In the midst of Premier Boxing Champions taking up most of the spotlight,we have tonight's big match-up between Sergey Kovalev and Jean Pascal on HBO. At least, it should feel big, but the build-up to it, even a month or two out, feels lacking. On top of that, it has some sizable shoes to fill following a very enjoyable night on Spike's PBC broadcast. Nonetheless, it is still an intriguing bout, not only for the match-up itself, but for the importance it holds in both combatant's careers at this point.
For Kovalev, it will be whether the masterful, ten-years-from-the-future version of himself from his Hopkins conquest was a sign of his arrival or a one-night phantasm. For Pascal, it will be whether he can truly ascend to the very top, or whether he will be seen as a lesser fighter who got more attention than he ever truly deserved. Both champions have relative youth and hardware, but this already has the appearances of a crossroads match, where the victor can create the foundation of their legacy from and the defeated may be staring at a void of obscurity they may never depart from.
Between them, Kovalev appears to be the more potent and able. The Hopkins fight did not feel like an apparition and I would be hard-pressed to believe that he would regress greatly after it. Even half of that level of performance would be able to best Pascal, who has shown little, if any, improvement over the years, or in recent times. His imposing physique and hand speed are polar opposites of his unimpressive boxing acumen, workrate, and instincts, and even in an easy victory over a depleted Lucian Bute last year, his fellow countryman's level of heart and effort outshone his own. Moreover, that Jan. 2014 fight was his last true one, as a Dec. outing vs. Roberto Feliciano Bolonti was ruled a "no contest" following a foul committed by Pascal in the second.
A fresher fighter who just outsmarted and outworked a master (more so than he did merely physically against the then-49 year-old) versus someone who had all of the tools to beat him first, but allowed him to clown and work him over to a majority draw (and after two knockdowns, at that!). Or, more importantly, a fighter that has shown great growth and maturity versus one that has not.
Prediction: Kovalev, UD. Pascal may not have the best endurance, thanks to those muscles, but he does not go down easily, either. Aside from that, if the same Kovalev shows up from the Hopkins fight, the Russian should have no business losing to someone of Pascal's caliber. There really is no excuse.
Outcome: Kovalev, TKO8. No, there really was no excuse for Kovalev to be losing to Pascal, as was very evident in the fight, but he did put himself into a position where he was one catastrophic situation from doing so. Leading up to the fight, Pascal managed to get under his skin, and coming out for the first round, he was clearly very angry. Kovalev pursued him with a great amount of aggression and swung away at the Canadian. While Pascal, as per usual, made himself available with near non-existent defense, so did Kovalev, whose reckless assault led to him being wide open for Pascal to counter. This came into play as the latter managed to build a rally after getting badly hurt and nearly falling out of the ring at the end of the 3rd round.
Pascal began testing the Russian's durable chin for the next three rounds with wild haymakers that found their mark many a times, which were visibly affecting him. From the sixth and into the seventh—following the shift in the fight and his trainer's words—Kovalev began to settle himself down and rely more on his boxing skills. By firmly re-employing the jab he abandoned earlier, he was able to create distance, stymie Pascal's attack, better-set his shots, and get his head back into it. The seventh and eighth rounds saw a much more disciplined Kovalev taking his time in steadily picking apart Pascal in a more controlled replay of the earlier stanza. The champion's own power now back into play, Pascal began to weather more quickly and in the eighth round, he nearly went down under a barrage of punches, until Kovalev slipped on the mat at the same time. The reprieve was brief and the damage was apparently done for Pascal, as the moment Pascal's head began to bobble under another pummeling, the referee quickly stopped the fight.
Though Kovalev had power, I did not think he would have been able to actually stop Pascal. What I did not take into account was the combination of Kovalev's skill and power with Pascal's poor defense and consistent availability of his chin. The equation of Kovalev using simple boxing skills to set up a good power shot on an open target was as "no-brainer" as it sounds. However, he made things far more difficult than they had to be by allowing his emotions to rule and fighting like a mad man vying to take someone's head off. Conversely, the equation for Pascal's success was even more simple: just do what you do and fire away at Kovalev's open chin. It did not require a master fighter to counter or land a punch on him, as Pascal's power and "style" was more than enough to rock Kovalev a few times. Many have praised him for putting up a "great fight" and "show of heart", but in reality, he did none of that. The only thing Pascal showed was his usual level of fighting incompetence, behaving no differently than any other time.
When there is a perceived opening, he lunges forth and throws around quick, but ungainly bombs with little forethought. If he gets hit, he might wobble a bit but he can take it, because he has a thick chin (likely a reason why he rarely bothers to use proper defense). Pascal seems to be so used to and dependent upon his physical attributes, that he has never had an impetus to employ actual basic skill work. While he appeared stronger than Kovalev, he had nothing to fall back on to do to Kovalev when he was wild what the Russian did to him when he was wild. It is difficult to find anything impressive with what Pascal did when the situation itself was entirely a construct of Kovalev's doing, as once he straightened up, Pascal was essentially doomed. The last thing Jean Pascal needs is misguided reinforcement that what he is doing is good and effective when, at the world-class level, it is completely fatalistic.
Concerning the winner of the bout, Sergey Kovalev displayed that the stuff he showed in the Hopkins fight was real indeed, as the surefootedness and reeling in of his anger went hand-in-hand with the boxing he used to reset the match and take out Pascal with relative ease. He has the look of someone that could be a future great in the sport, but Saturday night also showed that he still has some of the hallmarks of a young fighter (or one new to the top) that allowed an opponent's actions and his emotions to get the best of him. If someone with a mouth, skill, and decent pop were to face him, I see no reason why they wouldn't try getting under his skin, too, not if he will drop his defense and form entirely and makes himself available. In truth, we don't know quite enough about what makes Kovalev—who just broke through four months ago—ticks not just as a fighter, but as a top force in boxing now.
There was a slice of optimism in Kovalev, with vital awareness from his trainer, getting under control and refocused, but it is imperative that they both ensure that does not happen again. They were fortunate that they were facing someone unpolished, but it appears that even in victory, there is still more for the young grasshopper to learn…