- Nigel Collins, ESPN Staff Writer
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Like a child peeking out from under the covers, Nadjib Mohammedi hid behind his gloves and snuck a look at the ogre bearing down on him. He couldn't have liked what he saw.
The unnerving sight before him was a man called the Krusher, and Mohammedi knew there would be no mercy. The knockdown he'd suffered in the second round was bad enough, but the next one would hurt a lot worse.
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other for maximum torque, Sergey Kovalev connected with a straight right and then a straight left, driving Mohammedi to the floor, where he came to rest, clutching his face with his left glove.
He was still clutching it when referee Kenny Bayless counted him out a handful of heartbeats later, at the 2:38 mark of the third round.
That Kovalev has become the popular face of the light heavyweight division is beyond question. His clownish personality and exuberant (almost childlike) outbursts belie the relentless harvester of souls we see inside the ring.
As others have observed, as far as ogres go, Sergey is more Shrek than Grendel -- until the fight starts.
It is obvious that Kovalev is having the time of his life and has completely bought into the Krusher persona, reveling in the role he was born to play. From his "I Will Krush You" T-shirt to his outrageous quotes delivered in an endearing Eastern European accent, he seems to be playing it for laughs until the bell rings. Then things get very serious, very quickly.
But there are no one-man shows in boxing. Quality opposition is the key to a lengthy run of success, and fortunately for all concerned, Kovalev has a strong supporting cast. There also seems to be a bit more political wiggle room in and around 175 pounds than in some other divisions, which could help create more of the fights we want to see.
While it would be going too far to suggest that a new golden age is dawning for the light heavyweight division, it sure looks like a reasonable facsimile is at hand.
Admittedly, the Kovalev-Mohammedi match was a foregone conclusion, more a showcase for the Krusher than a serious fight. But if you tuned in to HBO early enough to watch last Saturday's co-feature, you would have seen a highly competitive shootout between two world-class fighters.
Granted, Kovalev provided the star power, but it was Jean Pascal and Yunieski Gonzalez that delivered the sort of bristling action that attracts new fans and reassures the cognoscenti.
Gonzalez, another of boxing's seemingly endless supply of Cuban expatriates plying their trade in the U.S., was a minor revelation. His aggressive, heavy-handed approach went over well with the fans, and many felt he was robbed when all three judges decided in favor of Pascal with identical scores of 96-94.
My own scorecard had the same score but in favor of Gonzalez, who, regardless of the questionable verdict, established himself as a player in the revitalized 175-pound class. Even Kovalev gave him a shout-out, telling HBO's Max Kellerman, "What I saw of the fight, Gonzalez was much better" and "I want to fight this guy, too, Gonzalez."
Most fighters will tell you they will fight anybody, but fighters lie all the time, mostly to themselves. Kovalev really means it. It's part of his charm.
Regardless of the discontent his victory caused, the 32-year-old Pascal showed that despite a TKO loss to Kovalev in March, he still had something to offer. There were several times when it looked like the ex-champ might be overwhelmed by Gonzalez's persistent assault, but he always fired back, rattling the Cuban on more than one occasion.
If neither Pascal nor Gonzalez get the next crack at Kovalev, a rematch wouldn't be the worst idea. More than one pundit deemed their first encounter worthy of consideration for fight of the year.
The only piece of the splintered light heavyweight crown that Kovalev doesn't own is the most important part: the lineal title, which is held by Adonis "Superman" Stevenson, an ex-pimp who once spent 20 months in prison on charges of managing prostitutes, assault and making threats.
Although Stevenson's nefarious past is more than enough to cause some people to dislike him in perpetuity, it has been approximately 16 years since he paid his debt to society, and there has been little to contradict his claim that he has turned his life around.
Besides, the willingness to overlook fighters' past transgressions has been part of boxing from the start. But just as Stevenson was beginning to gain traction beyond the borders of Quebec, he welshed on a commitment to face Kovalev and instead threw his lot in with adviser Al Haymon.
