MONTREAL — Sergey Kovalev vs Jean Pascal Saturday on HBO is the kind of fight where there’s a clear favorite (in this case, Kovalev) and there are a whole slew of people who still think it’s closer to a 50-50 fight. There are good reasons people think this about Kovalev-Pascal. There are good reasons they are wrong.
In Kovalev, we have the entertaining-no-matter-what-he-does ornery Russian who’s funny at the same time he’s a traveling slaughterhouse. He’s the favorite because he massacres fighters who never get massacred, like, in his last fight, Bernard Hopkins, because even a nearly 50-year-old version of Hopkins doesn’t get massacred by anyone else, even if Hopkins semi-miraculously survived to the bell.
In Pascal, we have an athletic, hard-nosed, awkward fighter who has never been stopped, rarely buzzed and allegedly never even dropped. He is the #3-ranked light heavyweight behind Kovalev and Hopkins. He outfoxed Chad Dawson when Dawson was at the peak of his boxing ability, he has grinded with the Carl Froches of the world (in a fight, it must be said, that he lost narrowly). If you were to make a checklist of things that might bother Kovalev, Pascal would have many of them.
It should be a good fight. Contrary to a growing consensus opinion, this writer does not believe it will be a close one.
Kovalev has demonstrated thoroughly by now that he is a complete fighter. He is slow-ish, sure, yet demonstrated speed never before seen against Hopkins. But he can box, he has more variety in his offensive arsenal than he is given credit for, he can defend himself when he so chooses (not that he needs to choose that, because he takes a helluva a punch), and he punches the kind of punches that make fights end very early. He has beaten a variety of styles — boxers faster than him, boxers slicker than him, all but boxers who hits as hard as him, yet we have not to date met anyone who fits that description at 175. He has only one elite fighter on his resume, Hopkins, and you can put an asterisk on that if you so desire based on Hopkins age. Just remember that Hopkins has been old for a long time, and while Dawson beat him definitively, no one has beaten the living fuck out of Hopkins the way Kovalev did.
Enter Pascal. He is not the “oh shit” kind of fighter Kovalev is. He is, instead, a fighter who always… finds a way. He finds a way to win, or he finds a way to compete. He was beating Dawson for most of the rounds before he got wobbled late and survived thanks to a head butt cut that threw the fight to a technical decision. He was dominating Lucian Bute, then, late, apropos of nothing, got rocked by a left hand and had to survive. He hung in there with Froch. He got one lucky draw and one close loss to Hopkins, yet he indisputably was “in” those fights. Even his easy fights turn into unconventional trials: His last bout, a no contest against Roberto Bolonti, ended when he and Bolonti punched each other against the referee’s wishes, and Bolonti fell to the ground, apparently told by his promoter to stay there in hopes of winning a disqualification.
The reason for Pascal’s ability to struggle in routine fights and his ability to overachieve in difficult fights is this: That which makes Pascal flawed is also that which makes him dangerous. He has certain conventional attributes that make for good fighters, sure, like self-belief, like an ability to absorb punishment, like speed, like defensive instincts, like decent power. But what makes him stand out is that he is awkward, he is unpredictable, he is wild. Pascal, trained partially by Roy Jones, Jr., has many of Jones’ habits without his gifts. He fights with his hands down at his sides, the way Jones did, only Jones was able to pull this foolish style off because he was a one in a billion athlete. Pascal doesn’t have the cat-quick power to knock people out with one shot, yet he lunges off-balance at people the way Jones might anyway. He is, as such, imminently hittable, despite his good instincts. He is just as likely to turn away from a blow at the last minute to take off its sting as he is apt to get walked into a corner and hit flush for no discernible reason.
Sometimes, he seems to do everything right, like when he surges forward with short combinations to the head and body. Other times, you wonder if he’s trying to punch a chandelier rather than the man in the same 20′ foot square as him.
So, yeah, you can see why people think he might bother Kovalev. He’s faster. He’s bizarre enough to give anyone fits. He can take a shot better than most of Kovalev’s knockout victims, and he can punch back. All of these are also reasons to believe this could be a solidly competitive bout. At least, Pascal doesn’t seem likely to depart consciousness easily.
But this writer will argue that this is another easy Kovalev slaying. Easy compared to the likes of Ismayl Sillakh, maybe not. Easy compared to Hopkins, absolutely yes. Pascal is going to be willing to put himself in harm’s way until he realizes just how profound that harm might be. And then he’ll do some running. We’ve seen how Kovalev handles runners, which is to say it takes him slightly longer to steal their souls than those who run less. We’ve seen how Pascal fades late when he has to run so much.
There’s a possibility Pascal makes it to the final bell, and one hopes he does without too much punishment. The high-level opponents taking on the Kovalevs and Gennady Golovkins of the world deserve some kind of earthly reward, be it something a simple as the moral victory of surviving the distance with boxing’s kaiju. Rather, he will probably take a prolonged and fearsome beating, a byproduct of being tougher than most and, as a result, tougher than his own good. He’ll give close to as good as he gets early on. But after this fight, the only real question left for Kovalev will be whether he eventually faces Pascal’s hated Canadian brethren, lineal champion Adonis Stevenson, and whether Stevenson and his power can do any iota better against the man who rules his division in practice, if not name.