It's hardly the only game in town this weekend, but New York City's Madison Square Garden Theatre gets to play host to a light heavyweight title fight doubleheader as all principle parties made weight for the HBO telecast (Saturday, 10:05pm ET).
In the main event, Sergey Kovalev makes the first defense of his second tour as a light heavyweight titlist in a 12-round tilt versus Russian southpaw Igor Mikhalkin. Both boxers easily hit the mark, with Kovalev coming in at 174.6 pounds, while Mikhalkin registered at a career-lightest 172.6 pounds.
Kovalev (31-2-1, 27KOs) was for years regarded as the best light heavyweight on the planet, although Adonis Stevenson is regarded as the lineal champion. Efforts to get the two in the ring have been as comical as the disgraceful reign Stevenson has led, as the now 34-year old Russian has opted to face the best of the rest through the years.
It led to a three-belt unification clash with—and a career-best win over—future Hall of Fame entrant Bernard Hopkins in Nov. '14. The feat was followed by a pair of stoppage victories over former World champion Jean Pascal along with besting past contenders Nadjib Mohammedi and Isaac Chilemba. His title reign and unbeaten ways came to an end in Nov. '16, landing on the wrong end of a disputed points loss to Andre Ward in the first of their two meetings.
The rematch last June was fought on similarly even terms until Ward turned the tide and beat Kovalev into submission inside of eight rounds. The unbeaten two-division champ and pound-for-pound king announced his retirement soon thereafter, with Kovalev re-emerging as a top light heavyweight almost by default but also aided by his two-round destruction of Vyacheslav Shabranskyy last November in his first-ever career fight on Madison Square Garden property.
Meanwhile, it's the first major title fight for Mikhalkin (21-1, 9KOs), as well as his United States debut.
The 32-year old southpaw from Germany by way of Russia comes in riding a 10-fight win streak since the lone loss of his career, a 10-round points loss to Aleksy Kuziemski in May '10. Chief among his current unbeaten run is a fight that arguably earned his way to the title stage, a 12-round nod over previously unbeaten Thomas Oosthuizen last May in Hamburg, Germany. The win netted Mikhalkin the International Boxing Organization (IBO) title, which is not at stake in Saturday's contest.
His most recent victory came just last December, beating Doudou Ngumbu for a third time although by a wider margin than the majority decision and split decision that came in their previous encounters.
The evening's co-feature attraction pits a potential future opponent for Kovalev versus one who should've been facing him in Saturday's main event.
Dmitry Bivol continues to cram in a heavy load of competition into his still very young career. The 27-year old from Russia makes the first defense of the full version of his World Boxing Association (WBA) light heavyweight title as he faces veteran contender Sullivan Barrera.
Both boxers were finely chiseled in hitting the scale. Bivol weighed a shredded 174.4 pounds for the first defense as full titlist, while Barrera tipped the scales at a ripped 173.6 pounds.
Bivol (12-0, 10KOs) earned full titlist status in a 1st round knockout of Trent Broadhurst last November, receiving the upgrade from interim titlist upon Ward's retirement and abdication of his titles. The win was part of an impressive four-fight campaign in 2017, with each fight advancing from novice to prospect, to contender and then to champion by year's end.
He lands his most formidable foe in Barrera (21-1, 14KOs) almost by accident. The 36-year old Miami-based Cuban was slated to face Kovalev in the main event, but passed on the opportunity in opting for a far more risky scenario. The logic is that a win over Bivol would drive up the asking price for a Kovalev showdown, which in theory makes sense.
The tricky part is actually winning the fight, as Barrera is a heavy underdog. His lone loss came in March '16, dropping a 12-round decision to Andre Ward in the latter's official light heavyweight debut. Four straight wins have followed, including an off-the-canvas 10-round win over top-rated contender Joe Smith Jr. last July.
Given boxing's politics, limited options suggest that Saturday's winners will clash—if not next, then at some point in 2018.