Predictably, Kovalev Stops Shabranskyy

By Caryn A. Tate on November 25, 2017
Predictably, Kovalev Stops Shabranskyy
The fight should never have been for a world championship. (David Spagnolo/Main Events)

HBO commentators praised Kovalev, predictably, for his comeback, as if he had really proven something with this win…

Tonight, fighting for the WBO light heavyweight world title, were Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) and Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (19-2, 16 KOs). Kovalev, the former WBO world title holder, lost his last two fights to pound-for-pound king Andre Ward. Not only that, in his last outing in June, Kovalev lost to Ward by knockout. And in both instances, the WBO belt was on the line. So how, in good conscience, did the WBO sanction this fight for the same world title?

Welcome to boxing in 2017.

Going into this bout, Kovalev was a 16-1 betting favorite over Shabranskyy. While the latter is a good and tough fighter, there was little doubt among experts who should have won this match. Unless Kovalev was permanently affected by Ward’s stoppage victory over him, or if Shabranskyy was able to withstand Sergey’s superior timing and overall skills in order to land meaningful body shots, Kovalev was expected to win. With that said, Kovalev deserved a softer touch after facing someone on the level of Andre Ward in his last two bouts. But it should never have been for a world championship.

On the contrary, one of the boxers most deserving of fighting for the title in question is Sullivan Barrera, who performed on tonight’s undercard. But not for the world title, mind you. Barrera is ranked #3 in the world by the WBO in the light heavyweight division, while ranked #1 is Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who last fought in August. One has to wonder why Gvozdyk and Barrera weren’t facing off for the world title tonight—those two fighters have been winning and are not coming off of stoppage losses.

On top of the WBO world title, somehow the vacant IBA light heavyweight title (a minor, non-world title) was also thrown into the pot for tonight’s headliner. According to, that belt hasn’t been on the line since the 2014 Bernard Hopkins vs. Beibut Shumenov bout.

Kovalev came out in round one and landed a right hand to Shabranskyy’s body. His other punches early in the round were exclusively to the body, too, including long jabs from the outside. Shabranskyy landed a sharp jab to Kovalev upstairs that knocked him backward and off balance. A short time later, Kovalev used his superb timing and caught Shabranskyy with a right hand upstairs that dropped the Ukranian. Close to the end of the round, Kovalev hurt Shabranskyy with a short right hand to the side of the head that knocked him down again. Shabranskyy was clearly hurt when he rose, his legs shaky.

In round two, Shabranskyy again knocked Kovalev off-balance with an upstairs punch, and at one point landed a hard right to Kovalev’s rib cage that had the Russian moving away. But, as the legendary Roy Jones said on commentary, “coming forward and trying to get you outta there” is the only thing Shabranskyy knows as a fighter. This proved his downfall, predictably, as the style and lack of all-around elite-level skill played right into Kovalev’s hands. He dropped Shabranskyy again in the second with a punch that actually landed behind the head, but the referee didn’t call it. Shabranskyy arose but was clearly hurt, and he took more damage until referee Harvey Dock waved it off.

HBO commentators praised Kovalev, predictably, for his comeback, as if he had really proven something with this win. While a win is a win, the level of opposition must be taken into account. The way Shabranskyy fought Kovalev doesn’t even compare to the way Andre Ward fought him, despite HBO analysts trying to draw comparisons to the two, simply due to the vast disparity in levels of the two fighters. It’ll be hard to say how much like his old self Kovalev is until he faces another of the numerous top boxers in the division: Beterbiev, Barrera, Bivol, and Gvozdyk, to name a few. And there is no denying Shabranskyy, even with his lack of elite-level skill, shook Kovalev a couple of times during the brief match.

It’s worth noting, too, that Kovalev threw so many punches to Shabranskyy’s body. It’s almost like he knows that in his last two fights, Ward revealed his biggest weakness to the boxing world, and he knows that his forthcoming opponents are going to try to exploit his issues with taking body shots—so he goes for their body first. It’s a smart tactic, but again, we’ll see if he can pull that off against top level opponents at this stage.

Opening the card was Yuriorkis “El Ciclon de Guantanamo” Gamboa (28-2, 17 KOs) vs. Jason “El Canito” Sosa (20-3, 15 KOs) in a 10-round super featherweight bout. Gamboa, a phenomenally talented Olympic gold medalist and former world champion from Cuba, entered this bout on an unfortunate downward slide: he’s been very inactive the past several years, was knocked out by pound-for-pound great Terence Crawford back in 2014, and more recently lost by stoppage to journeyman Robinson Castellanos in a stunning upset in May. Gamboa’s issues have seemed to be more mental than physical, though the inactivity couldn’t have helped.

