When Sergey Kovalev rolled out of bed on the morning of Nov. 19, he was standing on top of the world. He was an undefeated world champion, the king of boxing’s light heavyweight division. In his mind, he was 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
A few hours later, each of those precious possessions had been taken away in what must have felt like a mugging: He’d lost a controversial split decision to Andre Ward.
Seven months later, an embittered and motivated Kovalev returned to Las Vegas determined to retrieve his belongings — everything except the unbeaten record and his aura of invincibility, which were gone forever — and things only got worse:
On Saturday night, in the eighth round of a very close fight, Kovalev walked into a violent right hand, then was folded over by three debilitating body shots. All three may have landed below the belt, but if they were fouls referee Tony Weeks didn’t notice. He stepped in — perhaps too quickly — and stopped the fight.
No sport on earth is as cruel and unforgiving as professional boxing. There is no “next season,” allowing a start fresh with a 0-0 record.
In “The Sweet Science,” a loss isn’t a pimple that vanishes in a few days — it’s a scar that people notice forever. One moment, a Kovalev, a Mike Tyson, a Prince Naseem Hamed, or a Marvin Hagler stands at the top of a mountain. The next, he finds himself lying in a heap, somewhere in the foothills, battered and bruised, searching for his dignity and his relevance, surrounded by the skeletons of all of the boxers who tumbled down the hill before him.
Until Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier, the very idea that he might possibly lose a fight was unthinkable — well beyond his imagination. Imagine the humiliation Ali felt when Frazier sealed the deal, putting “The Greatest” on the seat of his boxing trunks in the 15th round that night, in full view of a packed house at Madison Square Garden and a worldwide closed-circuit television audience. Consider the shock Tyson felt as he crawled on his hands and knees at the feet of Buster Douglas, groping for his mouthpiece, in Japan.
Cuts heal and swelling goes away in the days after a fighter tumbles down the mountain, but the indignity of defeat can (and usually does) last forever.
In Kovalev’s case, one must wonder where he goes from here. Andre Ward almost certainly believes there would be little or nothing to be gained (with much to lose) from a third fight with Kovalev. The only remaining light heavyweight titan, Adonis Stevenson, is a second-tier attraction who, given the choice, would rather fight for Ward’s world title belts, and a bigger cash payoff, than risk his own future in an eliminator against Kovalev.
So, the proud Russian is left to wallow in his frustration and embarrassment as he tries to find a trail — any trail — back to the pinnacle he once enjoyed. Former champions — each of whom felt bulletproof once — probably would tell him to expect a long, lonely journey, with long odds against success.
Dennis Taylor is host of The Ringside Boxing Show on thegruelingtruth.net, editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com, and co-author (with John J. Raspanti) of Intimate Warfare: The True Story of The Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward Boxing Trilogy, currently on Amazon’s Bestsellers list.