Ultimately, light heavyweight contender Sergey Kovalev elected to challenge titlist Nathan Cleverly rather than press for a higher-profile mandatory shot against Bernard Hopkins.
To some, it might sound like the wrong decision. Why would Kovalev agree to go to Cleverly's home country of Wales on Aug. 17 to face a titleholder in his prime rather than stay in the United States, where the Russian Kovalev is now based, and face the 48-year-old Hopkins, who can't defy Father Time forever and who is a much bigger name than Cleverly ever will be?
It was a calculated move, to be sure. Most significantly, Kovalev wanted a title shot as soon as possible, no waiting. He will get Cleverly on Aug. 17 and it will come on HBO, which is infatuated with Kovalev and wanted him on the air ASAP.
Also, had Kovalev pressed for the mandatory with Hopkins, there was no guarantee he would get the fight, because Hopkins' promoter (Golden Boy) was also eyeing Cleverly. If Kovalev turned down the deal for Cleverly, Golden Boy was ready to swoop in and make a deal for Hopkins to face him in a fight that Showtime surely would have bought.
It would mean Hopkins forfeiting his version of the title, but that wouldn't be so bad because he would be fighting for Cleverly's belt -- meaning as long as Hopkins won, he would still have a title.
If that scenario unfolded, Kovalev would still have fought for the vacant belt that Hopkins dumped, but he wanted to win a title against a reigning titleholder. Besides, there's no telling who he would end up facing or how long it would have taken for the vacant title fight to be scheduled given the purse bid process that might have unfolded.
Not insignificantly, for whatever reason, neither HBO nor Showtime wanted to buy Hopkins-Kovalev, which would have made it hard to place the fight for the kind of money each side would expect. HBO won't do business with Golden Boy, and I believe that Showtime had no interest in putting on Kovalev just to build him up and then watch him go to rival HBO in the event he won.
Therefore, Kovalev and promoter Main Events took the sure and immediate title shot with Cleverly.
Here's how Main Events promoter Kathy Duva explained it to me:
"[Kovalev] accepted the challenge to go to Wales and fight Cleverly in his hometown because that simply was his shortest route to a world title. Kudos to him for that. I realize that there are those who believe that Sergey is passing up an opportunity to fight Bernard Hopkins. But I was well aware that Golden Boy was also pursuing a Cleverly fight. While Bernard made statements earlier in the week about respecting his mandatory, he always couched those statements with qualifiers.
"If you listen carefully, what he was saying was that he would respect his mandatory obligation and fight Kovalev if he had no other alternative. But if Sergey had passed on Cleverly, Hopkins would have had an alternative --- which was to fight Cleverly for the WBO title. Again, Sergey did not want to wait around for months, only to end up fighting for a vacant title. And if Bernard really wants to fight Sergey, he can still do it. We will be very happy to accommodate him later this year when they are both champions and Hopkins-Kovalev will be a much, much bigger fight."