How we interpret our losses is crucial in moving forward correctly and not letting a misstep or screw-up move us off target.
On Saturday Sergey Kovalev will have millions of eyes trained on him, most of them wondering how he will perform. Can he – will he – bounce back, from that stoppage loss to WBO light heavyweight titlist Eleider Alvarez last summer?
And of course, he has been asking himself that same question the last six months. Can I beat this guy? Why didn’t I beat this guy? Is he better than me…or did I just have an “off” night?
Maybe more crucial to the Russian’s chances for victory on the Top Rank card (portions of which run on ESPN and streaming service ESPN+) than how his body looks is how his mind is. Is Kovalev’s head dialed on straight and tight? Or has self-doubt, combined with the inevitable effects of aging, taken up residence in his mind and might that be enough to allow Alvarez to get a win in the same manner in Frisco, Texas?
Kovalev spoke to select media in Texas on Wednesday. “I didn’t have enough gas, enough power. You saw my condition. I was lazy. It was like something was wrong with my body,” he told the media.
“Proving again that I always push myself more than needed and that was my biggest mistake in my boxing career. Always push further than needed. Right now Buddy McGirt has taught me a lot – saving energy for the fight and I listen to him 100% on his recommendations and I follow his instructions. I like this training camp but we’ll see Saturday what the boxing side will show,” he stated.
Kovalev offered some insight into how he’s performed to this point in time. “Every fight I started my training from zero. No one was there to work on or remind me of my style. I fought every fight just on my memory from the amateurs. I had coaches but they didn’t help me with my boxing or my conditioning or anything. Everything I did myself. Everybody has seen the result. I am happy that I started working with Buddy and he has reminded me of my amateur style and using a lot of boxing – not the goal to knock somebody out but boxing. It’s a good idea to not have to win by knockout but by boxing. There will be, at one time, a punch that will catch him. If you can punch, you will.”
Then, this doozy…
“The last fight, (Alvarez) got lucky. He got lucky, of course. I lost concentration for just a couple of seconds – a lack of attention just for one second. Then I couldn’t get focused after the knockdown. Maybe I wasn’t ready enough. I don’t want to use it as excuses but, on Saturday, I will prove that I am better than Alvarez. And that is my goal to get my belts back. That’s my goal right now and it is a big motivation.”
OK, maybe not a doozy…because Kovalev has to offer explanations for what happened last August, on HBO, and “He got lucky” is probably preferable to “It is possible that, at 36, my best days are far behind me; my reflexes have dimmed and now I get caught by shots that I slipped two, three years ago.”
Kovalev has taken flak on social media for being a “sore loser,” for offering up excuses more so than explanations, following losses to Andre Ward and now Alvarez. And maybe there is merit in that critique of the fighter. Certainly trainers Don Turner and John David Jackson would take issue with the notion that he was left to his own devices and basically trained himself all these years.
I touched base with New York City psychiatrist Dr. Johnny Lops, a super-hardcore fight fan who goes to all the shows at Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden and high-profile Vegas events. I wanted to get his take on Kovalev’s public handling of his loss to Alvarez. I particularly wanted to focus on that phrasing, about how Alvarez “got lucky” last August.
“So in summary, I was at this fight and, to my boxing fan eye, it seemed Kovalev was winning the fight pretty handily and was not in any trouble to lose a decision,” Dr. Lops said. “Unfortunately boxing is boxing and one punch can change that and that is what Alvarez did and hence you can argue he got lucky. However as we have come to know Kovalev, we do know he fades in the late rounds and has had trouble staying focused and not allowing his opponents the opportunity to steal the win at the end, which happened here.”
He then looked at ways someone might interpret such a loss.
“There seems to be two ways you can tell this narrative, one being, ‘I was on my way to an easy decision and the opponent ‘got lucky’ and knocked me out and (one might) use that as a macro-causality as of why one lost. Or two, one can be humble and appreciate that at, late rounds, ‘I’ struggle and there seems to be a consistency to which my weaknesses as a boxer come more to the surface and that means I am a mortal like we all are and there are things I am not good at as a boxer, which is at the micro level. It seems when one is still active in the game and needs to prepare for a match like this and still needs to have a healthy ego to resume fighting, one needs to have a narrative using the macro level, which is my opponent got lucky and most likely if he does not get lucky, I will win as I was doing and was expected to do.”
Dr. Lops continued, “If active athletes focused on the micro, he/she may display too much insight and have a passivity to his work ethic that may cause a hesitation and lose the ‘eye of the tiger’ necessary to be at the highest level…and (in) boxing, because of the dangers of the sport, one needs all those instincts otherwise people get hurt. There comes a time where we want people to explore the micro, which is when they have shown time and time again they are getting hurt and should not be in the ring or in retirement, where they can reflect and be OK with who they were in their profession and how they can be accepting and comfortable in retirement. If most active athletes explored all their dynamics and came to accept what drives them to be so great, most would probably become too stable and ask themselves why would they keep enduring the rigor of these high level sports. So all in all and to still make the point known, (Kovalev) was actually winning that fight and I don’t see anything as a competitor wrong with saying ‘He got lucky’ because you can argue Alvarez did. But more at the very human level, there is some denial…but that’s OK, I think for now, until we see what happens after this fight. I would be more wary if he again said this after another knockout (loss) or a performance where he takes a lot punishment.”
I also checked in with living legend George Foreman; he faced the bounce-back test after Muhammad Ali humbled him. “Well, there is always that one fight all boxers have, when, in the back your mind, you say, ‘No one is getting all of my money this time.’ That one time you box as a professional, strictly business, not intending to get hurt, so you have something to fall back on. No ego involved…Now when this happens, your eyes open. In the ring, you put two plus two together, then you fight the way you should have fought your whole career. It’s no longer about the glitter. (Sonny) Liston said to me, ‘All I care about is the ‘Do-re-mi”…and after that, I saw him fight the best he ever fought. I said a lot…just say, ‘Sometimes a rested ego can bring forth a great fight, even a win.’”
It’s an interesting take from Foreman. He’s saying the possibility exists in this fight that Kovalev will be functioning with a different point-of-view, seeing this fight as a means to an end, basically like a laborer, who knows he will perform a task and, in the end, earn a fair wage. Keeping it simple, rather than mulling too much and risking paralysis by overanalysis.
My three cents: Only Kovalev knows if he is damaged from his losses, if his ego is dented and sliced and no amount of enswell and verbal coagulant can fix the damage. I confess I don’t have a handle on the man’s POV well enough to hazard a guess. I do believe chins don’t tend to get better with age, that KOs tend to pile up late in careers because once the wiring gets effed up, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t do a refurb, which makes the chin what it used to be. That is why I lean toward Alvarez on Saturday. Talk to me…Kovalev vs. Alvarez 2, who wins and how?
Get more Lops on Twitter @DrJohnnyLops and check out his website, DrJohnnyLops.com.
Michael Woods, a Park Slope, Brooklyn resident, was a staff writer at New York’s Newsday before joining ESPN The Magazine (2003-2014). He publishes NYFights.com, calls fights for Facebook FightNight Live, which has drawn over 4 million views over a span of 26 events, and hosts the “Talkbox” podcast for Everlast. You can follow him on Twitter @Woodsy1069.
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