With less than 60 rounds on his slate, mammoth hitting WBO World Light-Heavyweight title challenger and world ranked Sergey Kovalev might be shy on professional experience when he fronts up to defending champion Nathan Cleverly at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena this Saturday.
However the presence of John David Jackson in the unbeaten Russian’s corner should certainly act as a buffer.
A globetrotting two time-two weight world champion in the late 80s and early 90s, the Denver born, Florida based southpaw is now one of the most coveted coaches in the US. His client list includes world champions such as Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Randall Bailey and Nate Campbell and recently ‘Action’ Jackson was recruited as head trainer at Mike Tyson’s Iron Mike Productions.
Last Saturday evening, boxing writer Glynn Evans hooked up with the wise old sage, now 50, to discuss his life in boxing and assess the challenger’s chances in Saturday’s salivating showdown.
Remaining tickets are available from the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena Box Office on 02920 224 488 or Eventim on 0844 249 1000 or www.eventim.co.uk
Watch the whole ‘Red Mist’ event – headlined by the unmissable WBO World Light-Heavyweight collision between Nathan Cleverly and unbeaten Russian KO king Sergey Kovalev, plus Gary Buckland’s British Super-Featherweight title defence against Stephen Smith and Commonwealth Light-Heavyweight Champion Ovill McKenzie’s rematch against Enzo Maccarinelli – live and exclusive in the UK on BoxNation (Sky Ch.437/Virgin Ch.546) from 7pm. Join at www.boxnation.com
During your own ring career, you were a two weight world champion yet never seemed to receive the recognition that your talents merited. Why do you think that was?
I was the WBO’s first ever light-middleweight champion when I won the belt in 1988 and, back then, the sanctioning body wasn’t as well recognised as it is today. The WBC, WBA and IBF, plus the TV companies, were all shunning the WBO. Because I had that belt, it gave the champions with the more recognised organisations a reason not to fight me.
Unfortunately, when I won my second belt, the WBA middleweight title, they decided to strip me before I could defend and make any real money. On top of that, I was predominately a slick, defence operator and my style wasn’t what you’d call ‘TV friendly’.
Nevertheless, you were a proper world champion contesting title fights in France, England, Italy, Argentina and Mexico, as well as the US. Was that something you enjoyed?
Yeh, it never bothered me provided they paid me what I felt I was worth. I always knew I was a better fighter than the guy in the opposite corner so I didn’t care less where the fight took place.
Defending overseas provided me with a great chance to see the world. I particularly enjoyed Monte Carlo. It was sunny, they had a new beach and the people there were very nice. Ironically, I was more popular in Europe than I ever was back home in the US. The Europeans certainly appreciated my style more.
In October 1990, you successfully retained your WBO light-middleweight title against local boy Chris Pyatt at the Granby Hall, Leicester. What was your recollection of that experience?
It didn’t start too well. Chris had already weighed-in before I got there which I wasn’t too pleased about and when I stepped on the scales I was adjudged two and a half pounds overweight. I knew from my hotel scales that I was on the weight so something wasn’t quite right. But I wasn’t going to cry about it, I just took the weight off.
Going in, I knew Chris was a strong, young kid but, at that stage of his career, he wasn’t really polished in his skills. The crowd all threw cake and stuff at me but I wasn’t unnerved by that. Around that time, because of my style, not many could touch me. In the end, the British people were receptive to me.
What do you consider was the highlight of your own ring career and who was the best fighter that you fought?
I have to identify two highlights. Firstly, there was the night I unanimously outpointed Reggie Johnson in Buenos Aires to win the WBA middleweight belt. Reggie was the best fighter I ever fought and he was right at his prime then.
The second highlight was actually a fight that I lost by stoppage when I tried to regain the belt after I’d been stripped, against Jorge Castro in Monterray, Mexico. It was voted the 1994 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year.
I was actually ahead by scores of nine, seven and five rounds, fighting in a slugging style that people thought I didn’t possess in my locker. But I was badly cut. I got careless when I went in for the kill and Jorge clipped me when my hands were down. My head landed with a really hard thump on the canvas. After that he shoved me over a couple of times and they stopped it but it was a really great fight I was proud to be associated with.
How did you drift into coaching?
It was a gradual progression. I’d become a little bitter regarding my own ring career because, without a (world title) belt, I just couldn’t get decent fights. Occasionally, I’d get a call at like two weeks notice to fight for just $10-15,000. I wasn’t prepared to belittle myself or risk ruining my record.
Gradually young fighters would request that I teach them certain stuff then I received a call from Shane Mosley before his second fight with Winky Wright, asking if I could help him out. That’s how I kinda got back into the game.
During your own time as a fighter, you were associated with Georgie Benton and Emanuel Steward, two of the greatest trainers that ever were. What specifically did you learn from them?
