LAS VEGAS – Sergey Kovalev entered an empty theater inside the MGM Grand on Saturday, looking comfortable in a T-shirt and sweat pants, a svelte 183 pounds and a wide smile on his face. It has been three months since Kovalev was stopped by Andre Ward, the first knockout loss of his career that for many punctuated a brief but bitter rivalry. And while Kovalev wasn’t ready to concede that Ward was the better fighter, in a 40-minute sit-down with reporters, he made it clear he was ready to move on.
“I’m ready,” Kovalev said. “I’m ready to get new belts, new fights. Believe me, I’m feeling good.”
The rebuilding of Sergey Kovalev will begin on Nov. 25, in New York, when Kovalev will take on Vyacheslav Shabranskyy in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. He will be there. His longtime U.S. coach, John David Jackson, will not. On Saturday, Kovalev made official what most suspected for months — he and Jackson have split.
“I don’t want to say bad words to [Jackson’s] side,” Kovalev said. “He is a nice guy, but he is not enough of a coach for me. A coach should be able to help you inside the ring between rounds. When you have one minute for the rest, to explain and to help with tactics, how to [punch], where and when. Right, left, back or forward. Emotions, adrenaline for a fighter inside the ring are high. Fighters don’t see what [a trainer] can see from the side. A coach should say a couple of words [between rounds]. I didn’t feel it.”
While Jackson and Kovalev were a successful partnership — Kovalev won three light heavyweight titles with Jackson in his corner — it had grown increasingly volatile. Before the rematch with Ward last June, a report surfaced that Jackson offered to switch sides. Jackson denied it, claiming Ward’s camp made the offer, and he declined. In an interview with ATG Radio earlier this month, Jackson blasted Kovalev. He claimed Kovalev had lost the desire to train and that camps were getting progressively worse. He said Kovalev made Russian people look bad and called him “a complete d—.”
Kovalev says he read Jackson’s comments, but maintained his only issue with Jackson was what he believed were failures as a trainer.
“I got nothing from him except mitts work,” Kovalev said. “I didn’t feel him in the ring. My preparation was constructed by myself.”
Said Kovalev’s manager, Egis Klimas, “A trainer dictates to a fighter what to do. If a fighter says to a trainer what we are going to do and how we are going to do it, then he is not a trainer.”
Klimas says the search for a new trainer is underway. In evaluating candidates, both Klimas and Kovalev say they are looking for an elite strategist. Main Events has pushed Kovalev to work with Freddie Roach, sources with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports, though Klimas said Roach was not being considered. Kovalev sounded intrigued by the possibility of working with Ward’s trainer, Virgil Hunter (“It’s interesting, maybe we will talk in the future,” Kovalev said), but Klimas downplayed it, citing a possible third Ward-Kovalev fight in the future.
“At this point,” Klimas said, “he needs a teacher that can take him to the next level.”
Is that level beating Ward? Kovalev is open to it. The way he sees it, his record against Ward is even. Kovalev believes he won the first fight — most boxing analysts agree with him—and it was the repeated low blows, not Ward’s power, in the second fight that finished him. For Kovalev, there is a need for a rubber match to settle the score.
“I don’t think Ward put a [period] between us,” Kovalev said. “Because the referee helped him. Better he stopped me himself and I go to the floor. Then I would say yes, it’s done. But I’m not done.”
At 34, Kovalev’s time is limited. He admitted he thought about retirement this summer. He kicked around the idea of moving to heavyweight. He saw people vanish from his life. When asked how he dealt with the most recent Ward loss, Kovalev said, smiling, “I drank — for a long, long time.”
Still, Kovalev and Klimas insist that the desire to be a world champion again is still there.
“I spent an hour with him on the plane,” Klimas said. “I haven’t seen him [since] the fight. We have been talking and I knew where he was. But I spent one hour with him on the plane and what I see in him, I see more desire, more concentration and bigger heart than when I met him first. When I first met him, he asked me, ‘When will I become a champion?’ And I thought ‘Wow, this guy wants to do something with his life.’ Now, he has more than he had. He’s the same Sergey. But there is something that is new.”
Said Kovalev, “I’m not broken mentally. I’m strong inside, and I’m healthy. Maybe this will open new doors in my career. I had a lot of the same situations as an amateur. I lost, or I was robbed, and I fought again and again. Nobody opened doors, but I turned pro and I got my goal. I’m still here. I’m not going to close my boxing career. I’m ready to continue. I’m ready to be champion again.”
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