One of the most talked about fights of the year is the looming showdown between pound-for-pound elites Sergey Kovalev, owner of three light heavyweight world title belts and the best 175-pounder on the planet, and Andre Ward, the undefeated former super middleweight world champion who recently moved up in weight.
They are signed, sealed and delivered to fight Nov. 19 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the main event of an HBO PPV card. The winner will stake his claim to being the world's pound-for-pound best.
But, and there's a big but here: Both have to win interim bouts (or at least draw) to make their showdown official.
On Aug. 6 in his hometown of Oakland, California, Ward (29-0, 15 KO) is set to face little-known Alexander Brand (25-1, 19 KOs), of Colombia, at the Oracle Arena. But Kovalev is up first for his interim bout.
"Kovalev is not invincible. He is not God. He is a man just like me. I will be the man to crush the 'Krusher.'" Isaac Chilemba
He has fought most of his career in the United States, but Kovalev returns home for only his third professional fight in Russia when he will defend his belts against contender Isaac Chilemba on Monday (HBO, 10:15 p.m. ET/PT, same-day tape delay) at the DIVS Palace of Sports in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
Kovalev (29-0-1, 26 KOs), who will be making his eighth title defense, has wanted to fight in Russia again and was very happy when Main Events promoter Kathy Duva was able to broker a deal to place the fight only a couple of hours by car from his hometown.
"I am so excited to fight in my home country of Russia," Kovalev said. "It gives me great pride to bring my titles home at last. ...It truly feels as if the entire country is behind my back in this fight," said Kovalev, 33, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. "I can tell I'm fighting at home. This support means a lot for me."
But while there might be some hometown pressure on Kovalev to win and keep the big fight with Ward on course, Chilemba is playing with house money. He has nothing to lose in the biggest opportunity of his career.
Chilemba (24-3-2, 10 KOs) is coming off a controversial decision loss to Eleider Alvarez in November on Alvarez's turf in Quebec City, but he landed the shot at Kovalev primarily because they are both promoted by Main Events, making it a relatively easy match to put together.
"I was disappointed after my fight with Alvarez," Chilemba said. "When I got the call that this fight was offered you can't believe the joy that came over me. I knew I would get another chance to fight a tough opponent. I have been praying hard and I thank God that I finally got the opportunity.
"I have gained a lot experience from a lot of hard-fought fights in hometowns of my opponents. I am working on Kovalev. I am going to give him hell and not leave it in the judges' hands. Everyone expects it to be an easy fight for him. I will put it all out there to make sure I get the decision."
Said Duva: "Isaac Chilemba is a legitimate top-10 light heavyweight contender and he's coming to win. He won't be intimidated by the crowd. We know he is focused on the biggest opportunity of his career and we'll see if he can capitalize on it."
"I am so excited to fight in my home country of Russia. It gives me great pride to bring my titles home at last. ...I can tell I'm fighting at home. This support means a lot for me." Sergey Kovalev
Duva is in an odd position because while she promotes both fighters, her company has a lot riding on making sure Kovalev-Ward takes place. But she said whatever happens in the ring Monday is out of her hands.
"My job is to make good fights, get good opportunities for my fighters," she said. "Isaac deserves a title fight. There are a lot of fighters who avoid risk to keep their records intact. We don't sign people here at Main Events who don't want to fight.
"When I suggest fighters that don't test Sergey, he gets annoyed. He is preparing to face Ward in the fall. He wants to be challenged (before that)."
Chilemba, 29, who was born on Malawi and fights out of South Africa, would love nothing more than to not only collect Kovalev's belts but to also throw a wrench into the best laid plans for his fight with Ward.
"I believe in myself. I believe in my abilities as a fighter," Chilemba said. "Coming in I am not worried about anything else. Every mistake I have made in my personal life and my boxing life has made me stronger. I am confident. I trust my team and (trainer) Buddy (McGirt). I will be ready. I am where I am meant to be. I believe this is where I am going to show the world who I am and what I am made of. Kovalev is not invincible. He is not God. He is a man just like me. I will be the man to crush the 'Krusher.'
"I believe I am the antidote to Kovalev. I am walking into this fight with only a few people believing in me. I am going to show the world. The pressure is on him. I love proving people wrong. That pushes me."
Kovalev will be boxing in the same arena where he fought the last time he had a fight in Russia. That fight ended in tragedy when he knocked out Roman Simakov in the seventh round in December 2011. Three days later Simakov died as a result of head injuries suffered in the bout, one Kovalev rarely discusses.
"That was five years ago, I already forgot everything," Kovalev said when sitting down with reporters at an April news conference to announce the fight with Chilemba. "Life is great for me now. We're going (to Russia) to do our job, make great fights in boxing. That is what I try to do."
Duva said when she made the fight between Kovalev and Chilemba she did not realize at first that it was the same arena where tragedy struck. But when she talked to Egis Klimas, Kovalev's manager, and Kovalev about it, they reassured her it was not an issue.
"I did ask when I realized and was told by both Egis and Sergey that Sergey had put this in the past and he's not concerned it's going to affect him," Duva said. "There aren't a lot of places near (his hometown) where the fight can take place so this is the biggest and the best one."
Chilemba is aware of what happened last time Kovalev fought in Russia and said he has no concerns.
"Whatever happened at that time is not what's going to happen now," Chilemba said. "The pressure is on Kovalev. He will be fighting in his hometown where he hasn't fought in a long time. My focus is on him. My mind is on him only.
"He needs to show his home people what he is made of. I am happy to go to fight anyone, anywhere, in their backyard, in their own house. I don't care. I will give a show. I am gunning for a win. I don't care where we are fighting. I don't care what Kovalev is made of. We know his weaknesses and we know his strengths. I am going to beat him in his own town."