Of all the contrasting styles that can be presented in a boxing match, the one that promises the most compelling action may well be the volume puncher against the knockout artist. That's because even if only one fighter gets to showcase his wares, a compelling final result could occur.
That will be the case Saturday when undefeated volume-punching Nathan Cleverly risks his belt against the unbeaten bomber Sergey Kovalev, whose last nine victories have come by knockout. Each appears to be at his positive peak and Cleverly's home crowd in Wales will provide incredible vocal atmospherics. A boxing fan couldn't ask for much more.
Factors that may influence the outcome include:
Cleverly's Flying Fists: The defending champion has pulled off a style switch by dramatically upping his work rate and producing much more TV-friendly fights. Earlier in his career he was much more judicious with his punches. For example he averaged 44.3 punches per round in stopping Courtney Fry in October 2009 while against Nadjib Mohammedi in December 2010 (W 12) his work rate was a paltry 35.7, well below the 54.1 light heavyweight average. That performance was particularly surprising because it took place less than three months after Cleverly averaged 108.9 in stopping Karo Murat.
Since then, Cleverly has drowned his opponents in punches. He averaged 72.3 against Aleksy Kuziemski (TKO 4), 82.2 versus Tommy Karpency (W 12), 87.3 against Shawn Hawk (KO 8) and 87.2 in his most recent fight against Robin Krasniqi (W 12), who entered the fight on a 38-fight winning streak.
What's more, Cleverly has also been impressively accurate and his connect bulges have been unusually lopsided. He landed 49% of his power shots against Krasniqi, 57% against Hawk, 52% against Karpency and 49% against Kuziemski, above the 39% light heavyweight norm. Also, in overall punches Cleverly out-landed Krasniqi 319-92, Hawk 274-115, Karpency 374-87 and Kuziemski 104-61, meaning that in those four fights Cleverly out-landed his rivals by 19.9 punches per round. That's because while Cleverly averaged 82.2 punches per round in those four bouts, his opponents mustered just 48.9.
When the opponent turns the tables on Cleverly, however, the Welshman struggles. Tony Bellew took Cleverly to a split decision mostly because he seized the initiative in terms of starting and ending exchanges. His 86.5-per-round work rate kept Cleverly busy enough on defense so that he could steal one scorecard. The connect margins in Cleverly's favor were close (209-194 total, 64-50 jabs, 145-144 power) because Cleverly could only launch 53.8 punches per round, but that was mitigated by Cleverly's accuracy (32%-19% total, 21%-11% jabs, 42%-25% power). If Kovalev can get close to Cleverly's work rate he may have a better chance of landing the big bomb he needs to blast the crown off the Welshman's head.
Kovalev's Enviable Blend: Knockout punchers aren't usually statistically proficient, for the final result transcends everything that transpired before it. But Kovalev is a different breed; not only does he score highlight-reel KOs, he does so with mathematical precision. In his latest outing against Cornelius White (KO 3), Kovalev landed 45% of his total punches, 30% of his jabs and 52% of his power shots, all above the light heavyweight norms (33%, 24%, 39% respectively).
Against Lionell Thompson (KO 3), he landed 46% overall, 31% jabs and 52% power while earning a 45-5 power connect gulf. Similar patterns emerged against Darnell Boone (44% overall, 39% jabs, 46% power) and Roman Simakov (41% across the board).
Better yet for Kovlev, he's capable of matching Cleverly's output. The "Chelyabinsk Crusher" averaged 90.8 punches per round in destroying Campillo, 82.6 against the ill-fated Roman Simakov (who died following his seventh-round TKO loss), 80.2 versus White and 84 versus Boone. He did dip to 58.9 in beating Thompson but his recent body of work suggested he can produce prodigious volume to complement his superior power.
When confronted with style, however, Kovalev's statistical effectiveness was somewhat neutralized. Against veteran Gabriel Campillo, Kovalev landed 34% overall, 28% jabs and 37% power but Kovalev's far superior activity and punching power led to a signature third-round TKO. He also showed himself vulnerable to accurate jabbers against Thompson (36%) and Boone (38%) but against Cleverly he won't necessarily have to worry about that. While Cleverly's jab has been prolific (30.8 jabs per round in his last six fights), he wasn't accurate (18.4%).
Prediction: A very tough fight to call given each man's strengths and vulnerabilities. Kovalev is taking a leap up in class and is fighting in the defending champ's hometown, circumstances that usually mean a harsh reality check. Kovalev has the great equalizers however- power and combination punching. Cleverly needs to survive Kovalev's opening wave - a big if given Kovalev's power - the hometown crowd will push him to rally in the middle rounds, before Kovalev ends matters inside twelve rounds.