Former champ Sergey Kovalev is running out of excuses

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Sergey Kovalev, right, trades punches with Andre Ward during their June rematch. (AP)

Before his rematch with Andre Ward in June, Sergey Kovalev sat at a table with a handful of reporters and insisted he had fixed all of the problems he perceived impacted him negatively in his first bout with Ward.

Things would be different in the rematch, he vowed that day, even though he still believed he deserved to win that Nov. 19, 2016, decision that went to Ward by the narrowest of margins.

It is now more than four months since Kovalev was stopped in the eighth round of the rematch, and a few days until the Russian meets Vyacheslav Shabranskyy at Madison Square Garden in New York in a bout televised on HBO.

Kovalev’s words – and actions – going into Saturday’s bout with Shabranskyy are eerily similar to those he’d spoken prior to the rematch with Ward. It should cause at least some concern among Kovalev backers, though he’s better than a 10-1 favorite to win the vacant WBO light heavyweight title.

Before the rematch with Ward, Kovalev told reporters he’d overtrained in the first fight because he didn’t have the proper conditioning coach. It seemed odd that could be, given that Kovalev had been competing at the world-class level for years, and his promoter, Kathy Duva, and manager, Egis Klimas, had been involved with many elite fighters and know what it takes.

Klimas, for instance, also manages super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Lomachenko is always fabulously conditioned and it doesn’t make sense that Klimas wouldn’t make certain Kovalev had the same opportunities.

But in explaining his issues in Ward I, Kovalev told reporters before Ward II that he had no energy on the night of the fight. He said he knew he was in trouble because of his conditioning issues, but had no way to pull out of the fight.

“I couldn’t say to Egis or my promoter, ‘Don’t do this fight,’ ” Kovalev said in July. “… When a car runs out of gas, the car won’t drive. This was the same with me.”

He fired trainer John David Jackson, saying he felt Jackson might have been leaking secrets to Ward, a ridiculous assertion given Jackson’s long and distinguished career and the lack of evidence to support his claim.

And so the story now is that new trainer Abror Tursunpulatov will make a big difference for him.

It says here that the biggest difference in Kovalev on Saturday will be that Shabranskyy is nowhere near as good as Ward, but Kovalev is once again pushing the theory that he had issues with his staff in a previous fight in which he didn’t perform his best and that those issues have now been corrected.

“I worked hard by myself, but with Abror, these workouts are different dosages, intervals,” Kovalev said. “If today we’re working very hard, then the next day it is a little bit lighter, working on my style. When I work myself, I work hard every day. I didn’t give a rest to my body. It wasn’t good.”

Kovalev is without doubt a talented guy, one of the most talented in the world and, with Ward now in retirement, arguably the best light heavyweight.

But he’s something of a head case, seemingly unable to accept his shortcomings or work well with a trainer. Prior to the first Ward fight, Jackson admitted that to a large degree, Kovalev trains himself.

A star athlete in any sport always gets a great deal of leeway, but there is no doubt that Bill Belichick, not Tom Brady, is in charge with the Patriots, and Steve Kerr, not Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, makes the decisions with the Warriors.

Kovalev, though, has essentially trained himself throughout his career, which is OK when the talent level is tilted heavily in his favor but not so much when the talent level is more even.

“Sergey knows what he wants to do and his plan is already set,” Jackson said last year before Kovalev’s first bout with Ward. “I just work off what he wants to do. In the ring, he knows what he wants to do, as all fighters should know what they want to do. For me, it could be hard sometimes when his mindset is set on one thing. But I make it a little bit easier because I allow him to do what he wants and work off what he wants to do and that makes him a better fighter.”

When Kovalev split with Jackson, he had the opportunity to hire any trainer he wished. Freddie Roach, one of the greatest trainers who ever lived, would have made sense. Roach has made a sub-specialty of helping veteran fighters later in their careers.

Tursunpulatov is a virtual unknown in the U.S., but it’s almost certain he’s no Roach. If he were, he’d be known by now.

But Tursunpulatov is Russian and the two can communicate in the fighter’s native language, so that may be a major stroke in Tursunpulatov’s favor.

“I’m very glad to work with Abror,” Kovalev said. “We understand each other. We speak the same language. It’s the most important thing. I understand what he wants. If he says something about an exercise and I don’t agree, we discuss it and we find compromise, some solutions. It’s almost never happening, because what he’s giving me, I understand it can help me. We [have] the same mentally. I understand where we go, for what, and why. I feel very comfortable to work with him and very happy [he] has control of my training camps and my conditioning for my shape.”

Tursunpulatov is serving as both Kovalev’s conditioner and his boxing trainer, and it’s unlikely he’s as good at either as the men that Kovalev worked with in the past.

But if Kovalev believes Tursunpulatov is better, that might be all that matters.

If it doesn’t go the way he wants this time, however, there’s no one for Kovalev to blame but the man in the mirror.

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