NEW YORK -- Sergey Kovalev settled into a booth in the basement of a midtown Manhattan restaurant on Tuesday, sporting a gray hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans and a wide smile. Speaking in rapidly improving English, Kovalev exchanged pleasantries with reporters and swapped jokes with his manager, Egis Klimas. He shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what he knew about his upcoming opponent, Cedric Agnew, and snickered when Agnew said Kovalev had not been tested.
All was good with Kovalev. Or was it? The news this week that WBC light heavyweight titleholder Adonis Stevenson was taking his business to Showtime -- presumably for a fall showdown with Bernard Hopkins -- had thrown a wrench in Kovalev's future plans. In January, promoter Kathy Duva believed she had cut a deal with Stevenson's promoter, Yvon Michel, and HBO that locked up a Kovalev-Stevenson showdown in the fall. The contracts were never signed, however, and Stevenson eventually brought on adviser Al Haymon, who produced a bigger offer from Showtime for Stevenson's next fight.
To Duva, Stevenson never wanted a fight with Kovalev. And there is plenty of evidence of that. Since defeating Tony Bellew last November, Stevenson has been asked repeatedly about fighting Kovalev, the WBO champion, and he has never sounded enthusiastic about it.
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"We have seen the way he has reacted every time he has had Sergey's name mentioned," Duva said. "He's stuttering. He doesn't want to talk about it. He did the one thing that was left for him to do to get out of this fight, that was to sign with a guy [Haymon] who was well known for making sure the public doesn't get to see the fights they want to see. Clearly Adonis Stevenson is scared to death to fight Sergey Kovalev."
Said Kovalev's trainer, John David Jackson, "From the day a Sergey fight was brought to his attention, we knew he didn't want the fight. He did everything they could to go around him. When they mentioned Sergey's name, he got amnesia. He didn't know who he was. He wanted to fight everyone but Sergey. And he kind of got his wish."
With Stevenson likely gone -- a source at HBO said that the network was still interested in bidding for a Stevenson-Kovalev fight in the fall -- Kovalev's future beyond Agnew is uncertain. Klimas floated Andre Ward and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. as possible opponents, but Ward has not indicated he is ready to leave 168 pounds and Chavez has a tentative date with Gennady Golovkin set for July. Former titleholder Jean Pascal is available but Pascal has expressed interest in fighting Kovalev only if he beats Stevenson first.
"It makes me sad," Klimas said. "But life goes on. The guy, Stevenson, he is going nowhere. He is 36 years old. He has two years left, at the most. Of course he is afraid to go in the ring with Sergey. It might end his career. Bernard Hopkins is 49. Of course he is afraid of fighting Sergey. He wants more money, more publicity, more belts. Sergey is 30. We have a long time to go."
Indeed, Kovalev is used to being patient. Until 2012, Kovalev was an unknown, a heavy-handed light heavyweight training in noted coach Don Turner's garage in North Carolina. He also was somewhat of a boxing vagabond, bouncing from state to state, searching for opponents. Klimas recalls a road trip in 2009, when Kovalev traveled from New York to Pennsylvania to North Carolina in the span of a week looking for a fight. Klimas said he took Kovalev to every major promoter. None were interested.
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"Bob Arum told me, 'What the hell am I going to do with this Russian light heavyweight,'" Klimas said with a laugh.
Main Events took a flier on Kovalev in 2012, and Kovalev has been laying waste to opponents since. Fighting first on NBC Sports Network and later on HBO, Kovalev has been on a knockout streak, stopping his last seven opponents. With the punching output of a middleweight and with crushing power with both hands, Kovalev has quickly emerged as one of boxing's most marketable stars.
Stars need opponents though, and if Kovalev (23-0-1) can get past Agnew (26-0) at The Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m.), he enters an uncertain future. And as bad as Kovalev wants Stevenson, he insists he won't chase him.
"I don't follow anybody," Kovalev said. "I see that [Stevenson] has something that I want. I want the WBC title. I want the WBA title. I want the IBF title. I'm ready to fight any champion. I have one title. I want to add one more title this year. It's not very good if everybody wants to see our fights but politics won't let it happen. For me, it's not good. We will try to get a good fight this year after this fight."