With two losses to the now retired Andre Ward well in the rearview mirror, Sergey Kovalev remains determined to once again stake his claim as the best light heavyweight in the world.
He will have plenty of competition for his next ring appearance, perhaps least of all his next opponent.
The two-tour light heavyweight titlist from Russia will return to the ring on March 3 at Madison Square Garden Theatre in New York City, where he will face once-beaten southpaw Igor Mikhalkin. The bout will top a live HBO telecast that will also include a separate light heavyweight title bout between unbeaten Dmitry Bivol and top-rated challenger Sullivan Barrera.
All four boxers enjoy a relatively quick ring turnaround by today's standards. Kovalev (31-2-1, 27KOs) is coming off of an impressive 2nd round knockout of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy on November 26 at this very venue, a show that featured Barrera (21-1, 14KOs) on the undercard in a dominant points win over Felix Valera.
The win was his first since July '16 when he outpointed Isaac Chilemba for the eighth defense of at least one light heavyweight title. His four-year reign came to an end in a controversial points loss to Ward last November, warranting a rematch in which he was stopped in eight rounds this past June.
In addition to bouncing back in a big way in his win over Shabranskyy, the night marked the first Kovalev on MSG soil. The plan in mind for Main Events—who signed the Russian knockout artist in 2012—is to continue to market him in the area.
"We're ready to showcase the light heavyweight division again at Madison Square Garden," commented Main Events CEO Kathy Duva. "We have Kovalev and Barrera both returning to The Theater after big wins in November and we're adding another light heavyweight champion to the card! Dmitry is a young champion with a bright future ahead of him if he can get past Sullivan, which is no easy task.
"And Sergey is taking on Igor Mikhalkin, who is a young, but experienced, southpaw and that's given him some trouble in the past. We'll round out the show with another lineup of prospects and local guys in great fights to make sure the fans see a really entertaining and satisfying night of boxing."
Promoter and boxer are fully in sync in that regard.
"I really enjoyed fighting at Madison Square Garden in November," noted Kovalev. "It feels like my home. I'm very excited to go back to MSG and to fight on HBO. Everyone should to have a great time watching my fight!"
Of course, it takes a worthy adversary standing opposite corner to make a fight in the first place, not the easiest task in the world even for a two-loss version of Kovalev. He was originally slated to face Barrera, who turned down the opportunity for short money and a shot at Bivol in hopes of parlaying a win into a long-term investment.
It still doesn't make it any easier for Kovalev's team when it comes to keeping him active amidst a sea of contenders claiming to want to face him—but just not next.
"It's still very difficult to find light heavyweights who want to fight Sergey. I'm surprised," pointed out 2016 Manager of the Year Egis Klimas, who managed to land Mikhalkin relatively quickly, all things considered. "Many thanks to Igor Mikhalkin, who is confident enough to take on The Krusher and get a big opportunity.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that Shabranskyy is Ukrainian and Igor is Russian. They're tough! Not afraid!"
Mikhalkin—a 32-year old southpaw originally from Irkutsk, Russia who now lives and trains in Hamburg, Germany—will be making his stateside and HBO debut. The once-beaten contender is coming off of a third career win over Doudou Ngumbu on December 2 in Le Cannet, France. Five of his last eight starts have come in France, with the majority of the rest of his career taking place in Germany.
The upcoming showdown with Kovalev will mark his first shot at a major title, in addition to fighting on unfamiliar soil.
"It is a great honor for me to fight in the United States," insists Mikhalkin, who has won 10 straight since the lone loss of his career in May '10. "This will undoubtedly be the biggest and hardest fight in my career.
"Kovalev is for me the strongest man in this weight class. But I feel ready. The fight against Kovalev comes at the perfect time. I feel stronger than ever and I want to show the American boxing audience a great fight."
One is also expected to come in the evening's chief support.
Bivol (12-0, 10KOs) became one of the breakout stars of 2017, a year in which he managed four knockout wins including three appearances on US TV. The year also included his stateside debut, when he halted Samuel Clarkson in four rounds this past April at the newly erected MGM National Grand Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. From there came an appearance on the HBO Pay-Per-View undercard to the Ward-Kovalev rematch in June, followed by his HBO debut in November when he knocked out Australia's Trent Broadhurst in one round.
His showdown with Barrera marks the fourth defense of his version of the light heavyweight title he won in February, while also appearing in New York City for the first time.
"This is not the first time that I am training for the most important fight of my career, and this motivates me and makes me happy," said Bivol. "Sullivan Barrera is what we wanted and I am glad that we will meet in the ring soon."
While not looking past his upcoming challenger, the fight is part of a bigger picture for Bivol and his team.
"We are glad that our first appearance in 2018 will be against one of the best in the division in the legendary Madison Square Garden," notes Vadim Kornilov, Bivol's manager. "Sullivan Barrera is a serious test for Bivol and we have a lot of respect for him taking this fight.
"We want to prove to the world that it was not by accident that this young kid became a world champion in only his 12th ring appearance, he is already fighting on HBO for his third time, and he is fighting one of the best fighters in the division with only one career loss that came at the hands of Andre Ward. Bivol has already been mentioned as a possible pound for pound prospect by many and we will continue fighting the best out there to prove this!"
Lucky for Bivol, his next challenger not only ran toward the opportunity, but doing so while leaving money on the table.
Following their respective wins on the November 26 HBO show from MSG Theatre, a Kovalev-Barrera pairing seemed like a no-brainer. Not just sharing a card, they are both also promoted by Main Events, which led many to believe such a bout would be easy to make.
Barrera instead decided to take the scenic route—turning down a more lucrative opportunity versus Kovalev, with the belief that a win over Bivol gives him greater bargaining power down the road.
"I came from Cuba with one dream and that was to win a world title," promises Barrera, who—like Kovalev—owes his lone career blemish to Ward. "I know it won't be easy and I know I chose the toughest road than anyone to get here. But I know all of the tough opponents I have agreed to fight and hard work will pay off. On March 3rd, I will become the most deserving light heavyweight champion in boxing."