By Eric Raskin
Inside a 20' x 20' ring where leather-encased fists fly at your face is no place for a sane person. Stated bluntly: Everyone who pursues the sport of boxing is at least a little bit crazy. And that doesn't have to be meant in a pejorative way; "crazy" can be a term of affection or admiration. Regardless, it is undoubtedly a term that applies to anyone who punches people violently in the head and gets punched violently in the head as part of his job description. All boxers are crazy.
But even by those elevated standards, there's something about Brandon Rios and Sergey Kovalev that suggests they're both a little extra crazy.
In this case, again, "crazy" is mostly a compliment: Rios and Kovalev are both offense-minded, fan-friendly action fighters whom people tune in to watch in part because they just might have a screw loose. Rios makes no effort to conceal his craziness; he smiles like the Joker when punched, howls when his arm is raised in victory, and unfurls F-bomb after F-bomb with no regard for how many toddlers are in the room. Kovalev has a crazy streak that reveals itself more sporadically, but when you see it, you know it. For example, would a sane person grin maniacally while wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of his own face grinning maniacally, accompanied by the words "I WILL KRUSH HIM"? Would a sane person move in for the knockout, stop for a quick groin feint, and then continue punching?
Rios and Kovalev, two of boxing's most popular whack jobs, return to the ring this Saturday in co-headlining bouts on a split-site Boxing After Dark doubleheader at 9:45 PM. But where the similarities end is with the level of danger each faces. Kovalev is a prohibitive favorite to add a 25th win to his undefeated ledger at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City. Rios is at extreme risk of suffering his third consecutive defeat at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
At the end of 2012, Rios had a record of 31-0-1, was coming off a Fight-of-the-Year-caliber TKO of Mike Alvarado, and was simply one of the hottest commodities in boxing. But he cooled off in 2013. He lost a narrow decision to Alvarado in their rematch, dropped a not-remotely-narrow decision to Manny Pacquiao in Macao, and then got suspended for testing positive for a banned stimulant in his postfight drug test. He returns not having tasted victory in more than 21 months, and with his face-first style, he's hearing whispers that he's already on the downside at age 28.
"I know that a lot of people think I am done but I believe I am far from being finished," said Rios, a media-friendly fighter who never plays it close to the vest. "Pacquiao was a very difficult fight for me ... he was just too fast."
In Diego Chaves, Rios will find himself in with an opponent who has little in common with Pacquiao stylistically, but who nevertheless presents plenty of his own challenges. The Argentine, best known to American audiences for a competitive 10th-round TKO loss to Keith Thurman last year, is a puncher/warrior from the Rios mold, with 19 knockouts among his 23 wins. The 28-year-old bounced back from his lone defeat with a quick knockout of a journeyman in Buenos Aires in February, and from the moment the Rios fight was signed, Chaves became one of the trendiest upset picks (at least, it would be an upset in terms of their respective name recognition) in recent boxing history.
"Chaves is a tough fighter and I expect a good, hard fight and one the fans will enjoy," Rios said. "I know I could have fought an easier opponent but I want to show everyone what I am still capable of doing against a top-level guy. It's do or die for me and I will do what I have to do to win this fight."
Don't expect a lot of jabbing in this welterweight 10-rounder. While Rios' career high of 107.3 punches thrown per round (against Urbano Antillon) and Chaves' career high of 107.4 (against Jorge Miranda) are unlikely to be repeated, there is definite potential for a high-output slugfest that boils down to how strong each man's chin is and whether Rios, a fierce puncher at lightweight, can carry his power with him to 147 pounds.
There are not as many questions swirling about Kovalev's fight with Blake Caparello taking place on the opposite coast. The light heavyweight known as "Krusher" is facing his third undefeated opponent in four fights, but Caparello, like Cedric Agnew before him, is taking a dramatic leap up in class against the 31-year-old Russian. Kovalev is in a neck-and-neck race with Gennady Golovkin to see which destructive force from the former Soviet Union can have a harder time convincing elite opponents to fight him; in the meantime, he's staying busy, building a fan base, and trying to say the right things.
"Blake is undefeated. I am taking him serious," said Kovalev, unbeaten with 22 KOs among his 24 victories. "I just get in to box and to win. Blake has an advantage because he is coming to get the title. He is hungry and has nothing to lose. It is my job to keep the title. More pressure on me to defend the title."
The Australian Caparello (19-0-1, 6 KOs) hopes not to follow his countryman Daniel Geale's lead and become a quick knockout victim, and to that end, he'll try to disarm Kovalev with his southpaw style. Kovalev, after all, looked slightly less monstrous than usual when trying to figure out Agnew, also a southpaw, back in March, landing a modest 27 percent of his punches according to CompuBox. Caparello pumps out plenty of right jabs (how regularly they land is another story) and will mug and hug as needed to survive.
The Aussie acknowledged recently that "Sergey Kovalev is the biggest puncher in boxing." So we know Caparello holds his opponent in high regard. And he has wondered aloud whether the opposite is true. Caparello posited during the prefight buildup that the Krusher might be looking past him, especially with talk of a Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins showdown beginning to gain steam.
Kovalev insists, however, that he's focused solely on the fight in front of him. If that's true, it would appear to be very grim news for Caparello.
And it forces you to wonder if Caparello, rather than Kovalev or Rios, is in fact the craziest person on Saturday's fight card.
Kovalev-Caparello isn't the only battle of unbeatens on this weekend's HBO broadcast; from Vegas, the show opens with rising junior welterweight Jessie Vargas (24-0, 9 KOs) making the first defense of his belt against Russian southpaw Anton Novikov (29-0, 10 KOs). The challenger is an unproven commodity, which is precisely what could've been said of Vargas prior to his last bout, in which he scored a mild upset over previously undefeated Khabib Allakhverdiev. In a crowded 140-pound title picture, the winner of this fight establishes himself as worthy of entering the discussion for major fights. And before you dismiss that as overstatement, remember that Chris Algieri was no more established that Vargas or Novikov one fight ago, and he's now set to challenge Manny Pacquiao.