Boxing is all about opportunities. On Saturday, WBO light heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly (26-0, 12 KO) and Sergey Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KO) will both make their HBO debut in a major clash in the 175-pound division.
Fighting in front of a national audience on HBO in Cardiff, Wales is the grandest stage either has performed on. Despite the fight being shown via tape delay prior to the Daniel Geale-Darren Barker main event, the winner of Cleverly-Kovalev could establish himself as a star.
This is an intriguing and important matchup with major implications on the future of the light heavyweight division.
Tale of the Tape
The Book on Cleverly
Having already defended his title five times, Cleverly is not new to the world title scene. His list of opponents don't read like a who's-who of the top light heavyweights in the world, though.
There are no Chad Dawsons, Jean Pascals, Adonis Stevensons or even Tavoris Clouds on his resume.
Instead, Cleverly's biggest wins have come over veteran Tony Bellew and most recently Robin Krasniqi in April. Because he hasn't fought fighters who are known stateside, he hasn't attained massive popularity outside of the United Kingdom.
He's had just one fight in the United States. He was impressive in stopping Shawn Hawk in the eighth round of their Nov. 2012 bout from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Cleverly possesses the skill level to reach the next level of stardom, but he must up the ante in regards to his competition. He's still just 26 years old, but time is running short on referring to him as an up-and-coming fighter.
Taking on a fast-rising power puncher like Kovalev is a smart but dangerous move for Cleverly. While this bout will land him on HBO, it isn't going to bring the type of payday a fight with Hopkins would. Kovalev is a big-time puncher with an aggressive style, and he's receiving a solid push from HBO.
He'll present a significant challenge for the champion because of his explosiveness.
Cleverly's boxing prowess, length and athleticism gives him some advantages, but he doesn't bring the game-changing power that the challenger does. Though Cleverly is younger, he is far more experienced in terms of total fights, total rounds and situations.
He'll need to use those skills and intangibles if he hopes to defeat Kovalev.
Cleverly's solid jab and footwork will be the key early. If he can get Kovalev frustrated, he may be able to open his opponent up for counter power shots that score.
The burning question on the Cleverly side is: Can the champion make the challenger respect his power? If he can't, keeping him at bay becomes all the more difficult.
The Book on Kovalev
There aren't many fighters in any weight class that have Kovalev's punching power. His 86.36 percent KO rate is impressive. He's just recently turned up the level of his competition, scoring consecutive wins by third-round TKO over Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White in January and June, respectively.
If Kovalev can defeat Cleverly in Wales and win the title, he'll be a dark horse candidate for Fighter of the Year.
Kovalev has scored five-straight wins by stoppage, including a win over Russian compatriot Roman Simakov in Dec. 2011 that resulted in Simakov's untimely death from a brain injury. Questions about the effects of that tragedy aren't new for Kovalev.
In the hype leading up to this fight, he was asked about the Simakov fight by Wales Online's Phil Branche. Kovalev simply replied "No comment."
Pressing for an answer, Branche asked: "You don't talk about that at all?" Kovalev replied: "No. Bless him. He is sleeping up there now.”
Per Blanche, Kovalev had attempted to reach out to Simakov's family after the tragedy but was shunned. He also said he would dedicate the fight and his winnings from his subsequent bout to the victim's family.
With aspirations of attaining championship glory in his sport, Kovalev can't allow this tragic event to derail him. His game is all about power and aggression; if he loses the latter, he isn't in the position to face Cleverly in the biggest fight of his life.
Overcoming the speed and experience of Cleverly will be Kovalev's biggest impediment. Kovalev has never been beyond eight rounds in his career. If Cleverly can extend him, he'll have a better chance to retain his title.
That will be easier said than done because of the pressure and power Kovalev brings.
Boxing fans should prepare for an excellent fight. This mix of styles should provide an exciting bout with momentum shifts and a thrilling finish.
I expect Cleverly's boxing skills to reign supreme early, but somewhere near the middle rounds, Kovalev will hurt the champion and take the momentum.
Cleverly is tougher than he's given credit for, and he won't just fade away, but ultimately the Russian's power will be too much. Look for Cleverly to hit the canvas at least twice. He'll lose by late stoppage or hang on to finish, but still lose by decision.
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