There's an age-old move out of the promotional playbook when there is growing interest in a particular fight, but it still needs to be nurtured a bit before it's commercially ready to be made. So in order to stoke interest, the two fighters in question appear on the same card in separate fights.
The idea is to get folks talking about their potential showdown, to raise awareness of it, and to use the fights as a way for fans and media to compare the boxers.
That brings us to the case of light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson and titleholder Sergey Kovalev. They are two of the most exciting and hard-punching 175-pounders in the world, but both have only recently burst on the world stage. They appear to be on a collision course, but the fight is not quite ready yet.
Stevenson announced his arrival in June with a 76-second annihilation of then-lineal champion Chad Dawson, followed by a dominant seventh-round knockout of former titlist Tavoris Cloud in September. Kovalev had three nationally televised fights in a row as his buzz built, and then he went to Wales in August and pounded out Nathan Cleverly in the fourth round of a one-sided destruction to win a version of the title.
Almost immediately, talk of a Stevenson-Kovalev showdown began to heat up, and that is precisely the reason they are appearing on a card together on Saturday night (HBO, 10:15 ET/PT) at the Colisee Pepsi in Quebec City, where Montreal's Stevenson is the draw. But his fans will also get an up-close look at Kovalev in anticipation of an eventual showdown.
However, contenders who pose threats to them are standing in their way, making an eventual meeting anything but automatic.
In Saturday's main event, Stevenson makes his second title defense when he faces England's Tony Bellew (20-1-1, 12 KOs), 30, the mandatory challenger whose only loss came by majority decision in a world title fight against Cleverly in 2011. Kovalev takes on Ismayl Sillakh (21-1, 17 KOs), 28, a native of Ukraine living in Simi Valley, Calif., who has won four fights in a row since an upset eighth-round knockout loss to Denis Grachev in April 2012. Opening the telecast is a replay of welterweight Manny Pacquiao's return to the ring last week after a year off; Pacquiao dominated Brandon Rios in a lopsided decision in Macau, China.
"I'm Superman, I'm the man of steel," said Stevenson, whose nickname is "Superman." "In September I won the fight against Cloud and I was OK, no injuries. So I was ready and I said to my promoter [Yvon Michel] and my team I am ready to do another fight, Tony Bellew.
"Bellew, he got heart. He's a good fighter and I am not underestimating Tony Bellew. I prepare very well. I can box him, I can land a big punch on him -- the Superman punch. I don't see any problem with him. I can box, I can bang and I can fight inside, outside, I got defense. I don't see Bellew beating me. Impossible."
Kovalev, too, said he is ready for his assignment against Sillakh.
"I know that Sillakh is a good opponent and he is a dangerous opponent," Kovalev said. "He has good technique, good timing, good legs, good punch. He's really dangerous, but I am ready. I am always ready."
So while the 36-year-old Stevenson (22-1, 19 KOs) and the 30-year-old Kovalev (22-0-1, 20 KOs) both say they are taking Saturday's fights seriously, they also know they are probable future opponents as long as they continue to win.
"He's tremendous," Stevenson said of Kovalev. "You have two power punchers at light heavyweight. Before us, light heavyweight was not very exciting, and now you have two big punchers in the same weight division. Light heavyweight is very hot now. I was the first to make light heavyweight exciting when I knocked out Dawson, and after that Kovalev knocked out Cleverly.
"I like that Kovalev is fighting in Quebec on my card because the Canadian people don't know him and now they will. He's exciting and he's good for the promotion."
Said Kovalev, who is from Russia but lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: "I don't think about another fight now. After my fight, I can talk about the next one, but the reason I am on this card is a good one. I am going to be seen by the Canadian public, and I hope next year I will have another fight in Montreal or Quebec City with any of their local guys -- maybe Stevenson, maybe another guy."
Since Stevenson and Kovalev won't necessarily face each other next if they both win Saturday, another possibility that looms for either is a fight with the winner of the all-Montreal showdown on Jan. 18 between former light heavyweight champ Jean Pascal and former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute.
Stevenson also has his eye on titleholder Bernard Hopkins, even though that is a very difficult fight to make. Hopkins is promoted by Golden Boy, which has been banished by HBO and does all of its premium cable business with Showtime, while Stevenson is being bankrolled by HBO.
"I want to fight Bernard Hopkins, and then after that we can make the fight with Kovalev," Stevenson said. "I want to fight Kovalev in the future for sure, but Hopkins, people in Canada know Hopkins because he fought two times in Quebec [against Montreal's Pascal in light heavyweight title fights]. But if Hopkins fight me, I'm gonna fight on HBO. We can do business, but I want to make it clear -- if I fight Hopkins, I fight on HBO."
The fight that HBO wants, however, is Stevenson-Kovalev. It has poured money into the light heavyweight and super middleweight divisions and sees Stevenson-Kovalev as one of the premiere matchups that can be made.
"There are many reasons to like the light heavyweight division right now -- Stevenson and Kovalev being two of the most captivating," said Peter Nelson of HBO Sports, who was instrumental in setting up Saturday's doubleheader. "Their appearance on the same card is not entirely coincidence, but many have learned the same lesson by speculating about fights prematurely.
"Both Stevenson and Kovalev have significant challenges before them in Tony Bellew and Ismayl Sillakh. Compelling fights happening this Saturday, not in the future, brought the night together. That said, when it comes to exciting fights getting made, we believe boxing fans prefer cooking to marinating."
Kathy Duva of Main Events, Kovalev's promoter, has said repeatedly that their side is ready to make a fight with Stevenson after Saturday. Michel is also willing, but knows he has other options.
"We understand that Kovalev is on the fast track and wants to fight the best in the division, Adonis Stevenson, although you can say that Bernard Hopkins, because of his longevity, is better-known," Michel said. "Stevenson-Kovalev is not a fight we are opposing. It's business. If HBO comes with a legitimate offer, we will do it. After Saturday, Adonis' priority is to fight Hopkins, but we will go wherever the best opportunity is. Adonis fears nobody.
"The purpose of having Adonis and Kovalev on the card together is to get people talking about them. We know that. But by getting Kovalev better known [in Quebec] would make it a natural to be in the mix with the best fighter at 175, Adonis Stevenson. I spoke several times to Kathy and she seems excited about the fight. I don't think it will be a problem to make it."
Stevenson said he plans to watch Kovalev's fight on a monitor in his dressing room while getting warmed up for Bellew.
"Kovalev is in a good fight and I don't want to miss that," he said. "I got a lot of respect for Kovalev. He's a power puncher and he can box. We make the light heavyweight division exciting. We're good for the business at light heavyweight."