The bully within: What's left of Sergey Kovalev?

AP Photo/John Locher

OXNARD, Calif. -- After watching a former stablemate earn a decision at Nassau Coliseum, Andre Ward returned to his hotel room late on the night of Aug. 4. Friends were already blowing up his phone.

Did you see? They asked, somewhat gleefully.

In fact, the video clips -- Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev stumbling around before being knocked out in the seventh round by Eleider Alvarez -- inspired no mirth. Here was a man for whom Ward had such disdain, whom he wanted to hurt. But the bully demystified suddenly became an object of pity. There was also an emotion Ward couldn't accommodate before his retirement: guilt. "I felt bad for him," Ward recalls. "And part of me felt responsible."

Kovalev -- who turns 36 in April -- was among the most feared fighters of his generation. But going back to the first of his two fights with Ward, he is 2-3 since.

He's been knocked out twice.

Been called out for excessive drinking, which he denies.

Cracked up his car.

Went on a religious retreat.

Changed trainers, twice.

And pleaded not guilty to felony assault, stemming from an incident this past June near his then-training camp in Big Bear, California.

On Saturday night in Frisco, Texas (midnight on ESPN+), Kovalev gets his rematch with Eleider Alvarez for the WBO light heavyweight title. It's not merely a crossroads fight. It's a chance -- a last chance, in all likelihood -- for Kovalev to determine his fate as a fighter. (His fate as a free man, it's fair to presume, will be settled at a later date in the San Bernardino Justice Center.)

Was he merely a bully -- someone the likes of a Mike Tyson or Sonny Liston -- which is to say, a fighter who trafficked in fear, who needed others to be afraid of him? Or can he make history as one of the few -- Roberto Duran and George Foreman come to mind -- as the fearmonger evolved, the bully who overcame his own humiliation?

Kovalev and Ward first fought in November 2016. Kovalev knocked him down in the second round. Ward got up and won a decision.

"Whether you think I won or lost the fight, he faded," Ward said. "He faded mentally, and he faded physically. There's no reason Andre Ward, a 168-pound fighter, should have been in that fight after getting knocked down. It should never have even gone to the cards. And the fact that it did, it broke him."

Kovalev complained about the judges. In the rematch, he complained of low blows. Then Ward knocked him out.

In the aftermath, he went home to Russia. He was depressed. He was drinking. And, as reported by Greg Bishop in Sports Illustrated, he cracked up his Mercedes, swerving into a forest at close to 90 mph. Having come so close to death, the erstwhile Krusher made a pilgrimage to a monastery on Greece's Mount Athos, known to Orthodox Christians as the Holy Mountain.

"Something was wrong in my head," Kovalev told me on Jan. 14.

Were you drinking? I asked.

"I was sober 100 percent," he said. "God saved me."

At the monastery, Kovalev sought counsel with an elder monk, who blessed him. He prayed to remain healthy and sober and focused.

"Not [interested] to go to the dancing clubs," Kovalev said, citing his two young children. "Everything changes in my life. ... No more partying, no more drinking."

Kovalev seemed to return with a renewed spirit. He hired Abror Tursunpulatov, renowned for his work with Russian amateurs, to replace John David Jackson, with whom he had an acrimonious parting. A couple of fights later, Kovalev had one of his three titles back. Then came Alvarez, not unfairly characterized as Ward Lite -- a highly competent boxer, undefeated, but with only half his victories by knockout.

Although Kovalev was ahead on all cards at the time of the stoppage, he all but concedes it was only a matter of time before Alvarez took him out.

"I overtrained myself again," he said, in another reference to the Ward fight. "... I pushed myself, and nobody was around me who stopped me. ... I didn't get the recovery days, and this killed me. ... I didn't have power to fight at all. ... I was empty."

But what kind of empty? Was it physical, a combination of age and an overly relentless regimen? Or a symptom of something darker?

Four days after our interview, TMZ broke the news that Kovalev had been arrested in June for allegedly punching a woman. While the fighter's camp suggests there's exculpatory evidence of a possible shakedown, it's difficult, under any circumstance, to argue that the Kovalev who was released on $50,000 bail bears much resemblance to the chaste figure who came down off Mount Athos.

Now the Russian trainer is gone, replaced by Buddy McGirt, a personable former two-division champion credited with extending the career of Arturo Gatti. In Kovalev, McGirt sees a guy who remains the class of the division: an excellent, if underused jab; still fresh legs; a desire born of a humiliating defeat.

"He knows he has to make certain adjustments," McGirt said. "He understands now that not everyone's going to go when you hit them. If he has to go 12 rounds, he'll be ready."

Kovalev, for his part, told me that day: "I want to get pleasure from this fight ... to punish him. I give him a very big gift. ... Now I want to show boxing fans real Krusher, and how I came to be."

Back to the future would be a mistake. How the bully came to be, after all, is part of the problem. At this point, he's got to be more than just Krusher.

I'm not sure how to characterize the terms of redemption for Sergei Aleksandrovich Kovalev, as his name appears in the court file. Innocence or victory? On Saturday, you'll learn about him as a fighter. Later, during his trial, you'll know more about the man.

But the outcomes aren't unrelated. The core issue is one of character, which brings us back to his test at the hands of Andre Ward. "All those excuses," Ward said. "They speak to what was already inside of him."

If you think Ward still has a beef with Kovalev, I think you're wrong. He comprehends, maybe better than anyone, the full extent of Kovalev's talent.

"I don't know what it feels like to touch a guy with one shot and have him go to sleep," Ward said. "But it's a gift and a curse.

"Like most bullies in the history of the sport, he's the real deal. He won his titles on the road. But he's used to guys being afraid of him. And that's a problem.

"A reputation will get you a world title, keep a title for a while, even make you rich. But once that aura is pierced ..."

By a guy like Andre Ward -- or even Eleider Alvarez.

"Alvarez is not a better fighter than Sergey Kovalev," Ward said. "But he's got heart. He's got momentum. And he's emboldened."

What about the possibility of redemption, then, however one parses it? Wouldn't it be nice to see Kovalev do what so many other bullies could not?

"He can win this fight," Ward said quietly. "But I don't think he will."

Eternally tethered, existentially linked, one retired, the other fighting on. Sergey Kovalev can never beat Andre Ward.

But he could still prove him wrong.