How Main Events Took Sergey Kovalev from Afterthought to Breakout Star

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How Main Events Took Sergey Kovalev from Afterthought to Breakout Star
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Kovalev appears to have a bright future.

If anything, Main Events CEO Kathy Duva is resourceful. When opportunity knocks at her door, she answers.

“Our successes have to do with a lot of other people’s failures,” said Duva. “But I’ll take it!”

Duva said one such occasion took place nearly two years ago, when fight manager Egis Klimas wanted to meet Duva to discuss an undefeated but unsigned light heavyweight prospect from Russia named Sergey Kovalev.

Kovalev had moved to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxing champion. He had enjoyed a fine amateur career in Russia, winning numerous amateur titles in the country from 2000-2008.

But Kovalev didn’t believe staying in his homeland would be the best way forward as a professional.

“I thought like for almost a year whether I should go, or not go, to America,” said Kovalev. “But after Russian championships in 2008, I decided I want to go to America for pro boxing.”

Kovalev began his professional fighting career in the United States in 2009. He reeled off win after win, almost all within the distance, but still wasn’t signed by a major promotional outfit.

That’s when Klimas went to New York to meet Duva and Main Events matchmaker Jolene Mizzone.

“He said nobody is interested in this guy,” Duva recalled. “He told us he took him to every promoter in the United States and Canada and nobody wanted to sign him. He said, ‘will you just give him a chance? Put him on a card and match him with anybody you want, and if you’re not interested after watching him fight, then I’ll leave you alone.’”

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
Kovalev has come a long way in a short time.

Duva’s interest was two-fold.

First, she said Klimas had such an incredible belief in Kovalev that it was simply contagious. Having never given the fighter much thought before, Duva was now intrigued: “He said, ‘I know he’s going to be the champion of the world. You just have to believe me.’”

Second, Duva said she knew the light heavyweight division would have a solid future. Showtime had just wrapped up its Super Six World Boxing Classic, a tournament featuring super middleweights such as Carl Froch, Andre Dirrell and eventual winner Andre Ward.

“At that point, remember, no one was really that interested in the light heavyweights, and I’m kind of looking over at the Super Six thinking they’re all going to become light heavyweights [someday]. It’s just natural. [Fighters] gain weight over time. This division is going to be pretty hot in a couple of years.”

Duva went to work. She wanted to see what kind of fighter Kovalev was before signing him long-term, so her and Mizzone wanted to set up a nice barometer bout for him against a tough competitor.

“We said, well, he struggled a bit with Darnell Boone. Let’s put him in with him again, and see if he’s improved.”

Kovalev had first faced Boone in Atlanta back in 2010. Kovalev said the fight was a real struggle for him. But having won all nine of his previous bouts easily and by knockout, Kovalev admitted he didn’t take the fight very seriously at all, and he paid for it. Boone hit like a mule, and Kovalev said he honestly couldn’t remember much of the eight-round bout after Round 2.

Still, Kovalev escaped with a split-decision win. To impress Duva and Main Events, Kovalev would have to do better than that. He did.

In the rematch two years later, Kovalev passed Duva’s test with flying colors. He dominated Boone, this time winning by technical knockout in just two rounds. The bout was broadcast on NBC Sports Network.

So had he improved?

“Clearly he did!” said Duva. But she also said she knew what kind of fighter Kovalev might be well before he was done dismantling Boone.

“The second he got in the ring and I looked at his eyes and saw this sweet, nice and easygoing guy was suddenly looking like he had lasers coming out of his head, and that the look on his face was so frightening, I thought, oh boy, this is something special.  I’ve seen this look before!”

Duva knows her stuff. Main Events has promoted the likes of Evander Holyfield, Arturo Gatti and Pernell Whitaker, and what she saw before the bell rang against Boone told her she might have struck gold by taking a look at Kovalev.

“Then the fight starts and he blows him out.”

Duva said the choice was clear at that point. Klimas was right. Kovalev was the real deal.

“Then just after the fight was over… We ran over to Egis and I said, we’ll have a contract over to you on Monday.”

And they did.

Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Klimas (far left) and Duva (middle left) knew what they had in Kovalev well before this pic.

Once signed, Duva used her partnership with NBC to help build interest in Kovalev. Being a good fighter is one thing, but having an audience is another.  

“Putting him on NBC first was a great way to convince everyone that people will be interested in this guy.”

A hard-punching stalker, he’s an easy sell, and since NBC gives Duva and Main Events the luxury of picking which fighters they want showcase, Duva could continue to spotlight the no-name fighter from Russia with relative ease.

“With NBC, because this was the first boxing they’d done in years, we’ve worked hand in glove with [them]. We sit with them, and we work out how we’re going to do everything… When they gave us an opportunity, they said, ‘you tell us who you want to put on, we’re behind you.’ We had the freedom to not have to pay attention to the nationality or the race or what language the fighter spoke. It opened up a whole new world to us.”

Kovalev knocked out Lionell Thompson, Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White on NBC Sports Network shows before earning a shot against Nathan Cleverly in Wales for the Welshman’s WBO title. HBO aired the bout live from across the pond in what amounted to a make-or-break appearance for Kovalev.

Kovalev crushed Cleverly with ease, bludgeoned the poor slickster down to the canvas three times in just four rounds. The win earned Kovalev the WBO title belt, and more importantly, put him in the hearts and minds of the key decision-makers over at HBO.

Since then, the network hasn’t been shy about positioning Kovalev alongside fellow Eastern European Gennady Golovkin as the future of the sport.

Duva said the entire experience has bolstered her already strong belief in keeping an eye on global prospects that might be flying under the radar of other promoters.

“We’re happy to look all over the world,” she said with a smile.

And why wouldn’t she be?

Because Kovalev just might turn out to be the steal of the century: a fighter no one wanted who ended up being someone everyone wants to watch fight, an afterthought who turned out to be boxing’s next big star.

You can watch Kovalev vs. Agnew this weekend on HBO.

Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev (23-0-1, 21 KOs) faces Cedric “L.O.W” Agnew (26-0-0, 13 KOs) March 29 at the Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. The broadcast begins live on HBO Boxing After Dark at 10:00 p.m. ET. Junior welterweights Thomas Dulorme and Karim Mayfield kick things off as the co-feature. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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