Life after death: The toughest fight for Sergey Kovalev

July 7, 2016

It’s December 2011, and Sergey Kovalev is sitting on the side of his bed, his lean, 6-foot, 175-pound frame folded over, his palms pressed to his temples. Sleep eludes him. Has for weeks. On Dec. 5, Kovalev, a fast rising light heavyweight, took on Roman Simakov in Ekaterinburg, Russia. He won, scoring a seventh-round knockout. Hours later, Simakov slipped into a coma. Three days later, he was gone. At home, the silence offered Kovalev no solace, just inescapable emptiness for his thoughts to consume him.

His wife, Natalya, lay beside him, her pain matching his. It had been nearly 10 years since she walked into a boxing gym in Chelyabinsk and began a life she never expected. Back then, Natalya hated boxing. Too violent. She was accompanying friends to that gym, that day, when she encountered the cocky teenager with the sly smile. “We met there by accident,” Natalya said. “And then we fell in love.”

Kovalev doesn’t share his feelings much. Not his style. A hardscrabble childhood built a wall between him and the rest of the world. “He was brought up this way, not to show any signs of emotion,” Natalya said. But she knew. She felt him toss and turn on these sleepless nights. She watched him rewatch the fight tape over and over, reliving every concussive blow. And she was by his side when Simakov’s fans declared him a murderer. “It was ‘Kovalev is a killer,’ ” Natalya said. “It was, ‘Something is wrong with his gloves.’ It was ‘He [knew] it was time to stop the fight.’ It was hurtful. How could they say such things?”

Egis Klimas wondered the same. In 2009 Klimas was a businessman moonlighting as a boxing manager. One day, a friend called from Moscow. He was at an amateur tournament and there was a fighter Klimas needed to meet. He gave Klimas a number. Klimas called Kovalev. Offered to manage him. Kovalev resisted. “He wasn’t sure he wanted to turn pro,” Klimas said. Klimas convinced Kovalev to meet him in Kazakhstan – with his gear. With Klimas came Don Turner, the veteran trainer best known for his work with Evander Holyfield. A few minutes into watching Kovalev work, Turner turned to Klimas and said, “Take this guy to my camp. He’s something special.”

Convincing others proved challenging. Promoters weren’t interested. Top Rank said no. Golden Boy, too. The light heavyweight division was barren, and nobody wanted to invest in it. Klimas didn’t care. For two years, Klimas carried Kovalev. He paid for trainers. For sparring partners. For opponents. It was $15,000 here, $20,000 there. Cash, cars, rent – Klimas covered it. He saw a star in Kovalev. He was hell bent on others seeing it, too.

It was Klimas who set up the Simakov fight. In the fall of 2011, Kovalev was coming off a foul-fueled draw against Grover Young. Klimas wanted to make an immediate rematch. No luck. A Russian promoter called. Ruslan Provodnikov was fighting in December in Ekaterinburg. Did Kovalev want to be on the card? Klimas offered the fight to Kovalev. Kovalev quickly accepted.

“He knew of Roman, knew he was a pretty good fighter,” Klimas said. “He thought it would be a great fight. He never thought about what could happen.”

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It’s a seasonably warm April afternoon in southern California when Kovalev arrives at Klimas’ suburban Los Angeles home. Much has changed since 2011. Kovalev is the unified light heavyweight champion, universally regarded as the best 175-pound fighter in the world. Klimas is a successful manager with Kovalev and ex-Olympic star Vasyl Lomachenko headlining a growing stable. With Kovalev is Natalya, a petite brunette with a sharp smile. In her arms is Kovalev’s one-year old son, Aleksandr.

Inside, Kovalev glances around a room nervously. It’s a rare sight. In the ring Kovalev oozes confidence. He has unparalleled power. Since 2011, Kovalev has knocked out 17 of his 18 opponents. Only Bernard Hopkins went the distance. He’s a predator, punishing opponents with a rare ruthlessness. Last year, in a rematch with Jean Pascal, Kovalev admitted to carrying Pascal a few rounds. Enraged by Pascal’s prefight comments, Kovalev wanted to administer the maximum beating before finishing off Pascal.

This Kovalev is different. He appears anxious, the cocky grin replaced by a subdued smile. Perhaps because of why he’s here: To speak at length about Simakov’s death for the first time.

Kovalev has long refused to discuss the fight. Reporters have asked. Often, Kovalev responds with a deep, blank stare. He can compartmentalize what happened with Simakov, friends say. But talk about it? Not happening. “I’m strong with these situations,” Kovalev said. “Where I grew up, I saw a lot of things. Bad things. I’m ready for any situation.”

Indeed. Kovalev was raised in poverty, stuffed in a three-room apartment with his parents and, at various times, two brothers and sister. “Two or three eggs in the refrigerator was a good day,” Klimas said. To this day Kovalev battles high cholesterol, in part due to years of a largely spaghetti and egg diet. Odd jobs provided income. Selling newspapers, washing windows, filling gas tanks as a kid; working loading docks and picking up bodyguard work when he got older.