Manny was more my manager than my coach but he was a very good strategist and tactician. He knew how to put together a game plan.
My trainer really was Georgie Benton. He’s the guy who taught me everything. He was a defensive wizard. He knew all the little tricks, all the small subtle things that would be instrumental in helping you to win a close fight.
However, he got a job working with Main Events which took up all his time and I started to work with Don Turner, another very knowledgeable trainer.
As a coach, who have been the best fighters you’ve been involved with?
The most skilled would be Bernard Hopkins who I previously challenged for the IBF title late in my career (lrsc7). By the time we started working together, Bernard had really learned the game and he was very wise. He knew he wasn’t as quick as he’d been in his youth so he adapted and learned other things. By the end, he could do pretty much everything.
The quickest kid I ever trained was a featherweight out of Fort Myers, Florida called Derrick Wilson. Unfortunately, the street life hurt him and he’s got a shoddy record now of something like 16 fights, four losses, but he had blazingly quick hands.
The hardest puncher I’ve worked with would be either Sergey (Kovalev) or another Russian heavyweight I’m currently working with.
You’ve worked with Kovalev for four fights now. What impressed you about Sergey when you began together and what did you identify that required changing?
His punch power was obvious but he also had a really good ability to set his feet correctly.
The area that most needed improving was probably his body punching. As an amateur, he’d have one target; the head.I informed him that once he began attacking the body, he’d find it even easier to land to the body.
With Sergey, you need to show him something then just allow him to go off and practise. It’s a pleasure watching him grafting to incorporate new skills into his style. Now body punching just comes second nature to him.
Sergey arrives with a rep as a phenomenal puncher, having stopped 19 opponents in 22 pro gigs. How do you account for that hitting power?
The manner in which he sets his feet certainly helps but I think the real elite punchers are just born with the gift. At first glance, Sergey doesn’t look especially strong and, because of that, I think opponents tend to underestimate him so there’s the element of surprise.
Also he can punch hard from a wide range of angles. He naturally generates the correct leverage.
What other attributes does Sergey have that perhaps fans haven’t really seen because his fights have finished so quickly?
It hasn’t really happened yet but I stress to Sergey that, eventually, he will face someone with a great chin who will be able to withstand his bombs and he’ll need to rely on his boxing ability.
But that doesn’t concern me because he’s a wonderful boxer and he showed that by having a great 200 bout amateur career. He’s a very intelligent fighter and he demonstrates this in the manner that he sets opponents up, putting himself in a position to land those heavy blows which bring his knockouts.
Thus far, his ledger lists just 57 pro rounds. He’s still to travel beyond round eight yet he’s entering the world championship ring on Saturday. Does that lack of experience concern you?
It really doesn’t. He does 10 or 12 hard rounds no problem in the heat of my Florida gym so if he can do that, there’ll be no problem when he has to do it in a fight. Plus there’s all that amateur experience and knowledge to draw from.
I hear that Nathan has exceptional stamina and is very durable but that certainly doesn’t concern me. It simply means he’ll endure an even bigger beating than all Sergey’s previous opponents have taken.
What is your assessment of defending champion Nathan Cleverly?
He won his title deservedly and I respect him as a worthy champion. However, he’s certainly not shown me anything spectacular; he doesn’t have speed or power that others have. Look, he’s above average and we’ve trained hard for him but the upset would be if Nathan wins, not if Sergey wins. Cleverly doesn’t have the amateur pedigree that Kovalev can call on.
How do you feel about conceding home court?
As an amateur, Sergey travelled the world fighting on the other guy’s home turf. So he’s used to that. When he first came to the US, every fight he was a Russian fighting a home American. This will just be a larger stage.
But Sergey hardly understands any English so couldn’t give a hoot about what all the fans are singing or shouting. The fans won’t play a part in the outcome of this fight.
Finally, how do you see Saturday’s bill topper panning out and why are you so confident that Sergey will emerge victorious?
The Cleverlys talk a lot but, in boxing, a lot of talk usually indicates a scary person.
For a start, Sergey can match Nathan for boxing but no way can Nathan match Sergey’s punch. If Cleverly’s dumb enough to stand with us, he’ll get knocked out. Once Sergey lands I expect Nathan to go on the retreat, and attempt to outbox us off the back foot. He talks about having Plans A to Z but, come Saturday, he’ll have just one plan: Survival Mode!
But he won’t stave off Sergey by just flicking jabs. If Nathan wants to impress, at some stage he’ll need to gamble, stand and fight with us. He’s got a great work ethic and good stamina but his chin’s never been tested. It will be Saturday.
Sergey simply has too much power and can land from too many angles. Believe me, Cleverly is going to be in for a very unpleasant surprise once the first bell rings.