Sergey Kovalev admits he always had bad habits, even as an elite athlete. They started before he ever became a boxer, while growing up Russia, where his life was defined by street fights and juvenile delinquency.
That didn’t change when he turned pro in 2009. The boxer known as Krusher drank and caroused between bouts, showing up to camps in less-than-ideal shape and clinging to some odd notions, like that he shouldn’t drink too much water because it would make him gain weight.
None of that mattered in the ring. Kovalev triumphed in spite of how he lived. Other than a fluke draw at the Playboy Mansion in 2011, he won 30 of his first 31 fights. He recorded 26 knockouts, toppled Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, became one of the sport’s most exciting athletes and climbed all manner of pound-for-pound lists.
His goal was to become the best boxer in the world, which is why he fought Andre Ward, an undefeated Olympic champion who most paper challengers avoided. Kovalev felt like he won their first bout, and it was incredibly close, with the judges awarding Ward a unanimous decision in November, 2016. Kovalev called it a “robbery,” which seemed like a stretch, even though it was fair to dispute the outcome. What no one disputed is that Kovalev faded toward the end.
The rematch took place seven months later. In the interim, Kovalev made few, if any changes. He underwent a turbulent training camp, feuding with his trainer, John David Jackson. He climbed into the ring on June 17 and says he just was … off. “I felt like I got a shot of vodka,” Kovalev says. “Like, wow. Like, dizzy. I couldn’t understand. Then I can’t remember.”
Kovalev says he recalls none of the rematch from the middle of the second round until the eighth, when Ward landed a sharp right that wobbled Kovalev and made his face jiggle with force. That is, Kovalev says, what snapped him back to reality. While that might sound like convenient amnesia, Kovalev actually led at that moment by three points on one scorecard and trailed by one point on the other two. It wouldn’t matter. Ward landed what looked like a low blow and Kovalev turned his back and complained to the referee. Meanwhile, Ward continued to land lefts to the body while Kovalev tried to wrap him up. The referee stopped the light heavyweight bout there, in the eighth round. The only thing left to dispute was whether the stoppage was premature. Kovalev says, “I understand the referee was corrupted.” But Ward was still the consensus best boxer in the world.
Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager, met with the boxer the next day. Kovalev was planning to return to Russia and resume his old routines. Neither of them knew the events of this summer would change Kovalev’s life and perhaps alter the end of his career. There’s a story there that Kovalev has not yet told. It sounds like a movie script.
It’s about Kovalev, a near-death accident and a Greek monastery.
Kovalev, who turned 34 in April, felt depressed as he flew to Moscow, where he met with friends and downed beer and wine at dinners. A week later, he traveled to his hometown of Kopeysk, where he met more friends and pounded more beer. During the day he managed to complete the Russian equivalent of a master’s degree in physical education. But at night, he did the opposite of what he studied, disregarding his health in order to temporarily forget the Ward fights. “I didn’t have good emotions,” he says.
Sometimes, he’d just drive, hopping into his 1996 Mercedes S-Class, his baby, the car he’d spent $100,000 to upgrade, even affixing a “Krusher” sticker to the back window. One afternoon, he drove into the countryside, 100 kilometers (roughly 62 miles) from his hometown. Kovalev sped along a two-lane highway and did not notice a car heading in the opposite direction attempting to pass another car in Kovalev’s lane. Well, he did notice, just far too late. He jerked the steering wheel to the right as hard as he could, yanking the Mercedes off the road and into a forest of birch trees. Kovalev estimates he was driving 140 kilometers an hour, the equivalent of about 87 mph, and he says that from the moment he slammed on his brakes, the car skidded through the forest for 100 meters before it stopped.
Miraculously—and Kovalev swears this to be true—the car didn’t collide with a single tree. It only clipped them. His face had banged into the steering wheel, and his nose was gushing blood, but otherwise—and, again, he swears this is true—he suffered hardly any damage. No broken bones. No torn ligaments. Just a totaled car, a broken windshield, a nose busted worse than by any punch and an incident he refers to as “my crash test.” That he survived.
Mostly, Kovalev says he thought about his family. How he needed to provide for them. How many lives depended on his boxing career. He took the sticker off his car so no one would know he wrecked it, called a friend and had it towed away. “He saved my life,” Kovalev says, meaning the car, not the friend.
