On July 11 in Ekaterinburg, Russia, light heavyweight contender Isaac Chilemba did the unlikely, managing the last the distance against IBF, WBO and WBA champion Sergey Kovalev. This has to be considered a surprise. Prior to Chilemba, the only opponent to last 12 rounds with Kovalev had been Bernard Hopkins, a true boxing wizard. And B-Hop had been shut out on all three cards. Chilemba won two rounds on one card, three on another and four on the third.
This fight will provide something like a Rosarch test for fans. Fans who expect Kovalev to lose to Andre Ward later this year will point to the Russian’s work against Chilemba as evidence. The South African managed to fight on fairly even terms with Kovalev in the first half of the fight and landed some very good punches, while staying in position to deny Kovalev his most dangerous punches in return. It was something like the game plan Ward will be looking to implement in November, except that Ward is a notch above Chilemba in talent.
But Kovalev partisans can likewise point to this as an example of Kovalev’s overall boxing intelligence and ability to make adjustments mid-fight. Chilemba is a tough and cagey boxer and entered this bout highly underrated. He had never been knocked out. Kovalev was never in any sort of real danger or trouble in the fight. He handled Chilemba’s best punches with ease. After six close rounds, Kovalev came out in Round 7 and dropped Chilemba hard. He nearly stopped him again in Round 8. He was landing punishing, multi-punch combinations in Round 11. The entire second half of the fight was one-sided, with Chilemba doing well to minimize the punishment he took, but barely surviving just the same.
Chilemba frankly deserves credit for having a tremendous chin. He was able to stay upright and alert after taking the kind of shots from Kovalev that have battered and tumbled some very good light heavyweights in the past.
As far as what this means in terms of Kovalev’s upcoming showdown with Ward, I am inclined to say it means nothing. I was leaning slightly toward picking Ward over Kovalev before this fight, but I am not any more confident in that choice than I was before. It remains very much a pick-em fight. Ward and Kovalev are two of the top five or six pound-for-pound fighters in the world today and each has the ability to beat the other.
That’s precisely why Kovalev vs. Ward is the biggest possible fight in boxing today.