Fighting was a part of life. “You go into an unknown neighborhood, somebody pushes you, you have to fight back,” Kovalev said. He saw things he wishes he didn’t. As a teenager, Kovalev watched a mob nearly beat a man to death. “I saw a lot of damage to people,” Kovalev said. “I saw a lot of people hurt.”

Still, Kovalev came to like fighting. His favorite actor: Jean-Claude Van Damme. Posters of Van Damme covered the walls of his bedroom. He’s seen No Retreat, No Surrender – Van Damme’s 1986 flop – more times than he can count. Van Damme movies, Kovalev says, inspired him to go out on the street looking for fights.

“Fair fights,” Kovalev says, smiling.

He stumbled into boxing. A friend told him he tried it; called it the best workout he ever had. The next day – Dec. 1, 1994, Kovalev remembers vividly – Kovalev was in the gym. He never looked back.

By December, 2011, star was on the rise. He was unbeaten, trained by noted trainer Abel Sanchez and displaying the kind of power that would soon get a major promoter’s attention. Simakov represented the next step. As an amateur, Kovalev recalled watching Simakov at national tournaments. “He was really strong,” Kovalev said. “He punched hard. I remember watching him and thinking about how I would fight that guy.”

He got his chance. The weigh-in went smoothly. “[Simakov] looked fine,” Sanchez said. “He looked prepared.” Added Kovalev, “I asked him, ‘Are we ready?’ He said he was ready. I said good luck tomorrow, and that was it.”

Simakov was well credentialed. Once beaten, a minor titleholder, Simakov was a Kovalev-caliber prospect. A strong crowd filed into the DIVS Sports Palace expecting a good fight. “It was a good opponent for Sergey,” Sanchez said. “It was a step up opponent. I thought it would be a tough fight.”

It wasn’t. From the first round it was clear Kovalev was superior. “Sergey was hitting him with anything he wanted to hit him with,” Sanchez said. “And he can crack. He has heavy hands. Simakov was taking everything. He was getting hit with solid shots.” Recalled Klimas, “Everything Sergey threw landed. Everything. Even when Roman moved, Sergey would find him.”

In the third round, Kovalev started to wonder: How much more of this could Simakov take? He could feel the punches; less than 10 minutes into the fight, and his hands ached from the force of them.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Why [Roman] do you need this? Stop the fight,’ ” Kovalev said. “I knew how hard I was hitting him. I felt it in my fists. I felt pain.”

Today, Kovalev is a complete fighter. Then, he was a headhunter. Every shot was aimed above the neck. Midway through the fight – around the fourth or fifth round, Klimas recalls – Kovalev looked over at his manager and said, “Egis, everything I’m throwing, it’s landing. I don’t know how much this guy can take. Is anybody going to stop it?”

“But he can’t stop it,” Klimas said, “He’s a fighter.”

Sanchez saw it. After the fifth, Sanchez told Kovalev to start going to the body. “If this was going to continue, we had to keep practicing what we worked on.” Kovalev agreed. The problem: Simakov was still fighting to win. “He came out in the sixth round and tried to take Sergey’s head off,” Sanchez said. “Sergey had to fight back.”

And he did, dropping Simakov and burying him under an avalanche of headshots. After the sixth, Sanchez glanced at the referee. “I motioned to the referee to stop the fight,” Sanchez said. “He was hitting him so hard. I remember the thuds. The hard thuds.”

It ended in seventh. Less than a minute in, Simakov’s legs buckled. A few seconds later, a soft hook put him down. He struggled to his feet, but needed the ropes to hold him up. Then, he collapsed. “I’ve seen people go down like that before,” Sanchez said. “It’s scary. Your first thought is, ‘I hope nothing’s wrong.’ ”

Simakov lost consciousness. A makeshift stretcher carried him out of the ring. Kovalev headed back to his locker room. An official came and told Klimas: Something was seriously wrong. “I went right to where he was,” Klimas said. “I saw Roman. He was turning blue. He looked terrible.”

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Klimas raced back to Kovalev’s dressing room, where a post-fight celebration was in full swing. Klimas told Kovalev what had happened. Kovalev was stunned. The two raced back to the area Simakov was being treated. But he had already been taken away. “I tried to remember the fight,” Kovalev said. “There wasn’t one punch that [caused] this. It was total punches. I was just punching. There was nothing special. I was doing my job.”

The next few days were a blur. Klimas flew to Moscow. Kovalev returned to Chelyabinsk. Klimas stayed in contact with Simakov’s trainer. Kovalev had a friend at the local hospital who kept him updated on Simakov’s condition. He prayed for Simakov. With Natalya, Kovalev went to church and lit candles, desperately hoping for Simakov to recover. Said Klimas, “Every hour, we were checking in.”

Three days after the fight, Simakov was dead. Complications from brain injuries. Klimas got the call in the early morning. “As soon as I heard [the trainer’s] voice, I knew it was a disaster,” Klimas said. He called Kovalev. No answer. He called again. Still nothing. Eventually he got through. When he heard Kovalev’s voice, it was clear he already knew.

“It was impossible to talk,” Klimas said. “We were both crying into the phone. It was 20 minutes, just crying. Endless, endless crying.”

Said Kovalev, “I don’t remember anything. I was lost.”