It was like snatching a juicy steak away from a salivating dog, and the fans turned on Stevenson with renewed intensity. What might have been his salvation turned into another strike against him.
But even the haters were stunned when Stevenson announced on Monday that his next fight, in September, would be against Tommy Karpency. The mismatch was greeted with almost universal derision, accompanied by a fresh social media attack on his integrity.
The thing is, Stevenson's pariah status doesn't diminish his lights-out punching power or the fact that he's the man who beat the man -- in other words, the true champion. The WBC belt Adonis wears is inconsequential. That he knocked out Chad Dawson, the boxer who had taken the legitimate championship away from Bernard Hopkins, is not.
Has Stevenson been a good champion? Hell no, but he's still the champion, and a formidable fighter at that. But he'll be 38 this September, and he runs the risk of squandering what's left of his prime in pursuit of an easy buck.
Tommy Karpency? Really? What a waste.
While Stevenson continues to weaken his brand fighting no-hope opponents, relative newcomer Artur Beterbiev is rapidly building a following. A Russian of Chechen descent, he grew up in Khasavyurt, a city in the Republic of Dagestan where a volatile brew of separatism, ethnic tensions and terrorism have made it one of the most dangerous places in the world.
As one might expect from a guy with that sort of background, the Montreal-based Beterbiev is a seek-and-destroy type -- without the Krusher's comedic overtones. He's the poker-faced counterpart to Kovalev's wacky warrior, and he possesses the kind of frightening punching power that has earned him a top 10 ranking after only nine pro fights.
Kovalev's next fight is supposed to be a November homecoming affair in Russia, where he hasn't fought since 2010. According to boxingscene.com, promoter Yvon Michel has said Beterbiev, who owns two amateur wins over Kovalev, would be delighted to be in the other corner. Kovalev's promoter, Kathy Duva, sounded interested, at least publicly.
At this juncture, however, the match seems almost too good to be true. Even if an equitable deal could be worked out between the promoters, Haymon, Beterbiev's omnipotent adviser, could easily scuttle the match if it doesn't fit into his master plan.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a pay-per-view-worthy light heavyweight fight to be held in the United States, Kovalev-Andre Ward would be the way to go.
Ward is universally respected but nowhere near as popular as his accomplishments seem to warrant. A big part of that is his style -- a cerebral cocktail of cunning, skill and defense, punctuated by an opportunistic offense.
Like the latter-day versions of Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather, Ward's chief attribute is the ability to take away what his opponents do best. It's not anybody's idea of excitement, but when a boxer is as good at it as Mayweather, Hopkins or Ward, it can carry him a long way toward the Hall of Fame.
It is the notion that Kovalev has a decent chance of handing Ward his first defeat that makes the prospect of the match so seductive. And if the way he dominated Hopkins en route to winning a unanimous decision in November 2014 is any indication, Kovalev clearly knows how to go about the job.
At the moment, Ward is very much the man in the middle. He made his bones as a super middleweight, but it was at a catch weight of 172 pounds that he returned to the ring in June, stopping Paul Smith.
As it was his first bout since November 16, 2013, it wasn't surprising that Ward eased his way back against an outclassed opponent at a comfortable weight. Where he eventually settles, however, remains to be seen.
Despite his somewhat equivocal attitude toward his calling, Ward has never been afraid of a challenge. Early reports indicate that he wants to fight unbeaten middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin first and then Kovalev, a bold and compelling itinerary that could actually be within the bounds of reason.
Don't forget that Ward is not tied to PBC, a situation that could very well make it easier for him to navigate boxing's political minefield.
However, judging by the slow pace at which Ward's career has been progressing of late, the light heavies might have to make do with fighting each other for the time being. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Even so, let's hope Ward moves up sooner rather than later. His presence could elevate the field and possibly be the catalyst for a full-blown light heavyweight renaissance.
And if Golovkin gets to Ward first, so what? GGG vs. the Krusher could be even better.