When Nathan Cleverly 26-0 (12kos) enters the ring this Saturday night at the Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff, Wales, for the 6th defense of his WBO world light heavyweight title, he will be facing his toughest challenger yet, in unbeaten Russian Sergey Kovalev 21-0-1 (19kos).
Cleverly is going into this fight, in the unusual position of being a slight betting underdog against his challenger, such is the reputation, which the Florida based Russian, brings with him. Kovalev is known as ‘Krusher’ because of his explosive punching power, which has seen him score 19 koes in his 21 victories, with only three of his contests going past the 3rd round. Kovalev is a well-schooled, boxer-puncher, who carries a heavy dig in both hands, but especially in the right.
Although it is still early days for Kovalev, he does bare some similarities with WBA Middleweight Champion Gennady Golovkin. Like the Kazakhstan born Golovkin, the ‘Krusher’ is an extremely aggressive boxer, who can back up his big punch with sound technical skills. Kovalev is an excellent punch-picker, and despite his aggressive style, does not waste many shots. He likes to break down his opponents by switching from body to head and back again, using jabs, hooks and straight rights, and when he has his opponent hurt, he has shown himself to be a quick and merciless finisher. Kovalev’s technical acumen has been helped hugely by his trainer, ex-world light-middleweight champion John David Jackson, who was one of the most technically astute boxers of the 80s.
For Cleverly, this is a fight, that could help him break through to the next level and gain the star status, and recognition that he craves. Cleverly’s idol, and the fighter whom he would like so much to emulate, is fellow Welshman, Joe Calzaghe, the former WBO world super-middleweight champion, who retired undefeated after 46 contests in 2008. However, Cleverly would like to avoid the more negative aspects of Calzaghes career, which saw Calzaghe often struggle for big fights during his lengthy title reign; an issue that has continued to dog Calzaghe since his retirement.
Unfortunately, for Calzaghe, his biggest fights only came at the tail end of his career, and his reputation and legacy, has suffered because of it. Cleverly wants to get the big fights earlier in his career and there are potential big fights out available, against the likes of Carl Froch, Bernard Hopkins, and Adonis Stevens. First, Cleverly has to negotiate his way past the dangerous Kovalev. This is a fight, which can open doors for Cleverly if he wins, especially if he wins impressively against a fighter with Kovalev’s destructive reputation.
The Florida based Russian has already built up a good reputation in America and many expect him to be too good and too powerful for the Welshman. Kovalev’s biggest victory so far is his impressive destruction of former WBA world light-heavyweight champion, Gabriel Campillo, whom he stopped in three rounds, flooring the usually, slippery and durable ex-champion, three times in the process. Kovalev has also shown the strength of character to continue his career, despite the tragic death of Roman Simakov, who passed away from injuries suffered in their fight in Dec 2011. After taking some time off to come to terms with the tragedy, Kovalev returned to the ring after six months and resumed his inexorable climb to the top. Now, only Nathan Cleverly stands in his way to becoming a world champion.
For Cleverly, this is a chance for him to show whether he can rise to the challenge of being the underdog in such a big fight, will this bring the best out of Cleverly or will he falter. Over the past few years, Cleverly has seen fellow Brit fighter WBA and IBF Super-middleweight champion, Carl Froch, gain plaudits from an impressive run of fights against the best in his division. Cleverly knows that, he too, needs to meet and beat the best in his own division, if he is to gain the kind of recognition that Froch has attained lately.
Looking at Cleverly and Kovalev together, both fighters are well matched in a number of ways, which is promising for the potential spectator. This match has all the hallmarks of a close and entertaining contest. Both men like to throw combinations, but while Kovalev has a definite edge in punching power, Cleverly has an edge in hand speed. Cleverly also has the edge in footwork, to the slower Russian. This is a fight that could be an excellent mixture of styles, but its result may well rest upon Cleverly’s choice of tactics. If Cleverly opts to slug it out with Kovalev, then the result, despite his good chin, may well be disastrous. Cleverly’s soundest option, tactically speaking, is to box through the early rounds, draw the fire of Kovalev, and then come on stronger and more aggressively in the later rounds. Although he is actually four years younger than his Russian challenger, Cleverly is much more seasoned in longer fights, having travelled the full 12 rounds five times so far during his career. This could well be a crucial edge in the Welshman’s favour, should the fight enter the late rounds on Saturday. For all his power and talent, Kovalev may find himself struggling if he is taken into the later rounds, which he is so unused too.
Some people have drawn comparisons between this match and Joe Calzaghe’s fight with Jeff lacy. In what was a unification fight for the IBF and WBO world super-middleweight titles, Calzaghe was the underdog, and was expected by many to be overwhelmed by the powerful, big punching, Lacy, who was regarded as one of the future stars of boxing. When both men got into the ring however, Calzaghe gave one of the best performances of his career, to out-box, and out-punch Lacy, so viciously and thoroughly, that the American was never the same fighter again.
Although Kovalev is not held in such high regard, as Lacy was prior to his fight with Calzaghe, he has been building a good following in America, and many believe that he is destined to become the new star of the 175 division, once he takes the WBO title from Cleverly.
Nathan Cleverly will be aiming to produce against Kovalev, something similar to what Calzaghe did against Lacy. Unlike Calzaghe, when he fought Lacy, Cleverly will be facing Kovalev in front of his own Welsh supporters in Cardiff.
It is no coincidence that Cleverly bares a resemblance to Calzaghe in his fighting style, as he was trained early in his career by Calzaghe’s father, and has adopted a similar busy, and fast handed, combination based, box-fighter style. Victory on Saturday night will go some way to placing Cleverly amongst the elite champions of today, and closer to emulating his idol Calzaghe himself.
This is a fight, which promises to be perhaps something a little special, with both fighters penchant for punching in combinations, the chances of some good exchanges seem high. Although Cleverly would be best advised to use his speed and boxing ability for much of the fight, it is inevitable that, at some point, he will have to stand his ground, and trade with Kovalev. Indeed, it would be a good strategy for Cleverly to try and push Kovalev back, and see how effective the big punching Russian is on the backfoot. In a year, where we have seen a number of exciting clashes between top fighters, this is another title fight, which could show us just how good boxing can be when the top fighters are allowed to fight each other. At the end of it, the light heavyweights may well have a new star in their midst, a man who will be either a new champion, or else a champion who has finally broken out of the shadows.