By Jack Sumner @Jack_Sumner_
Nathan Cleverly returns home to defend his light heavyweight title on Welsh soil this Saturday, when he puts his WBO strap on the line for the sixth time at Cardiff's Motorpoint Arena. Despite the 26-year-old's two-year reign and the fact that he'll be fighting in front of his adoring South Wales public however, the champion from the Cefn Fforest will enter Saturday's world title clash as the betting underdog.
That's because the challenger comes in the shape of the much-hyped Sergey Kovalev, a big punching, unbeaten Russian affectionately known as 'The Crusher'. The Florida-based 30-year-old has been making plenty of waves across the pond and burst onto the world scene by dispatching veteran Gabriel Campillo in three rounds in January. He followed that up with another three-round demolition in June, when the once highly regarded Cornelius White was put to the sword.
With Gennady Golovkin, Lucas Matthysse and Adonis Stevenson's performances, 2013 is becoming something of a 'Year of the Puncher'. HBO executives are backing Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KO’s) to join that list of the most feared men in the sport, seeing the potential to turn the Russian into a marketable resource should he have his hand raised this weekend.
For fans of Cleverly (26-0, 12 KO’s), well the predicament may well bring about an air of deja vu. Seven years ago, a highly touted, unbeaten knockout artist by the name of Jeff Lacy crossed the Atlantic, to rid Wales of their unblemished, but unfancied 12-stone world champion. Joe Calzaghe had other ideas however and put on a masterclass to dismantle the 'super-middleweight Mike Tyson', in the process tearing apart the best-laid plans of Lacy and the American TV company that backed him.
There are of course parallels between the fight that turned the unappreciated Calzaghe into a star and Cleverly's shot at global recognition this Saturday. There has however been nothing yet to suggest Cleverly's career can ever match up to that of his former mentor and sparring partner. Kovalev also appears to be a much more refined pugilist than Lacy ever was. Far from just being a puncher, Kovalev has underrated boxing ability and applies educated rather than erratic pressure to score his knockouts. His stellar amateur career – 193 victories in 213 bouts in the unpaid ranks – gives testament to his technical ability.
Cleverly is no doubt the best boxer that Kovalev will have encountered in his professional career though and possesses 1.5 inch height and reach advantages over the challenger. The Welshman is most effective utilising those attributes to box at range, where he can score with his telescopic jab and set up high volume combinations.
He has also proven himself to be adept fighting at close quarters, but that’s something that Cleverly should be wary of doing here. Giving away a lot of firepower against a physically stronger opponent, Nathan needs to avoid being dragged into exchanges and not let his inclination to prove how well he takes a shot cloud his judgement.
There can be no dropping his hands and sticking his tongue out while planting his feet because Kovalev will capitalise. That’s where the home advantage can turn against Cleverly, should he feel the need to make sure those in attendance are entertained. If he can maintain his composure and keep it long, his activity alone could see him win enough rounds to retain his title and prove the oddsmakers wrong just like Calzaghe did seven years ago.
It could well be edge of your seat stuff though, as Kovalev has the power to take out anyone at 175. The only certainty? This fight surely can’t fail to entertain.