- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Light heavyweight contender Sergey Kovalev was in a great position.
He could either press for the mandatory shot against titleholder Bernard Hopkins, which Kovalev earned with a third-round destruction of Cornelius White last week, or he could go for a deal that was on the table even before that fight to challenge Nathan Cleverly for his version of the 175-pound world title.
With HBO pushing hard for the Cleverly-Kovalev match and HBO and Showtime surprisingly uninterested in Hopkins-Kovalev, he and promoter Main Events signed for the fight with Cleverly on Friday.
Kovalev will challenge Cleverly on Aug. 17 at Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, Cleverly's home country.
Cleverly's sixth title defense will be part of an HBO split-site tripleheader headlined by middleweight titlist Daniel Geale (29-1, 15 KOs) of Australia defending against England's Darren Barker (25-1, 16 KOs) at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. Also on the Atlantic City portion of the broadcast is likely to be junior featherweight titlist Jonathan Romero (23-0, 12 KOs) of Colombia in a defense against former bantamweight titleholder Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko (29-4, 22 KOs) of Ghana. HBO has been looking to tie up many of the top middleweights, super middleweights and light heavyweights as it looks to build future opponents for fighters such as super middleweight champion Andre Ward, who eventually will move up to light heavyweight, and middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin.
Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs), 26, and Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KOs), 30, who is from Russia but lives in Florida, fit the bill, although HBO is far more interested in the all-action Kovalev than it is in the slicker, busier Cleverly.
"Their styles are such that the fight has to be nonstop action from the first bell," said Main Events chief executive Kathy Duva, who promotes Kovalev. "Cleverly is a very busy fighter. Kovalev starts throwing bombs with both hands as soon as he reaches the center of the ring.
"The arena should be sold out, and we know how vocal crowds are in the U.K. That will just add to the excitement. (Hall of Fame promoter and matchmaker) Russell Peltz taught me to always ask myself, 'Would I want to watch this fight before making a match?' The answer in this case is a resounding yes."
Cleverly picked Kovalev to fight, something few others in the weight class have seemed interested in doing.
"I'm over the moon that Kovalev has confirmed that he's fighting me," Cleverly said. "I've wanted Kovalev all along, and I spoke to my promoter, Frank Warren, and said that this is the guy I want to fight. He's making big waves in America and he's a fighter that people know. His knockouts are frightening to watch, but that's when I perform to my best, when the adrenalin is flowing and the odds are stacked against me.
"This will be Kovalev's thunder against my lightning, and he is going to get a serious shock."
Kovalev, nicknamed "Krusher," could have forced the mandatory with Hopkins, and even if Hopkins elected to give up his title and fight Cleverly instead – which was one scenario – Kovalev still would have been guaranteed a shot at the vacant belt.
However, Kovalev wanted to fight for a title as soon as possible and against a reigning titleholder.
"My goal has always been to win the world title as soon as possible," Kovalev said. "So I decided to take the first opportunity that was offered to me. And I have dreamed for many years about fighting on HBO. I look forward to going to Wales to fight with Cleverly, and I congratulate him for accepting this challenge."
Warren and Duva went back and forth on the deal for a couple of weeks. Warren was pleased to get it done finally.
"This is a fantastic opportunity for Nathan against a very dangerous and massive puncher where he can really take his name to the next level," Warren said. "Kovalev is getting big praise in America and they are really excited by him, so if Nathan beats him and does it spectacularly, then his stock will rise tenfold. Remember, (former super middleweight titlist) Jeff Lacy was the next big thing until he came across Joe Calzaghe, and I think in this case, Kovalev is Nathan's Lacy. It's going to be an exciting fight and one that you can't miss."
Cleverly is coming off a near-shutout decision victory of mandatory challenger Robin Krasniqi on April 20 at Wembley Arena in London.
Besides the blowout of White last week, Kovalev scored his biggest win in the fight before that, smashing former titleholder Gabriel Campillo in the third round on Jan. 19.