Sergey Kovalev currently rules the roost in the light heavyweight division and is one of boxing’s most feared pugilists. For one of the weight class’s hardest punchers, there’s smoothness to his work. He doesn’t load up with his shots; instead, his punches are released with fluidity in twos, threes and fours. He keeps himself balanced, poised and controls the distance well. He’s a smart fighter too- perhaps the most technically proficient 175-pounder bar Andre Ward. For much of his career, Kovalev fought for little reward away from the attention of the mainstream broadcasters. Now, however, thanks to his fan-pleasing style and promoter Kathy Duva, he’s risen from relative obscurity to become one of HBO’s biggest stars.
Tomorrow night he puts his 28 fight unbeaten record on the line against the awkward and strong Jean Pascal. Pascal now lives in Canada but heralds from Haiti, and has been in with some of the division’s finest, including Kovalev. Their first fight proved highly entertaining; a great stylistic matchup and well worthy of a second run. For the most part, Kovalev dominated the bout, landing the most hurtful punches and sending Pascal to the canvas for the first time in his professional career. But there were moments in the fight where the momentum swung. Pascal had the Russian visibly wobbled in places before the fight ended in the 8th with the referee stopping the contest.
So should fans expect the rematch to deliver a different result? Both fighters have weighed and are in fantastic shape, as we’d expect. Pascal has made the most noticeable changes to his camp, bringing in hall-of-fame trainer Freddie Roach. Quite what Roach can add to Pascal’s performance with just this training camp for the two to gel is uncertain. Roach has a wealth of experience and is a great tactician. But even if he can refine Pascal’s style, tighten up his punches a bit, and bring a bit more boxing to his game, is that going to be enough to trouble Kovalev. If Pascal’s game plan is to outbox Kovalev, I don’t see it working. To my eye, the better boxing skills lie with the Russian. It’s hard to get past Kovalev’s jab for one. He uses it as a weapon, directing it to head and body. Once he’s softened you up with the jab, he brings in behind it brutal straight rights and hooks. Will Roach be able to bring some refinement to Pascal’s game, and even if he can, how much will that benefit him. Much of Pascal’s success in their first meeting came from slipping inside and under Kovalev’s shots, launching his big bombs around the side of Kovalev’s guard. He did have some success with the straight right counter too. Injecting a bit more method to Pascal’s attacks would stand to reason. Coming in behind a jab would surely help. And keeping on the front foot too, I see as key. When Kovalev is backing you up, you’re in trouble. I believe Pascal needs to pressure Kovalev, make use of the jab more and bring in his power shots behind it. If he can unsettle Kovalev’s rhythm and make it uncomfortable in there for him, he could have some success. He has the power to hurt Kovalev. I can see Roach bringing improvements to Pascal; whether those improvements will bring a greater degree of competitiveness rather than a change in result is unsure. Pascal will no doubt have moments in the fight, and Roach’s work may be enough to stop it ending in a knockout. Ultimately, though, I see this as Kovalev’s night.