau had in mind when they came up with the “Do AC’’ slogan. But then again they probably weren’t targeting Kovalev, who came to Atlantic City to take care of business in the boxing ring, not go shopping at the outlets or gamble at the casinos.
This is Kovalev’s second title defense since winning the WBO title by devastating TKO over Nathan Cleverly in Cardiff, Wales in August. He demolished Ismayl Sillah in a second-round KO while sharing a card with Adonis Stevenson in Quebec City in Novemer. It was supposed to be an appetizer to a main course that would involve a light heavyweight unification showdown between Stevenson and Kovalev on HBO later this year.
But Stevenson and his promoter, Yvon Michel, have thrown a wrench in that plan by agreeing to bring his title defense against Andrezj Fonfara to Showtime. That move has angered Duva, who took a not-so veiled swipe at Showtime during a press conference at the Circus Maximus Theater in Caesar’s on Thursday afternoon. Duva listed every great fighter of the last three decades and said that all of them were nurtured and developed at HBO.
“In the past 30 years not a single legendary champion has been built on any other network than HBO,’’ Duva said. “Sergey’s plan is to become a legendary champion and not someone else’s opponent.’’
If any of it is distracting Kovalev from taking care of matters against Agnew, you couldn’t tell. He said he is focused on beating Agnew and continuing his quest to become an undisputed light heavyweight champion. Kovalev was asked how difficult it would be to clean up the light heavyweight division.
“It won’t be hard. I’ve already cleaned up the light heavyweight division for HBO because Stevenson has run to another network,’’ Kovalev joked.
With Stevenson, the WBC champion, and Hopkins, the IBF champion, fighting on Showtime, Kovalev may be marking time by knocking out contenders for a long time before he meets anyone for a unification match. Beibut Shumenov, the WBA champion, is fighting Hopkins on April 19. If Kovalev keeps living up to his nickname “Krusher’’ then it might not matter to the fans that he’s not picking up hardware every time he steps into the ring.
That is why he has to make sure that he doesn’t get distracted before facing Agnew (26-0, 13 KOs), a lightly regarded, but undefeated challenger from Chicago.
“He’s not coming to lose because he has an undefeated record,’’ Kovalev said. “I think it will be a very interesting fight.’’
For however long it lasts. Kovalev has knocked out 21 of the 24 opponents with 15 of those knockouts coming in the first or second rounds. He has gone 10 rounds just once.
Krusher might be an apt nickname for Kovalev because when he lands a KO-shot his opponents crumple to the canvas like wadded up paper. He has no concrete explanation for his freakish knockout power. He said it is the result of moving from amateur to professional.
John David Jackson, Kovalev’s trainer, said it is part natural ability, which is something you can’t teach, and the other part is perfect balance.
“When he punches his stance is correct. He’s perfectly positioned to let those shots go,’’ Jackson said. “His feet are always planted right when fires those shots.’’
The 30-year-old Kovalev, who was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia, wasn’t always a KO artist. He didn’t even know that much about boxing when he followed an elementary school desk mate to the boxing gym in his hometown. One day he asked his friend what he was doing after school and the friend said he was going to the boxing gym. He asked if he could come, too, and the friend said sure, because his coach was always looking for new students. It was a memorable experience.
“My first day was Dec. 1, 1994. I was 11 years old,’’ Kovalev said. “Before that I was just fighting my friends in the streets.’’
Kovalev, who was (reportedly) 193-22 as an amateur, won two military championships during a four-year stint in the Russian Army. He signed on for three years of military service just to box. He said he was not a highly regarded national amateur and thus he didn’t get a lot of money to maintain himself so he had to take up various jobs to earn money once he left the military. One of those jobs was importing cars from Europe, refurbishing them and selling them in Russia.
Since moving to the U.S. in 2009 and settling in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with his wife, Kovalev has been able to concentrate on boxing full time. It has not been an easy ride.
“When he first came over here in 2009, Sergey didn’t know a single word of English,’’ said Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager. “Over the years we’ve become very close. He’s like my son. I’ve taken him all over this country fighting whoever we could fight, wherever we could fight – Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Carolina. I just told him to be patient because we were on a good road.’’
Klimas tried to get the big name promoters to believe in Kovalev as much as he did. But no one would bite. Duva was skeptical too until she put him in a rematch against Darnell Boone in 2012. Boone had taken Kovalev for a ride over eight rounds that ended in a split decision victory for the Russian in 2010. Kovalev crushed Boone in a second-round KO in the rematch and Duva was running behind Klimas with a promotional contract after the fight.
Now she thinks Kovalev has the goods to attract fans to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City the way that Gatti once did. Only time will tell. But Kovalev has a chance against Agnew to start making his case Saturday night.