Can Cleverly derail the Kovalev express to retain his title?
By Nick Bellafatto, Real Combat Media Boxing Correspondent
In the other title fight on HBO’s Boxing After Dark this Saturday night just before Aussie Daniel Geale and Brit Darren Barker lock Horns for the IBF middleweight championship, what to me seems the more intriguing match up is Nathan Cleverly taking on Sergey Kovalev.
In a split simulcast from the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, undefeated hometown fighter Nathan Cleverly (26-0, 12 KO’s) in defense of his WBO light heavyweight title is not only hopeful of victory, but with a win is further contemplating reaching the heights attained by fellow Welshman Joe Calzaghe upon Joe’s destruction of the once promising Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy.
However, for many that self-envisioned scenario is a hard one to fathom considering Cleverly’s opponent is no Jeff Lacy. That’s to say he will square off with the literally deadly punching Russian Sergey Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KO’s), who equally undefeated has been on the impacting end of a ring tragedy in that former opponent Roman Simakov would expire from injuries sustained during their 2011 encounter.
But coming to terms with that unfortunate incident long ago, Sergey hasn’t let up since, continuing on a knockout spree that has overall resulted in 19 of his 22 opponents getting stretched, 18 of those within the first three rounds. This is the same fate Kovalev promises to bestow upon the defending champion in what amounts to a career defining step-up bout for both men.
Having said that, there’s seems to be even more bad news for the resident of nearby Cefn Fforest, Wales. In addition to the obvious power wielded by Kovalev, power which in comparison to Cleverly seems off the charts, the Russian appears to be a near complete fighter.
Able to dish it out, Kovalev is equally able to take it, shrugging off opponents punches quite well, while in exhibiting a phenomenal work-rate, this along with underrated and underappreciated hand speed, is likely to catch Cleverly off guard and or prove troublesome for the defending champion. In essence, Nathan will early on have to adjust or likely suffer the consequences.
Of course none of this has been lost on Sergey’s previous victims, many of whom were surprised by the swiftness as well as overall skill-set of the Russian, no doubt explaining a number Kovalev’s knockouts.
If the above weren’t enough, Kovalev is tough to counter in that he’s prone to throwing in combination up, down, and all around hit or miss. That’s an added plus that will either have to be opposed with continuous leading on the part of the Welshman, wary not to run into something, and or the landing of well timed shots to catch the challenger coming in to keep him off balance.
That means Cleverly must be sharp, to among other things cleverly and consistently get off with his punches to afterwards either get in, out, or to one side or another as Sergey is not only proficient at stepping with opponents, but he cuts off the ring well, a ring I imagine will be quite sizeable.
Continuing on, the native of Chelyabinsk, Russia now based in Florida is nifty and shifty, utilizing shoulder feints and the like to make way for his heavy artillery, subtleties often overlooked, while despite the fact that Sergey’s fights don’t last long, he demonstrates excellent stamina.
That’s to say in the midst of a relentless style that pressures opponents until they crack, I imagine Sergey could apply that pressure over the course of twelve rounds if need be. And if one is counting on the less than heavy handed Cleverly to slow down the Kovalev express in the Russian’s first ever crack at a major world title, good luck with it.
All told, it seems quite an uphill battle for the man who captured his current belt from Aleksy Kuziemski, a totally obscure opponent, while in four subsequent title defenses the Welshman has contested equally unrecognizable competition. What this translates into is that Cleverly hasn’t fought anybody to date that has prepared him for what he’s about to encounter this weekend.
Does that mean Nathan is doomed? Not entirely. For fighters devoid of flaws are for all intensive purposes non-existent, so that anything is possible. Of course one must be able to exploit those flaws to their own advantage so let’s go over what the hometown fighter can do to retain his title.
First and foremost as mentioned Kovalev has stopped 18 of 22 opponents in the first three rounds so that I’m sure the thinking in the Cleverly camp is to get past the initial rounds. Does a hungry and determined Kovalev slow down after that in a bout of this magnitude? I think not but stranger things have happened. Of course this assumes Nathan’s chin holds up, an iffy proposition that will surely be determined as some point.
Possessing good hand speed while he’s shown the ability to throw excellent combinations himself, if Nathan can avoid debilitating contact for the duration, and or whether what comes his way, these attributes will go a long way towards securing a victory. No doubt the local fighter will have to keep those combos coming in the face of what will be an onslaught, blows which in the end may prove to be his best defense.
Another potential avenue of pursuit for Cleverly is to somehow back the Russian up, as Kovalev in reverse looks vulnerable, or at least ineffective so that this item may prove crucial. Wait, there’s more. The long and lean Russian fighter, not unlike Tommy Hearns, in order to get opponents out of there needs to get full extension on his shots, whether it be a right hand or left hook, distance being key to generating his power.
If the defending champion can take that space away by smothering and or throwing off Kovalev’s rhythm and timing, this could make the going difficult for the challenger. Lastly, Cleverly will be well served by pressing the attack in many an instance to relegate Sergey to the role of counter-puncher, something the challenger doesn’t seem so adept at rather preferring to lead. Easier said than done.
To sum up, the Welshman to hang on to his title, barring a hometown decision of which Kovalev seems intent on preventing by way of knockout, will need to pitch a shut out or near perfect game en-route to securing what would likely be a points victory. That to reiterate assumes Cleverly is able to avoid becoming victimized in a contest where there’s little room if any for error.
However, I don’t see the above scenario coming to fruition. For until Nathan Cleverly proves me wrong, I’m favoring Sergey Kovalev to emerge as a new star in the division. For similar to Gennady Golovkin in that Gennady’s power seems to be an overriding concern for many an opponent, much to the exclusion of various other nuances that make for the big picture, Kovalev is a well schooled fighter who in a variety of ways knows how to go about his business.
Sergey by stoppage or UD