- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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As 2014 began, one of the most anticipated fights in boxing was a light heavyweight showdown between champion Adonis Stevenson and titleholder Sergey Kovalev, both exciting performers and massive punchers.
And unlike some big-time fights that fans have yearned for -- you may have heard of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao? -- Stevenson-Kovalev was on track to happen.
They were both fighting on HBO; Kovalev appeared on a Stevenson undercard in November for the express purpose of building up the fight. The promoters and network said they had a deal for the fight this fall following tune-ups for both.
Well, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
Stevenson, at the behest of new adviser Al Haymon, and promoter Yvon Michel bolted to Showtime, leaving Kovalev in the dust. Main Events, Kovalev's promoter, sued Stevenson, Haymon and Michel, among others, claiming they reneged on the deal.
But while the lawsuit winds its way through the legal system, Main Events, Kovalev and HBO were left to carry on without the prospect of a Stevenson fight.
Kovalev went through with his March 29 fight -- which was supposed to be the tuneup before Stevenson -- and wiped out previously undefeated, but unknown, Cedric Agnew in seven one-sided rounds.
But instead of moving on to Stevenson, Kovalev is instead facing Blake Caparello next.
Kovalev will make his third title defense when he meets the obscure Caparello in the middle bout of a split-site tripleheader Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET/PT) at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
"There is a great advantage to fighting Kovalev; [if] you manage to hang in there with him, you are going to earn the respect of fans," said Lou DiBella, Caparello's promoter. "There are a lot of guys who are afraid of Kovalev, but Blake isn't. Blake is going to go out there and do his best to win. I expect a great performance whether he wins or loses.
"I knew Blake was a natural. His instincts are excellent. He does a lot of things right. This is the fight he always wanted. I lobbied for the fight and told Main Events we wouldn't price ourselves out of the fight."
It is not exactly the high-profile match Kovalev and his team hoped for, but with few other top light heavyweights available or willing to fight him and Stevenson having run for cover, "Krusher" had to settle on Caparello (19-0-1, 6 KOs), a 27-year-old Australian southpaw, whose lone American appearance came Jan. 31 when he headlined an ESPN2 "Friday Night Fights" card and put the world to sleep with a lackluster 10-round decision victory against long-faded Elvir Muriqi.
Main Events promoter Kathy Duva is doing her best to sell the Kovalev-Caparello, however, comparing it to Chris Algieri's upset decision win against Ruslan Provodnikov to win a junior welterweight title on June 14.
"In the Provodnikov-Algieri fight in June, we saw a previously untested underdog box on his way to a world title against a widely feared puncher," Duva said. "That was a big upset. I think Sergey Kovalev is better than Ruslan Provodnikov, but maybe Caparello is better than Algieri? We just don't know, and that's why we fight the fights. And the great thing about Kovalev is that he makes every fight exciting."
Despite Caparello's lack of credentials -- and surely a lingering disappointment that he is not getting ready for a big-money showdown against Stevenson -- Kovalev (24-0-1, 22 KOs), 31, of Russia and now living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at least has the right attitude.
"Blake is undefeated. I am taking him serious," Kovalev said. "I just get in to box and to win. We are both stepping in the ring to do our job. Blake has an advantage because he is coming to get the title. He is hungry and has nothing to lose. It is my job to keep the title. More pressure on me to defend the title."
Said John David Jackson, Kovalev's trainer, "Sergey needs to cut the ring off, and he has done very well against southpaws. Once Blake gets hit and feels Kovalev's power, all his game plans are going to go out the window. I don't think this is going to go 12 rounds. Sergey is very disciplined. He is very professional. This is his job. He takes each fight like he is the challenger."
The "Boxing After Dark" broadcast will open at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, where junior welterweight titlist Jessie Vargas (24-0, 9 KOs), 25, of Las Vegas, will make his first defense against 26-year-old Russian southpaw Anton Novikov (29-0, 10 KOs).
Then comes Kovalev-Caparello, after which the action will shift back to Las Vegas for the return of former lightweight titlist Brandon Rios (31-2-1, 23 KOs), 28, of Oxnard, California -- in his first fight since a lopsided loss to Manny Pacquiao in November and subsequent suspension for a failed drug test -- against former interim welterweight titlist Diego Chaves (23-1, 19 KOs), 28, of Argentina, in a 10-round welterweight bout.
Despite the long odds, Caparello said he is prepared to deal with Kovalev's crushing power and insists he can pull the upset.
"Sergey Kovalev is the biggest puncher in boxing. We are working on different game plans to deal with Sergey's power," Caparello said. "I won't know how hard he punches until I get in the ring with him. If we go toe-to-toe and his power is too much, we will change the plan. I do have the pop to stop people. When I put my punches together, I can really hurt people. I have had a lot of great sparring camps. If an opening appears, I will go for the knockout, but I am going to fight to the end.
"I get the sense they are looking past me. I am very confident myself. I know I am going to win and I already told [promoter] Lou [DiBella] to get me a unification fight with Adonis Stevenson after I beat Kovalev. Nothing plays on my mind. I am very mentally tough."
If there is anything Caparello should get credit for, it is that he wanted to fight Kovalev and jumped at the chance when it was offered to him even though he is making a very low six-figure payday.
"Sergey Kovalev has power, but I don't fear him," Caparello said. "I wanted to fight Kovalev because he is the best there is in the division. He is the man I want to beat."
Said DiBella, "When your name is 'Krusher,' you know you can punch. This is the fight that Blake wanted and Main Events was nice enough to offer this to us so we jumped on it. Sergey Kovalev is going to have his hands full. The only way to beat Sergey Kovalev is stand right in front of him and box. Blake is a true boxer and Kovalev has a real challenge on his hands.
"This is a fight he desperately wanted. When I first signed him, he told me that everyone is afraid of Kovalev but he felt he could beat him. Standing in front of Kovalev is dangerous, so Blake has to use angles and avoid that 'Krusher' blow. Kovalev is going to have his hands full."
There has been some talk of late that perhaps if Kovalev wins, he could next meet 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins in a fall unification fight. Many thought Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) would face Stevenson in the fall since that was the fight that Stevenson went to Showtime for. But with the lawsuit pending, Stevenson may be on ice. Hopkins, who is not signed to Showtime, isn't about to sit around and wait because he is under a time pressure to make a unification fight, or he will be ordered to make a mandatory defense that won't give him a big payday or a chance to collect the other belts he wants.
Hopkins has said if he can't get Stevenson, he'd love to fight Kovalev. He just wants to fight for more belts.
"Sergey and I have never talked about a fight with Bernard Hopkins. We are focused on Blake," Jackson said. "It hasn't been a distraction at all. We aren't looking past him. We are looking right at him. After we get passed him we will look at Bernard Hopkins."
Kovalev is also ignoring any Hopkins talk.
"All I want to do is fight the best. I wanted to fight Stevenson but he ran away," Kovalev said. "I would get in the ring with Bernard Hopkins right now -- any time, any place. But who knows? Maybe he's just trying to get more money from Showtime (for a Stevenson fight). So, I am focused on preparing for my fight on HBO on (Saturday) and after we'll see if Hopkins will really [wants to] get in the ring with me.
"I don't know Bernard Hopkins. All I know is my next opponent, and his name is Blake Caparello."
2dMalik Smith, ESPN Stats & Information