Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports
WHEN people dream about what it would be like if they were one of the most dominant professional athletes on earth, they might picture a scene imbued with glamour. A scene loaded with million-dollar sports cars, living in vast, sprawling mansions, and hanging out with a large posse at ritzy, exclusive clubs, popping bottles of Cristal all night long. This may be a reality for some of the sporting elite, but material wealth doesn’t mean a whole lot to Sergey Kovalev. To him, boxing is a means of survival.
Finding Kovalev’s training camp in Boca Raton, Florida was not a simple task. I was driving down 24th Street on a sunny day, when my iPhone notified me that I had reached the PAL Gym. I looked around, but saw nothing except some office buildings and garages. I quickly turned down a side street and ended up in an car body shop’s parking lot. I couldn’t find an address, so I circled around the wrecked cars in the lot, when IBF, WBO and WBA Super world light-heavy champion Kovalev, clad in a black “Krusher” sweatsuit, suddenly manifested in front of my car, talking on his phone.
The PAL Gym is in an unmarked stucco warehouse carrying a faded yellow and pink Miami Vice-style paint job. While the mechanics in the body shop work on repairing unfortunate wrecks, next door, Kovalev drips sweat from every pore in the hope of causing disaster and carnage in the ring.
When Kovalev entered the gym after his conversation, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, but his appearance and stature were a surprise. Kovalev always seems so physically imposing in comparison to his opposition when watching his fights on television. His physicality, on the screen, appears to overpower those that have stood up to him before ultimately falling. In reality, though, outside the ring Kovalev, barely 6ft, does not look like a fighter. He does not look like a man who is regarded as one of the most dangerous athletes on the planet.
Later in the day, his trainer, John David Jackson, addressed Kovalev’s inconspicuousness.
“When you look at Sergey, you don’t see it,” quipped Jackson. “A lot of guys think, ‘I’m gonna beat this guy up.’ A lot of opponents have probably thought that. But once he hits you, it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness. This is unreal power.’ It’s amazing the power he possesses in his punch.”
It makes sense that Kovalev appeared so colossal on TV because his punching power created an aura of invincibility. Against every man he’s fought, he’s been superior. On paper, there’s one imperfection on Kovalev’s record – a draw against Grover Young in 2011 – but that’s misleading. Before Kovalev jumped in the ring to begin his workout, the light-heavyweight king discussed the blot on his ledger.
“I have, on my record, one draw,” stated Kovalev. “I punched him over the ear, but he showed to the referee that I punched him on the back of the head.”
As Kovalev explained the injustice, he firmly placed his clenched fist against my skull, right where he hit Young: “The referee wasn’t experienced. He should have started counting. It was a technical draw. He got easy money. This guy understood he couldn’t win.”
It was a local boxing trainer, also named Sergey, who noticed young Kovalev playing with friends in the street. He approached Kovalev about giving boxing a try, and that’s when Sergey embarked on his pugilistic journey. Because of his slight physique as an adolescent, the local boxing trainer made comparisons between Kovalev and a certain Detroit legend.
“I was tall and very skinny,” said Kovalev. “He told me I should fight like Tommy Hearns.”
He started showing Kovalev videos of Hearns’ fights, and tried to get him to mimic the “Hitman’s” style.
Kovalev and Hearns both punch like hell, yet there is an elegance about Kovalev which isn’t always obvious in his fights. Like Hearns, he is a brilliant boxer, one whose skill is often lost, or rendered redundant, by his blazing power. His agility, speed of foot, intelligent boxing and numbing punching power make Kovalev a true master of his trade.
“Behind me and around me, there are people who believe in me and help me and who need my support,” said Kovalev, softening slightly. “My family in Russia is still hungry, living in poor apartments. Right now there’s not enough money to help everybody. My family is huge: three uncles, two aunts, 15 or 16 cousins, two younger brothers, one older sister.”
Family has always been the primary motivation behind Kovalev’s boxing career. When he was just an 11-year-old boy growing up in the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, the desire to help better his family’s financial situation is what made him decide to take up boxing.
Life in Chelyabinsk was harsh. Kovalev’s family lived, and continues to live, in a state of poverty. Many members of his family struggle to make ends meet and live in substandard conditions. The recent downturn in Russia’s economy has made matters worse. As an adult, Kovalev still combats the same economic conditions that have surrounded his family since he was a child.
“I agreed to do boxing because we didn’t have money for the lights,” the fighter recalled. “I believed that only boxing can help me to get money for my family. I just had my dream to make life better.”
The more Kovalev discusses his family, the more candid he becomes. The stories of his family’s plight in Russia are like something from a Dostoyevsky novel. Currently, Kovalev’s father is unwell in a Russian hospital, scheduled to have surgery due to complications with diabetes. Kovalev believes that his father developed the condition because of the stress he had to endure due to a past family tragedy.
“My father is in the hospital to get an operation for his leg,” Sergey said sorrowfully. “My uncle died in a fire and my father tried to save him. My father has stress after this and he got diabetes from this. He’s having his seventh operation. His wounds don’t close, which makes it hard.”
During this painful time for Kovalev and his family, he wishes his mother were with him in the US so he could comfort her, but she has had a lot of difficulty entering the country.
“My mum, for the third time they [the US government] didn’t approve her visa,” he explained. “I want to bring her here just to watch my fight. They didn’t approve a visa. I will bring my mum to Canada. Canada approved the visa. She will be at my fight.”
And there it is. For some athletes, it’s fast cars. For Sergey Kovalev, one of the most destructive of them all, it’s all about his family. In an era of excess, Kovalev is driven only by raw survival.