Processing what happened was impossible. Klimas surmised that Simakov was in bad shape before the fight. Sanchez did, too. The beating Kovalev put on him was just the last one he could take. “I remembered going to his training room to watch his trainer wrap his hands,” Klimas said. “What I noticed, he was kind of pale. He didn’t have a human color. At the time, I hadn’t thought much of that. But I believe he had some kind of previous problems.”

Kovalev, Klimas said, wanted to call Simakov’s family. Klimas recommended against it. Instead, he called. Eventually, he got through to Simakov’s father. According to Klimas, it didn’t go well.

“His father went ballistic,” Klimas said. “He said, ‘You guys are killers.’ He said, ‘You’re murderers.’ He said, ‘You took my son away.’ He didn’t want to hear from me or about us. He said, ‘Don’t call me. I don’t want to hear from you.’ Then he hung up the phone.

“I told Sergey not to contact them. Because Sergey was ready to jump on a plane and go there. He was thinking about going to the funeral. I told him not to think about doing that. Don’t even think about it.”

Death is a tragic part of boxing. It’s uncommon, but far too common for anyone’s liking. “Death under the Spotlight: The Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection” documents 2,036 boxer deaths, dating back to 1725. Lives end. Others are changed forever. Emile Griffith was haunted for decades after he killed Benny Paret. Ray Mancini was never the same after Duk Koo Kim succumbed to injuries incurred in their fight.

In the weeks after Simakov’s death, Kovalev retreated from the world. “He went into a shell,” Natalya said. “He’s the kind of person that keeps everything inside. But he couldn’t sleep. He went into himself. It changed him.”

Said Kovalev, “I really was lost. I was lost for about a month. I got a lot of calls of support, from my parents, from friends, from my wife. But that whole month, I don’t remember. I was lost in my mind.”

He was trapped – and the public reaction only made it worse. Natalya recalls television commentators calling Kovalev a killer. She read articles that suggested Kovalev may have loaded his gloves. There were suggestions that Kovalev knew Simakov was in trouble, and pressed forward anyway. “Even now, talking about it, I get goose bumps,” Natalya said. “It was painful and unpleasant for everybody.”

Simakov’s family continued to hold Kovalev responsible. “His father went to the police,” Klimas said. “They opened a case. Then they opened another. They pulled Sergey into the investigation. We gave them everything. We gave them the gloves. We delivered what they asked us to. But the father never gave up. He was trying and trying to [get] Sergey. I’m telling you, every time Sergey is in Russia, the police call him. They interview him. They ask him about why the fight wasn’t stopped. They ask if he saw Roman was collapsing. This is still happening. I talked to an investigator about eight months ago.”

Through it all boxing was the furthest thing from Kovalev’s mind. And if he had other means to provide for his family, he might have walked away from it. His wife hated boxing. His parents did, too. But boxing was how Kovalev made a living. And he had to make a living. “I had just this small apartment, nothing more,” Kovalev said. “I had been boxing since I was 11, and I had nothing.”

Added Natalya, “He had an obligation to his family, his loved ones. He is the only breadwinner in his family. If it’s not boxing, then what else? He doesn’t know how to sell. He’s not a businessman. He is a boxer. He must continue what he started. It doesn’t matter what happened in his life. He had to pull together and act. It doesn’t matter if I want it or if someone else wants it or doesn’t want it. He has his goal and must accomplish it.”

Seven months after Simakov’s death, Kovalev was back in the ring. His first test: A rematch with Darnell Boone, a power puncher who put Kovalev on the canvas in their first meeting. Klimas had no idea how Kovalev would look. “Would he be the same Sergey?” Klimas said. “I just didn’t know.”

He was. Kovalev stopped Boone in the second round. Three months later, he knocked out Lionel Thompson. In 2013 he demolished Nathan Cleverly to win a world title. He picked up two more with a thorough defeat of Hopkins a year later.

On July 11, Kovalev will fight in Russia for the first time since he fought Simakov. This is why he’s finally willing to talk about the tragedy. He won’t be far from DIVS Sports Palace; he will be in it, defending his titles against Isaac Chilemba in the same venue. The idea was Kovalev’s. “I don’t worry about this at all,” Kovalev said. “I already forgot the situation. I’m ready to face the future.”

Kovalev believes Simakov’s family still lives in the area. He says he doesn’t know if they will be at the fight. He says he would want to see them if he could. And what would he say?

“I don’t know,” Kovalev says, his voice trailing off. “I won’t [ask] them to come to the arena, because it’s not a good memory. I’m not going to do that. But I’d like to see them. I don’t know what I can say to them. Just hello, and I’m sorry.”

Kovalev’s voice chokes as he speaks, the emotion of reliving the moment finally overwhelming him. He knows he isn’t to blame for Simakov’s death. But it’s an understanding that offers little relief. For Kovalev, the best way to honor Simakov is to win for him – and hope he is out there, somewhere, witnessing it.

“I have to continue, to fight for me and him, together,” Kovalev said. “I think he’s seeing me. Maybe he is. Maybe he’s looking down on me. I don’t know. But I will try to be the best in boxing. For both of us.”