Sosa’s best win coming into this bout was a surprising TKO of the skillful Javier Fortuna in June 2016. Sosa was set to face Castellanos tonight, but when he had to withdraw due to an injury, Gamboa stepped in. But Gamboa’s promoter, Golden Boy, did him no favors: according to, if he missed weight, he would be fined $40,000. If Sosa missed weight, he would only have to pay $10,000. And Golden Boy told Gamboa he could take it or leave it, that they could “find someone else,” if he refused the deal. So, no stranger to unfair treatment, he took it.

Gamboa showed his better pedigree early on, landing more clean punches and making Sosa miss more than he landed. Pedro Roque Otano, Gamboa’s new trainer, has clearly done well with his charge. Gamboa showed smarter defense throughout the bout and seemed to keep his head in the game better than he sometimes does. He used superior footwork and ring IQ by setting traps for Sosa and capitalizing on Sosa’s mistakes. In round one, an accidental headbutt occurred that opened a cut over Gamboa’s left eye, though it didn’t seem particularly bad. Sosa landed a couple of low blows to the hip in rounds one and two, and another shot behind the head in round two, that the referee finally warned the younger fighter about.

Introduced on tonight’s broadcast was an HBO “movement calculator” that apparently tracks how often a fighter is moving forward. Unfortunately for HBO, neither occasional “hard” punches nor moving forward for their own sake are legitimate scoring criteria. The network has gotten increasingly outlandish with their constant attempts to force viewers to buy into their idea of how to score and what to base it on. We can only hope they do away with this ridiculous “calculator” very soon.

In round five, Gamboa slipped on the canvas and went down. When he got up, the fighters began boxing again and Gamboa grabbed Sosa when the two got too close; Sosa forearmed Gamboa and when the referee finally broke them up, he oddly reprimanded Gamboa.

Gamboa began to show stamina issues as early as round three or four and began slowing down. But he consistently landed more clean shots, and got out of the way of most of Sosa’s punches. Gamboa smartly held when he got tired, rather than gritting his teeth and fighting through it the way he’s done more in recent years. As far as action, flashes of former Gamboa brilliance were there, but partially because of inactivity and also, no doubt, due to taking this fight on three week’s notice, he wasn’t as fast or explosive as he used to be. But, nevertheless, he was clearly winning the rounds.

Early in round seven, Sosa landed a right hand that landed behind Gamboa’s head and caused him to falter. It wasn’t a legal punch, but Gamboa’s gloves touched the canvas. It was ruled a knockdown, and Sosa came on harder. Gamboa seemed more tired than anything, but not so tired that he stopped throwing a good number of punches. When he did hold, the referee at one point warned Gamboa that he would take a point if he kept holding. Since Gamboa had been knocked down and hit behind the head earlier in the round, it’s too bad the referee didn’t understand that he might need a bit of a breather. Particularly since holding doesn’t stop the fighter being held from landing anyway, if they know how to do it.

Later in the same round, Sosa landed a good left hook to the body that hurt Yuriorkis, but he fought through and made it out of the round. It was the first round Sosa won on my card.

As the rounds progressed, while Gamboa looked tired and slower than we’re perhaps used to seeing, he continued to move, make Sosa miss more than he landed, and Gamboa himself landed more clean shots on his opponent.

In the tenth and final round, the referee took a point from Gamboa for holding. Not only was it unfair considering Gamboa took this fight on short notice, it was absurd to do in the final round of a bout. Ron Lipton, the referee, just seemed to enjoy inserting himself unnecessarily into the fight.

The scores were 94-94, 95-93, and 96-92 for Gamboa. I had Sosa winning two rounds, and it’s fair to think he could have won up to four. But I had no problem with the scorecards for a relatively close bout.

But, unfortunately true to form, HBO commentators talked up how this was Gamboa’s last chance, that this might be the end of his career, how Sosa was moving forward, praising Sosa’s “hard right hands,” but not calling out anything Yuriorkis did well. “Unofficial judge” Harold Lederman scored rounds for Sosa simply for the fighter “moving forward” and “landing the harder shots,” even though Gamboa clearly outlanded Sosa in most of the rounds. The only time “harder shots” matter for scoring is if they truly hurt the hit fighter and it sways the round. That’s not what happened the majority of the time in this bout. The scoring criteria set forth by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), as discussed in my article on scoring, rely first and foremost on clean punching, and it was clear Gamboa did land slightly more of the clean punches than Sosa.

In the second fight of the night, Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) took on Felix Valera (15-2, 13 KOs) in a 10-round light heavyweight bout. Barrera has been looking very good leading up to this, and is often unfortunately overlooked when people discuss the burgeoning division.

