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Thursday, August 15, 2013
Updated: August 16, 10:22 AM ET
Nathan Cleverly welcomes the heat

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

Nathan Cleverly
Unbeaten Nathan Cleverly has made it his mission to seek the toughest opponents available to him.

Besides the ring in which they will fight, light heavyweight titlist Nathan Cleverly and challenger Sergey Kovalev share something else: They both embraced facing each other in what, on paper at least, is the toughest fight of their careers when they really didn't have to.

But this is what they both wanted, and they will meet Saturday (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT, same-day tape) at Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, where Cleverly will be making his sixth title defense in his hometown in what could be a coming-out party for the winner.

Few have embraced the idea of facing Kovalev, a fast-rising contender from Russia with concussive power. He has knocked out 18 of his 22 opponents inside three rounds, hence the fitting nickname "Krusher."

Yet Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs) sought out Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KOs) because he said he wanted to fight the best opponent available and somebody whom he would get major credit for defeating.

"Kovalev has built this reputation of fear for his devastating knockouts, which to anybody looks pretty impressive," Cleverly said. "When I saw the KOs, it excited me and I said I've got to have this guy. I'm actually looking forward to getting in the ring with him and seeing what he's got. He'll be looking to take my head clean off, and I love that feeling of having the adrenaline surging around my body.

"The pressure is on me. I'm defending my world title in my home city. I'm going in against a challenger who's unbeaten and who nobody wanted to face, who has wiped out virtually everybody he has fought and will be intent on taking my head off. All I say is bring it on. I perform best when the heat is on, and it doesn't get any hotter than this."

The way Kovalev has been fighting recently, Cleverly is right about that.

In January, Kovalev, 30, destroyed former titleholder Gabriel Campillo in the third round in a shockingly easy victory. In June, Kovalev, who moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2009 and turned pro, plowed through Cornelius White, dropping him three times and knocking him out in the third round in a devastating performance.

The White fight was an eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for titleholder Bernard Hopkins. But rather than go through a negotiation, wait for a possible purse bid and deal with the uncertainty of when the bout would be scheduled, Kovalev opted to take the show on the road to Wales to face Cleverly since Kovalev's promoter Main Events was already far down the road negotiating the deal and it was the fight HBO had been pressing for.

But how many fighters elect to travel to their opponent's hometown? Not many, especially when Kovalev had a guaranteed shot at Hopkins' title or, at worst, a shot at a vacant belt had Hopkins decided to go in another direction.

Like Cleverly, Kovalev wanted this fight.

"Cleverly is my toughest test," said Kovalev, who has steadfastly declined to talk about the 2011 fight in Russia in which he scored a seventh-round knockout of Roman Simakov, who died three days later from brain injuries suffered in the bout. "He's a good, fast fighter who throws a lot of punches. But I think it will be a similar outcome [to my other fights] on Saturday night."

Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev has recorded 19 knockouts in 21 victories, including a three-knockdown, third-round demolition of Cornelius White in June.

There will be two live fights on the telecast from the Revel Casino-Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., as middleweight titleholder Daniel Geale (29-1, 15 KOs), 32, of Australia, defends against former title challenger Darren Barker (25-1, 16 KOs), 31, of England, in the main event and junior featherweight titlist Jonathan Romero (23-0, 12 KOs), 26, of Colombia, meets Kiko Martinez (28-4, 20 KOs) of Spain in the co-feature.

As for going on the road, it is a non-issue for Kovalev, who fought all over the world as a top amateur.

"It doesn't concern me at all," he said. "This is the fight I've waited for, and I am confident that I will do my best."

Although Kovalev is the puncher in this fight and Cleverly is the boxer, Cleverly is surprisingly predicting a knockout. That is something he and his father/trainer Vince Cleverly have repeated throughout the promotion.

"Of course, everybody is talking about Kovalev's power, but if anybody is going to get stopped, it'll be Kovalev," Vince Cleverly said. "We have plans from A to F. We can box him long, inside or midrange, but the main plan is K and O. Nathan has fantastic stamina, plenty of bottle, and he's going to do the business for Wales. He'll KO Kovalev 100 percent."

"I can't wait for this," Nathan Cleverly, 26, said. "It's the big one for me. Beat Kovalev and I become a huge star on both sides of the Atlantic. I've picked the toughest fighter out there in Kovalev, the one that the other champions didn't want to face. But I'll beat him with skill and heart. I can outbox him, and people will be surprised when I'm going toe-to-toe with him and knock him out. [Kovalev's] record is scary reading. It's just KO after KO. But the more I look at it, the more I'm motivated to really take this guy out and prove that I'm not afraid to meet anybody, no matter what their reputation is, because that is what a champion does. He faces his challenges.

"It's not an easy fight by any stretch of the imagination. I've picked the hardest puncher in the division, and I can't get reckless against him. He's a massive, massive puncher, but when he loads up for these big punches, he'll leave me openings and then I'll take this guy apart. He's never been in with someone like me who'll throw six-, seven-, eight-punch combinations and fights at a relentless pace from the first to the last round. He'll be left shaken and stirred after he has been in with me, that's for sure."

Cleverly's confidence comes from his sparring experience with British heavyweights Tyson Fury and Dereck Chisora and from when he went to Los Angeles for a November defense against Shawn Hawk on the Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno undercard and spent time at Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym, where he sparred with heavy-hitting cruiserweight contender Lateef Kayode.

"[Kayode] went at Nathan like a bull, but Nathan handled him," Vince Cleverly said. "He has handled heavyweights in sparring like Tyson Fury and Dereck Chisora, and they have hit him with their best shots and not moved him. Kovalev just won't knock out Nathan. He can't hit what he can't see. Nathan's never been down on the canvas ever, and he has been in with bigger punchers than Kovalev. Nathan is going to be Kovalev's dream breaker.

"Who's to say that Nathan won't take the fight straight to Kovalev? If you're in the swimming pool, you're going to get wet. If you're in the boxing ring, you're going to get hit. But Nathan will be like a machine gun in there."

John David Jackson, Kovalev's trainer, has listened to the Cleverlys talk but does not believe the fighter will back up the prediction.

"He's not a bad fighter," Jackson said of Cleverly. "I'll give Nathan this: He moves well. He's slippery. He doesn't take three or four rounds to get started. But once he gets hit the first time, all that's going to leave. He's going to become one of two things. He's either going to go into defensive mode, or he's going to become too brave for his own good. Either way, it's not a problem for Sergey."

As for Kovalev, he is not much of a talker, so when informed of all that the Cleverlys had to say, his answer was short and sweet.

"They talk a little too much," he said. "The father of Cleverly likes to talk a lot, but on Saturday, there will be no talking. Only a war between two unbeaten fighters."