Klimas rarely heard from Kovalev in that stretch. Occasionally, the boxer would call to ask what fights might be possible. He never mentioned the accident. Neither man knew then that Kovalev would sign to fight Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in a bout that will take place Saturday in The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Kovalev describes the accident as the fourth “bell” that showed him he needed to change his life. The first bell was his unanimous decision victory over Isaac Chilemba in July 2016. Kovalev won but not in typical, bludgeoning fashion. The second and third bells were the Ward fights. So Kovalev made a decision.
“I chose,” he says, “to go to Greece.”
Only Kovalev did not head to the usual Greek vacation spots; no Athens, no Santorini, no Mykonos. This trip wasn’t about impossibly blue water, or champagne cruises. Kovalev traveled to the Metamórfosis on the Halkidiki Peninsula in northeastern Greece, because he wanted to visit Mount Athos, which is known as the Holy Mountain and is home to some 20 Orthodox Christian monasteries. More than 2,000 monks live there.
That’s where, Kovalev says, “I changed in my mind everything. I want to change all my life. From myself. What I should eat, what I should do, what I should drink, what I should read. Everything. Right then.”
He hiked with friends to one of the monasteries located lower on the mountain. They presented a special visa to the monks there and asked to stay the night. They were placed in a simple room that Kovalev affectionately refers to as a closet, fed a chicken dinner and led to the church. There, Kovalev was granted a special audience with the elder, the monk in charge. He says he thanked God and prayed and asked the elder the question he traveled to Greece to ask someone of that stature. He won’t say what the question was, but it’s clear it centered on this next phase of his life. “I prayed that I stay healthy, stay sober, stay focused,” he says.
Kovalev stayed in the church until 5 a.m., slept for an hour, then returned for three additional hours of prayer. Then he ate a breakfast of soup and bread and descended the mountain a changed man—again, he swears this to be true. It’s impossible to say for sure. “I felt my mind more clear,” he says. “I don’t to drink anymore alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Just cleaning up my body, cleaning up my spirit, cleaning up everything. Right now, I am clean 100 percent.”
He pauses, searching for the right words in his second language. “I want to write a new story,” he says. “I want my belts back. I must prove that I deserve it.”
For years, Klimas had pushed Kovalev in this direction without progress. They had so many silly arguments over his water intake. Kovalev would hold up a wet sponge and say, see, it’s heavier. “When I tried to talk to him it didn’t work,” Klimas says. “There’s only so many times you can say it. If I’m annoying, he’s going to start hiding from me.”
Plus, Klimas reasoned, 26 knockouts is 26 knockouts. Kovalev may not have lived like a monk but he trained hard enough and fought well enough to become one of the best boxers in the world.
After Greece, Kovalev went to a detox center. He learned how to make healthier eating choices, chew his food better and drink more water. He says he bought in. He stopped drinking anything with sugar, cut out fried food, forsook alcohol and embraced a former enemy—vegetables. He favors organic oatmeal in the mornings now and eats smaller portions throughout the day, chewing furiously.
While Klimas makes a fair point that Kovalev’s bad habits hardly seemed to impact his career, it also seems to fair to wonder how much better Kovalev might have been had he pivoted to this lifestyle, say, five years ago. Would he not have faded in the Ward fights? Klimas argues that Kovalev did win the first Ward bout, but he also admits that “he wasn’t the same Sergey” and adds, “He was completely different. And we all know where that came from.”
Ward retired in September at 33 years old, vacating the titles he won from Kovalev. My belts, Kovalev calls them. He can win two back on Saturday, should all his life changes lead him to victory in the ring. He hired a new trainer as part of his comeback, Abror Tursunpulatov, who has developed many top amateurs in Eastern Europe. Kovalev appears calmer now, more focused, Klimas says, comparing Kovalev now to the Kovalev who toppled Hopkins three years ago. “He can become even better than he was at his best,” Klimas says.
The interview is almost over. Kovalev says this summer wasn’t actually that crazy, that his life before the accident and the Greece trip was the crazy part. He had lost his titles and his favorite car this summer but not family and not his career, and he had regained his health.
“Me and Kathy wish he had went the monastery 10 years ago,” Klimas says on the call, while sitting next Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter with Main Events.
“I’m already not going to be Krusher,” Kovalev says. “I’m a different man now.”
“Just remember to be Krusher in the ring,” Duva says.
Kovalev laughs. The monks he visited have no televisions at their monasteries, but they will, he says, be praying for him. As the fight to reclaim his career approaches, that seems like enough for Kovalev, who is at peace, or at least feels that way for now.