The Cuban boxer-puncher showed his skills early on, landing the cleaner punches and showing an impressive left hook. Valera switched to southpaw about halfway through the first round and with about one minute left, landed a left hook to the body and then upstairs on Barrera that dropped him. Valera had just switched back to orthodox before throwing the punches, and Barrera didn’t see the upstairs hook. Interestingly, when Barrera was dropped by Andre Ward and Joe Smith in his fights with them, it was also via left hooks.

At the very end of the round, though, Barrera returned the favor and dropped Valera on what was mostly a balance shot. But it was a legitimate knockdown and evened up the round.

In round two, Valera landed a low blow and the referee gave him a warning for it. Valera began to showboat but Barrera didn’t take the bait. He waited and landed a good sharp right hand upstairs that seemed to sun Valera a bit. The two long and tall fighters began to throw bombs. Barrera was cut over his left eye but it was unclear from what, but it may just have been a punch.

Early in round three, Valera landed another low blow that hurt Barrera. The referee took a point from Valera in a somewhat premature move.

As the early rounds progressed, Barrera began going to the body consistently and with meaning. Valera’s legs began to not look as solid and he slowed down a bit. But then in four, Valera showed he wasn’t done when he switched to southpaw again and landed a couple of good left hooks on Barrera again.

Despite losing rounds, Valera showed his class by periodically tricking Barrera and landing some really nice shots. Anyone who can do that to someone with the pedigree of the Cuban Barrera is no joke. Valera showed real athleticism and good ring IQ by occasionally setting traps for Barrera and capitalizing on them. It’s simply that Barrera was too smart for them to keep working, and that his skills are overall sounder.

In round six, the referee deducted another point from Valera for a low blow that was actually borderline, on Sullivan’s belt line. He advised Valera that if he had to do it again, he would disqualify him.

The deduction seemed to light a fire under Valera and he came out hard. He and Barrera went to war again, with Barrera getting the better of it. The Cuban landed a tremendous lead right to Valera’s chin that seemed to shake him and had Felix bouncing on his toes as he moved around, as if trying to get his legs back.

In seven, Barrera landed a great uppercut that hurt Valera more. He was in full control by this point, despite Valera still very much being in the fight. During the eighth round, the referee warned Valera again for a low blow. It was hard to tell whether the low blows were intentional or not, but it was definitely becoming a habit.

In nine, Barrera landed a low blow, his first of the bout, and the referee Mike Ortega took a point immediately in a ridiculous move. There was absolutely no reason to deduct a point from a fighter who hasn’t landed a low punch the entire fight until the ninth round. Again, we had a situation where the referee seemed intent on inserting himself into the action.

In the final round, Valera came on hard at the urging of his corner, landing a nice left hook on Barrera. Despite his control of the bout, Barrera keeps leaning forward after he’s delivered his punch, and it leaves him open for a short hook if his opponent has one. It’s likely his trainer Derik Santos will help him work on this going forward as I have no doubt he also saw this based on his advice in the corner.

It was a great fight that went to the scorecards. The judges rightly had it 98-88, 97-90, and 97-89 for Sullivan Barrera. The win put him in line as WBA world champion Dmitry Bivol’s mandatory challenger.

Follow Caryn A. Tate on Twitter@carynatate

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Fight highlights: Sergey Kovalev vs. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (HBO World Championship Boxing)

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  1. Fan 07:13am, 11/27/2017

    hohohovalev received his Christmas gift.

  2. Don from Prov 06:13am, 11/27/2017

    Good article and per Kovalev, these names do indeed say it all—
    “Beterbiev, Barrera, Bivol, and Gvozdyk.”  Thanks for the write up.

  3. Koolz 12:21pm, 11/26/2017
    Barrera vs Valera

  4. Koolz 12:07pm, 11/26/2017

    that looked to easy!!!

  5. Bruno Schleinstein 09:26am, 11/26/2017

    @Red Plains-There’s something about your exhaustive reports that have a decided sameness about them. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s there….wait….i got it….by Jove I’ve got it! You’re biased…oh yes you are….you boxing journalist you….you’re more biased than any writer on this site and as biased as the most cockamammie commenter that posts here! Forget Lampley and Co…..Lederman scored the fight right and Trella who gave Sosa one Goddamned round needs to be horsewhipped! Sosa won that fight but got the Golden Boy shaft! Ortega and Barerra made for a really nice couple last night exchanging loving glances as Barrera played the low blows to the hilt! Barrera was going low too and the gratuitous point taken in the last round was just for show. God bless Shabranskyy but he didn’t shake up anything or anyone last night! BTW not to worry your Son of God will return soon and you will be able to worship at his feet once more!

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