We are all products of our environment, so the saying goes. In boxing, the merits of that expression are more relevant as many boxers emerge from environments where fighting is part of their existence. A person's future is often moulded by where they are raised.
Born in 1983, Sergey Kovalev grew up in the industrial town of Kopeysk in south-east Russia and before he was a teenager he had started to get a taste for fighting. . "I loved to watch fight movies and have fights between some of my friends and any guys on the streets," Kovalev recalled in an interview with Boxing Monthly.
Kovalev's late entrance into the professional scene aged 26 didn’t happen by chance. He had a stellar amateur career – although he feels he was on the wrong end of a number of unjust decisions. "My amateur boxing career was terrible," he said. According to Kovalev, the judging was not all it should have been in several of his championship runs. "I was champion of Russia 1997, 1999 and 2005 only. I have 215 fight. 193 wins."
What Kovalev failed to mention was that he also picked up silver in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2008 and bronze in 2007. When he joined the Russian military in 2005, his achievements continued. "I'm champ of military boxing world championship 2005," Kovalev said. "Silver medalist 2006. And champion of world military games of 2007."
Kovalev's gold at the World Military Games in 2007, was his last major amateur boxing medal, despite wanting to go out on a high as the national champion in his weight class. He reiterated that he felt the scoring in several of his Russian championships was at best debatable, including the final in the 2008 championships. "I tried to be a champion in there and turned to pro after last my Russian championship 2008," he said.
When he turned professional, he did so with self-belief. "I feel I turned to pro boxing on time, when I'm 100 per cent ready for anything," he said.
Alongside the likes of Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillerom Rigondeaux, who also made their professional debuts relatively late in the game after outstanding amateur careers, Kovalev’s entrance into the pro circuit has been different. It’s almost been a journey of redemption to date as he feels he’s making amends for the losses as an amateur. He says he has always believed that he was the better man in every fight he entered, and by the time he left the amateur game as a natural light-heavyweight, he was able to prove just that.
Pound for pound, he’s one of the most destructive boxers in the business, with 26 KOs in 29 wins. Two of his first 20 fights went the distance, including a split-decision win over durable Darnell Boone in 2010.
"My hardest fight in my life was against Darnell Boone," Kovalev said. "I fought, but was not ready to fight. Was a lot of reasons. My hand was damaged in Russia from a street fight one month before the fight." (Boone had ended Adonis Stevenson’s unbeaten record with a stunning second-round stoppage win just six months earlier; in a rematch, Kovalev stopped Boone in two rounds.)
In his 17th fight, Kovalev had to swallow a technical draw against a boxer named Grover Young when the referee ruled Kovalev had accidentally landed a punch to the back of the head. "He was losing the fight, he was tired and wanted way out of fight," Kovalev said.
Bernard Hopkins lasted the full 12 rounds "Because he is the legend."
Up to the Hopkins fight, Kovalev had earned a reputation as a knockout artist, but certainly not as a person with an ice-cold personality. That soon changed when Jean Pascal met him for the second time on 30 January.
"My tactic was only one, how to give him pain as long as possible," Kovalev said. "I hate people who said or promised something and didn't make it happen. I don't like trash talkers."
And on the subject of trash talk, within minutes of the fight being stopped, the lineal light heavyweight champion, Adonis Stevenson, took the microphone from HBO's Max Kellerman, claiming: "I’m the real champion." Kovalev’s hatred of Stevenson seems to run as deep, if not deeper, than his feelings towards Pascal. He calls Stevenson "Adonis Chickenson" and said "I don't want to discuss about this piece of shit."
A fight everyone wants to see in 2016 is Kovalev against Andre Ward. Kovalev sent out some positive signals. "Our fight is in contract already November 2016," he said. While Kovalev has no time for Pascal or Stevenson, he clearly respects Ward: "I don't think he is a good fighter - I know he is."