LAS VEGAS -- Unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, who will make his ninth defense against Andre Ward this weekend, could not have taken a more different path to the big time than his opponent.
Ward (30-0, 15 KOs), 32, the undefeated former super middleweight world champion, is where many thought he would be. He's an elite fighter about to enter the ring Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) at T-Mobile Arena for perhaps the best matchup of the year, with a chance to be crowned the pound-for-pound king with a victory.
Ward hasn't lost a fight since he was a 13-year-old amateur and he won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in the 2004 Athens Games. He arrived in the pro ranks with a mid-six-figure signing bonus in the bank, a big promotional push, the glory of a pro debut televised on HBO and great expectations, all of which he has lived up to.
Meanwhile, the fact that Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs), 33, is here is nothing short of a lottery-like miracle and a testament to the iron belief he and manager Egis Klimas had that, even in the worst of times, he would make it to the top.
In 2009, Klimas, who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania and dabbled in boxing, was an unknown manager looking to make it in a rough business. He took an interest in signing Kovalev, who was a solid amateur in Russia but did not reach the Olympics. They had spoken on the phone regularly for a few weeks when Klimas told him he would be in Kazakhstan for a fight and he wanted Kovalev to fly in from Russia to meet and talk about a deal.
Kovalev, 33, struggling to make ends meet in Russia, had not thought about turning pro but he had nothing to lose. He made the trip, they talked and he signed. Soon after, Kovalev came to the U.S. to turn pro and Klimas sent him to the North Carolina training camp of renowned trainer Don Turner, who had struck up a friendship with Klimas and took him under his wing. Turner was quickly impressed by the fighter's raw talent but when Klimas signed Kovalev he pulled no punches.
"I was very honest with him," Klimas said. "[I said], 'I'm not going to make you money, promoter not going to make you money. You can make it to the top if you can get American audience, if people will like you, if people going to buy tickets to your fights, if TV will buy your fights. Then you are going to have success. Otherwise, forget about it and go do what you do. And he says, 'Let's try it.'"
Kovalev, naturally, asked Klimas how much he would be paid for his fights.
"He said, 'Nothing. I'm ready to pay for food, for training camp, buy you some boxing stuff, try to help you find a promoter who will pay money when you fight,'" said Kovalev, who has grown very close to Klimas in their years together.
Kovalev was OK with the arrangement but had one concern: What if things weren't working out and he wanted to quit boxing? How would he repay Klimas for investing in him?
"He said, 'I'm not going to put pistol to your head to pay money back,'" Kovalev said, as he and Klimas broke out laughing. "OK, after this we shake hands and I flew to New York."
Klimas then sent him to Turner's training camp.
"I was the new kid on the block and Don Turner was my tutor, but I didn't know much about what's going on," Klimas said. "Bringing Sergey to this point, we were in Kazakhstan and he did shadow boxing and Don Turner said, 'Egis, where did you get this guy from?' After that we went on a very long run. I used to call every single promoter. I used to try to put him on every single show. I used to try to show him to everybody who was around."
"For three years we fought without any promoter. I fought with the support of [manager] Egis [Klimas]. Throughout everything he was my father, my brother, my guide. For me he was everything." Sergey Kovalev
Said Kovalev: "For three years we fought without any promoter. I fought with the support of Egis. Throughout everything he was my father, my brother, my guide. For me he was everything."
For three years and 18 fights, Klimas brought Kovalev all over the country, paying to put his fights on cards, building his record and hoping to get noticed by a promoter. But they all passed as Kovalev fought on small cards in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, California, Kentucky, Georgia, Illinois, the state of Washington and once in Russia, an ill-fated 2011 bout in which his opponent, Roman Simakov, died from brain injuries suffered in a seventh-round knockout loss.
Kovalev, who routinely declines to speak of the incident, thought about quitting after the fight, but eventually made the decision to go on.
"It has been a very long road since 2009 when he came here to the United States," Klimas said. "He never was pushed by any media, he never was mismatched, he never was protected like many fighters are nowadays. Many don't know how we used to sit in the van and go from the East Coast, town to town, just to get a fight."
Kovalev went from his darkest hour of his opponent's ring death to the turning point of his career in his next bout. Klimas had convinced Main Events promoter Kathy Duva to put Kovalev on her NBC Sports Net-televised card against journeyman Darnell Boone, who had previously lasted the eight-round distance with him in a split-decision loss. Kovalev knocked Boone out in the second round of the rematch in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. It was the first fight for which he earned a purse. Duva paid him $5,000. It was the first time in Kovalev's career that Klimas did not have to go into his own pocket to pay for the fight.
