In a surprising development, the IBF has ordered light heavyweight titleholder Bernard Hopkins to begin negotiations with mandatory challenger Sergey Kovalev immediately, IBF chairman Lindsey Tucker wrote in a letter obtained by SI.com. Hopkins was originally scheduled to defend his title against mandatory challenger Karo Murat on July 13. However Murat was unable to obtain a visa to enter the United States, and the fight was scrapped. In a letter from Tucker to Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez, Tucker said negotiations for Hopkins-Kovalev must be completed by July 17, or the fight would go to a purse bid.
Tucker said neither fighter could take an interim fight. Main Events CEO Kathy Duva told SI.com she had already sent Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer an email about beginning negotiations.
"If Bernard wants to fight Sergey, Sergey is there," Duva said. "This is something he would love to do."
Said Kovalev's manager, Egis Klimas, "If we have the opportunity to fight Bernard Hopkins, we want it. That's what Sergey was aiming for, that's what he wants right now."
Schaefer told SI.com that the decision to fight Kovalev was "up to Bernard," but added that he didn't believe it would have much appeal to Showtime.
"We have been looking at historically significant fights," Schaefer said, mentioning titleholders Nathan Cleverly, Beibut Shumenov and Adonis Stevenson. "Kovalev is someone I have never heard of, someone many people have never heard of. That doesn't mean he is not good. I'm just not so sure how attractive [a fight] that is. You could say the same thing about Murat. I don't know what the network interest will be. I'd have to go do quite a sales job."
The IBF's decision is an interesting twist for Kovalev (21-0), the fastest rising star in the division and who is coming off a third-round knockout of Cornelius White last weekend. Kovalev's profile has risen significantly over the last year after his four bouts on NBC Sports Network. He won all four by knockout, each inside four rounds.
Kovalev's promoter, Main Events, is in advanced discussions for Kovalev to challenge Cleverly, the WBO titleholder, in August, a fight that would be broadcast on HBO. Duva told SI.com that there were still lingering issues with the Cleverly fight, not the least of which could be Cleverly's promoter, Frank Warren, who isn't always reliable. Last month, Warren announced a fight between former heavyweight title challenger Dereck Chisora and prospect Deontay Wilder without having an agreement in place with Wilder. The fight was eventually scrapped.
(UPDATE: After this story was published, a lawyer representing Warren contacted SI.com and wrote that her client believed there was a deal in place, but it fell apart after a press conference announcing the fight.)
Klimas said he has not seen a contract from Cleverly's side and said "We just cannot wait."
Main Events does not want to pass up a guaranteed opportunity to fight for the IBF title, only to have a fight with Cleverly fall apart. However HBO -- which does not do Golden Boy fights and, presumably, would not be interested in a Kovalev-Hopkins fight -- wants the Cleverly fight, and by passing on it, Main Events could severely damage a relationship with HBO at a time when it has several fighters on its radar. In addition to Kovalev, Main Events promotes middleweight contender Curtis Stevens and co-promotes, along with Russell Peltz, heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings.