As unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev prepared for his defense against Isaac Chilemba, he said he did not allow himself to think about the next fight against Andre Ward, and he certainly did not want to talk about him when asked repeatedly by the media.
Indeed, Kovalev went into the ring with Chilemba knowing Kovalev and Ward, the undefeated former super middleweight champion, have a signed contract for an HBO PPV fight on Nov. 19 at the T-Mobile Arena.
But once Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) dispatched Chilemba (24-4-2, 10 KOs) by unanimous decision in a tougher-than-expected fashion Monday in front of a sold-out crowd of about 5,000 at the DIVS Sports Palace in Ekaterinburg, Russia, about 120 miles from Kovalev's hometown of Chelyabinsk, he allowed himself to think about the Ward fight.
"My promoter (Kathy Duva of Main Events) and manager (Egis Klimas) chose a fighter that is similar to Andre Ward's style, so that I will be prepared for the fight with Ward," Kovalev said during his post-fight news conference. "When they told me that my opponent would be Chilemba because his style is similar to Andre Ward's style, I was thinking to myself what's so similar to his style? Their height is different, so at first I didn't see much.
"But after the fight I realize that, in fact, he does have similar style to Andre Ward's -- waiting out and counterattacks. He is not going in much. He waits in defense and waits for the right moment."
"Andre Ward's got different timing. He's faster with his legs. He's not only good in defense but also he can attack. He has some defensive tricks. His defense is more modernized." Sergey Kovalev
Although Kovalev, who retained his 175-pound title for the eighth time, had some problems with Chilemba's style, he did knock him down with a mean right hand late in the seventh round and won his Russian homecoming fight via scores of 118-109, 117-110 and 116-111.
But this was as shaky as Kovalev has looked in his career. Perhaps he was distracted by the overwhelming outpouring of support for his first fight in Russia as a world titleholder or the fact that the fight was taking place at the same arena where his opponent, Roman Simakov, died from head injuries suffered in their 2011 fight.
Whatever it was, Kovalev is going to have to be a lot better to deal with the skills Ward possesses.
"Andre Ward's got different timing. He's faster with his legs," Kovalev said. "He's not only good in defense but also he can attack. He has some defensive tricks. His defense is more modernized. He can feel his competitor better. He's got better reaction. He also has good experience. After all, he is an Olympic champion -- the last American (male) champion at the Olympics (in 2004).
"Moreover, he is undefeated. This adds a kind of psychological pressure. He is the best in all the categories. But talking of power he is not a crusher. We have two different styles. So that is the difference between (Ward and Chilemba). They are counterpunchers."
Most expected Kovalev to knock out Chilemba, but other than the knockdown, which was right at the end of the round, he was never in any real trouble.
"If it wasn't the end of the round I would have pursued to actively attack him," Kovalev said. "But because the bell rang, we rested and he managed to pull himself together and I didn't want to waste my energy. He is very experienced and had as many fights as myself and with boxers of the highest level. There was no aim to knock him out, but the main aim was to gain experience from this fight for the next fight in November in Las Vegas."
While Kovalev is safely through to the November fight, Ward (29-0, 15 KOs) is not there yet. He first will fight at Oracle Arena in his hometown of Oakland, California, on Aug. 6 (HBO) when he meets little-known Alexander Brand (25-1, 19 KOs), of Colombia. Kovalev plans to be ringside.
Ward is used to fighting in Oakland, so he has dealt with the pressures of hometown events many times. Duva said she was a little concerned about Kovalev going into the Chilemba bout because he had not done so yet in a title fight; he has been based in the United States as a pro. But she was certainly relieved he dealt with it even though it was not his best performance.
"The toughest fight is always the one right before the big one and for a road warrior like Sergey the toughest fight is the one at home," Duva said. "Sergey had both.
"On top of that Isaac Chilemba fought the fight of his career. Isaac deserves all the credit in the world for going 12 rounds with the 'Krusher.' This is the type of tough fight Sergey needed to prepare for Andre Ward. Like the great champion he is, Sergey overcame all these obstacles and won."