"I was paying for the fights, I was paying for his opponent, for the whole team to travel, for the team hotel, for our travel, for our hotel," Klimas said. Although he wasn't paying Kovalev purses for the fights, he took care of him.
"I always gave him some cash for his pocket," Klimas said. "He goes to Russia, I gave him a couple thousand dollars. We gave him some money for food."
Asked how much he had invested into Kovalev before that $5,000 purse, Klimas said, "I never much counted."
Kovalev interrupted, saying, "He spent $400,000. I counted."
Duva loved what she saw from Kovalev in the Boone rematch, but just to be sure she asked Hall of Fame promoter and matchmaker Russell Peltz, her close business associate, who was at the fight, for his take. With Peltz's glowing approval, Duva signed Kovalev. Four fights later, Kovalev made his HBO debut, going to Wales and destroying Nathan Cleverly inside four rounds to win a world title.
"The fact that other promoters passed on Sergey blows my mind," Duva said. "We took one look at him that night and I still remember the look on Russell Peltz's face. I said, 'Oh, God, thank you, thank you!'"
Duva's company, founded in 1978 by her late husband Dan, promoted many big stars, including Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But the company was in need of a new centerpiece and she found one that night in Kovalev.
"It must have been my husband in heaven," she said. "I knew what to do with Sergey. They say the elements of success are drive, having a chip on your shoulder and someone who can make the system work for you. Sergey's got a great big chip on his shoulder. He has more drive than I've ever seen. And I know how to make the system work. I just needed that talent and there he is."
Duva convinced HBO to get on the bandwagon and Kovalev, known as "Krusher" for his devastating power, has been unstoppable, rising up the pound-for-pound list, notching impressive victories against former world champion Jean Pascal (twice) and beating Bernard Hopkins easily to unify three world titles. But what was it that Klimas saw in Kovalev during the uncertain times that convinced him this project wasn't a waste of time?
"I had been around boxers before Sergey and I knew how difficult it was for me to talk a guy into a fight," Klimas said. "They've been, for example, three months at the Don Turner camp and I call [the fighter] and say, 'Look, we're going to have a fight in three weeks.' You know the answer I'm getting? 'I don't think I'm gonna be ready.' What? You in the freaking camp for a month and now you're telling me you're not going to be ready in another three weeks? This man [pointing at Kovalev] never said that. He probably doesn't even know how to say, 'Who is my opponent?'
"Every time I called Sergey [and said], fight on Saturday, [he said], 'Good, what weight, where?' That's it. Never asked me is he right-handed, is he left-handed, how many amateur fights did he have, what's his background? He's not making any money but he knows he needs to go to fight. How can you not believe in him?"
Since Duva first saw him she has believed in him, too.
"From the moment I saw him in Bethlehem, I immediately imagined him being the best fighter in the division," Duva said. "I thought it at that second. To be where we are now, in a position to become No. 1 in the world, this is the dream. Main Events has worked with some tremendous fighters and we've had some really good runs, but for the most part those were guys that came with Olympic medals and nobody was really surprised when they succeeded. To take Sergey from the point where nobody in Russia knew who he was, where he has never been given a leg up by anybody, where nobody wanted to even look at him to take him where he is today, I have to say, and we at Main Events couldn't do that with anybody, but when a person came along with the skill and the desire to do it, it was the perfect marriage for us.
"Sergey gets to show his abilities and talents and Main Events has the ability to know exactly how to move him perfectly. This is the kind of opportunity that I have been waiting for for a very long time, to prove myself, to prove my staff, to prove my company that we were still there and we could do this and I think we gave Sergey the opportunity to prove what he can do. It was a beautiful thing and meant to be."
Duva had found the star she was searching for. Klimas, with a stable that also includes the outstanding junior lightweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko and a slew of other quality fighters, has become one of boxing's most respected managers. And Kovalev has become one of the sport's elite stars.
"I believed in myself and thanks a lot to Egis that he believed in me and he supported me," Kovalev said. "He was with me like my angel. He gave me everything, this opportunity to do this.
"After three years we could not find good deal [and then] God blessed me and gave to us Kathy Duva and Main Events Promotions."
The rest, whatever happens against Ward, is history.