It was January, 2012, and Kathy Duva was stressed out. With just days to go before the debut of NBC’s Fight Night series, Duva -- the strawberry-haired CEO of Main Events, the promotional company that had just scored an exclusive deal with NBC -- suddenly found herself looking for a new headliner for the first show. Heavyweight Eddie Chambers had fractured two ribs and Duva needed a new, marketable attraction to put on the network.
Around that same time Duva was scheduled to meet with Egis Klimas, a little-known Russian manager. At the meeting, Duva explained her situation. Klimas -- setting aside his own agenda -- sprung into action. “He was calling everywhere, trying to find us a heavyweight,” Duva said. “We were so grateful.” At the end of the meeting, Klimas asked a favor. He had a Russian light heavyweight; could Duva put him on a show?
“And that,” Duva said, “was the first we heard of Sergey Kovalev.”
Six months later Duva stuck the then 29-year-old, 17-0-1 Kovalev on an undercard against Darnell Boone, a stocky brawler who had dropped a close split decision to Kovalev in 2010. This time, Kovalev stopped Boone in two rounds. “I remember telling [Main Events matchmaker] Jolene [Mizzone], ‘Get a contract and sign this guy right now,’” Duva said. Smart decision. Since beating Boone, Kovalev has racked up eight wins, seven by knockout, and picked up three pieces of the light heavyweight crown.
Add this: Sergey Kovalev is SI.com’s 2014 Fighter of the Year.
By any measure, 2014 was a down year for boxing. Mismatches polluted the schedules of the premium networks, and obvious fights (Kovalev-Adonis Stevenson, Gennady Golovkin-Peter Quillin and, of course, Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather) went unmade. The cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy came to an end but the feud between Top Rank and Al Haymon -- the shadowy advisor who controls most of the top talent in Golden Boy’s stable -- continued. The inability of key people in boxing to broker simple deals has pushed the sport further and further onto the fringes.
That made selecting the Fighter of the Year so challenging. Kovalev (26-0-1) had high expectations entering 2014. Duva, with HBO’s backing, cut a deal with Stevenson. The terms: Both Kovalev and Stevenson would fight tune-up fights in the first quarter of the year, with a showdown between the titleholders penciled in for later in the year. At the last minute Stevenson reneged, signed with Haymon, fled to Showtime and left Kovalev without a viable opponent. He fought Cedric Agnew in March, stopping Agnew in the seventh round. Kovalev returned to face Blake Caparello in August and destroyed Caparello inside two.
For Kovalev, things seemed bleak. But days before he was scheduled to face Caparello, Kovalev caught a break: Bernard Hopkins needed a big fight. Hopkins, the IBF/WBA titleholder, was faced with having to defend his title against unheralded Nadjib Mohammedi or be stripped of his belt. Hopkins didn’t want to relinquish his title but, at 49, didn’t want to waste time with unknown mandatory challengers either. The IBF would allow Hopkins to bypass Mohammedi for a unification fight. Hopkins approached Stevenson; the two sides could not come to terms. He approached Kovalev; a deal was cut within days.
Against Hopkins, Kovalev was masterful. Known for his knockouts, Kovalev put on a boxing clinic. He moved in and out, peppering Hopkins with a stinging jab and snapping his head back with thudding right hands. He refused to get lured into Hopkins’ traps. He patiently picked Hopkins apart; by the sixth round it was obvious Hopkins was just trying to survive.
Said Hopkins, “The better man was Kovalev. He’s going to be around for a long time.”
That win, in the biggest, most anticipated fight of 2014, gave Kovalev the edge over some solid competition. Terence Crawford certainly has strong Fighter of the Year credentials. In March, Crawford, a slick lightweight, went into hostile territory to beat Ricky Burns to win his first world title. He followed it up with dominating wins over Yuriorkis Gamboa and Ray Beltran. Golovkin has a case, too. The powerful middleweight knocked out Osumanu Adama, Daniel Geale and Marco Antonio Rubio in 2014, cementing his status as the best 160-pounder in the world.
But this was the year of Kovalev. He ended the reign -- and, perhaps, the career -- of Hopkins. He unified three pieces of the 175-pound crown. He sent Stevenson -- SI.com’s Fighter of the Year in 2013 -- into a full-on sprint away from him. He punished the opponents he could with his savage power and outboxed the one he couldn’t with startling skill and technique.
In boxing, there is only so much a fighter can control. He can’t make an opponent step into the ring with him and he can’t force promoters to work together. He can demand to fight the best, which Duva proudly declares Kovalev has always done, and he can back it up by doing it. With a scheduled showdown against former titleholder Jean Pascal in March and the possibility of a Stevenson fight coming to fruition later in the year, Kovalev has a big year ahead of him. It’s scary, really: The best fighter in 2014 could finish ’15 even better.