Thursday March 12th, 2015

The question hung in the air like a soupy fog, the passing seconds of silence on the other end of the line almost palpable. Egis Klimas, Sergey Kovalev’s longtime manager, had agreed to serve as a translator for a brief phone interview with Kovalev, the unified light heavyweight champion. The interview, though, ended before it started. That’s what happens when you try to talk about Roman Simakov.

“It’s nothing against you,” Klimas said. “We have just decided we are not going to talk about it.”

Some backstory: In 2011, Kovalev was a rapidly rising 175-pound prospect. He was undefeated, trained by Abel Sanchez and less than a year away from signing with Main Events, the first major American promoter to show even a whiff of interest. First, though, he had to face Simakov, a once-beaten Russian, for a minor regional title. In Ekaterinburg, a bustling city in central Russia, in a 3,000-seat venue that resembled an old ice skating rink, the two prospects squared off. 

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For five rounds, Kovalev cruised, battering Simakov with crisp, clean combinations. After the fifth, Sanchez, seeing that Kovalev was in complete control, suggested he treat the remaining rounds like a sparring session. “I told him, ‘practice your body shots,’” Sanchez said. “Take this time to work on your craft.” Simakov had other ideas. He came out of the corner aggressive to open the sixth. “He was really trying to hurt Sergey,” Sanchez said. “So Sergey had to defend himself.”

At the end of the sixth, Sanchez sensed Simakov was in some trouble. He wasn’t wobbly, Sanchez said, but for six rounds he had been knocked down once and blistered by power shots from one of the biggest punchers in the division. “There was nothing for the ref to see,” Sanchez said. “But the corner should have stopped it.” Then, it happened: A glancing right hand put Simakov down; he got up, but his corner was already on the apron, throwing in the towel.

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Suddenly, he collapsed. Officials quickly removed him by stretcher. At the hospital, Simakov, 27, slipped into a coma. He died three days later. 

Kovalev, understandably, is reluctant to talk about that night. Klimas says it’s because some of Kovalev’s previous comments have been misinterpreted. After the fight Kovalev issued a statement that, in part, begged for forgiveness. Klimas says he sent the family $10,000.

Tragedies like this can cause irrevocable changes in a fighter. Sanchez has seen it before. One of Sanchez’s former charges, Paul Vaden, was a former junior middleweight titleholder. In 1999, Vaden, closing in on another title shot, challenged Stephan Johnson in Atlantic City. Vaden knocked Johnson out in the tenth round. Unconscious, Johnson, 31, was rushed to the hospital. He died two weeks later. “It destroyed Paul,” Sanchez said. “He just didn’t have the personality to deal with it.”

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​Kovalev was different. Growing up in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Kovalev lived a hardscrabble life. He was raised by his mother, a factory worker, who worked tirelessly to provide for the family she crammed into a shared, two-room apartment. Boxing wasn't merely a profession; it was a means of survival. That upbringing, Sanchez said, likely helped Kovalev put the Simakov fight behind him. He took seven months off, and in his first fight back he knocked out Darnell Boone in two rounds. That win kicked off a stretch of eight straight knockouts, a streak that ended with Kovalev’s one-sided wipeout of Bernard Hopkins last November.

“Sergey is a different type of guy,” Sanchez said. “He’s a hard man. It’s not that he doesn’t feel the pain, I think it’s just that he understands that it could have happened to either one of them.”

On Saturday, Kovalev (26-0-1) will defend his light heavyweight titles against Jean Pascal (29-2-1) at the Bell Centre in Montreal (HBO, 9:45 p.m.). Pascal, 32, has power (17 knockouts) and is willing to stand and trade. It’s an ideal opponent for Kovalev, who doesn’t give up much ground in the ring, either. There isn’t much love lost between the two: A back and forth at the final press conference this week ended with a brief altercation before the two fighters were separated.

“Jean Pascal is my [biggest] challenger,” Kovalev said. “This fight can go 12 rounds again. We can get [a] decision. Anything can happen. If it will be knockout, it will be good for me. I am going to ring to show [what] I can do. I want to see the result of my preparations.”

Added Pascal, “This fight is going to be a great, classic fight of the best against the best. Sergey thinks he is the best. I think I am the best. It is like Rocky IV. East versus the West.”

Someday, Kovalev will likely open up about the aftermath of the Simakov fight. It’s a compelling story, and no profile of Kovalev will be complete without a complete recounting of the days, weeks and months after such a tragic, life-changing event. For now, all Kovalev thinks about is Pascal. There are no distractions, no doubts. For Kovalev, there is no looking back.

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