As far as boxing ring entrances go, light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev keeps things simple. No Roman gladiator outfits or frilly fireman costumes á la Hector “Macho” Camacho. No five-minute, curtain-silhouetted dance routines like “Prince” Naseem Hamed. No live performances from Young Thug, who once pranced to the ring beside Adrien Broner. No playing to the crowd with extra laps around the arena floor—a favorite Gennady Golovkin trope. No Justin Bieber cameos. And no stopping for selfies with Jimmy Kimmel cosplaying Justin Bieber.
Kovalev’s grim march to the ring is what you’d expect from an undefeated Russian knockout artist nicknamed Krusher, who answers postfight “what were you thinking?” questions with lines like, “Punch his liver, and I feel that he’s done.” The most remarkable aspect of Kovalev’s ring walk is his music, which sounds nothing like the jock jams and triumphalist hip hop anthems that play before most modern-day fighters step through the ropes. Throughout his career, Kovalev has paced down the aisle to “Vechno Molodoy” (“Forever Young”), a brooding, turn of the 21st century Russian rock tune with lyrics sung in a zombie-like drone and an incongruous saxophone riff that would make the epic sax guy proud.
In recent years, as Kovalev’s star status has grown and he’s established himself as one of the best boxers in the world, a number of bands have contacted him with offers to record custom-made “Krusher” ditties, but Kovalev has refused. “I say no, this is my fight motivation song,” he told me in September. Kovalev’s loyalty to the track has little to do with the lyrics, which—at least in translation—are pretty much inscrutable:
I could have drink the sea
I could have become someone else
Forever young, forever drunk
I could have become a river
Being dark water
Forever young, forever drunk
“These words not means a lot,” Kovalev explained. “Just ‘always young, always drunk.’ It’s nothing to me. But I have in my memory when I go to the ring under this song, this movie.” The film he’s referring to is Brat 2 (“Brother 2"), a post-Soviet gangster flick by director Alexei Balabanov, which I watched with Kovalev and his manager, Egis Klimas, shortly before Kovalev began training for his upcoming bout with fellow pound-for-pound contender Andre Ward. Brat 2 was released in 2000, when Kovalev, now 33, was on the cusp of adulthood, and his affection for the film helps explain the harsh world of 1990s Russia in which Kovalev came of age, as well as what propelled him to the United States to advance his career. “Vechno Molodoy” plays in the background during several action sequences in Brat 2, and on November 19, when Kovalev steps out onto the floor of Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena, scenes from the film will be among the last images that flash through his mind before he stands toe-to-toe with Ward and tries to prove himself the finest boxer on the planet.
In the United States, Brat 2 didn’t receive the same warm critical response or brief art house run as its 1997 precursor, Brat. In Russia, however, the sequel was a blockbuster success that became iconic in a similar way to American classics like Scarface, Die Hard, and Juice. Instead of posters of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana or Tupac’s Bishop hanging from their walls, young men growing up in post-Soviet Russia had Danila Bagrov, the hero of the Brat movies. Danila, a shy, awkward veteran of the Chechen Wars with a gift for brutality, repeatedly finds himself tangled in the Russian criminal underworld and fights his way out, often in service of the fraternal bond between siblings or soldiers or Russians in general. The character grew even more beloved when Sergei Bodrov Jr., the actor who played Danila, died in an avalanche two years after Brat 2 was released.
For Sergey Kovalev, the connection he feels with Danila is more than an abstraction along the lines of He is a Russian badass and so am I. The plot of Brat 2 revolves around Danila’s trip to Chicago, where he seeks revenge on an American mob boss whom Danila deems ultimately responsible for the murder of Kostya, one of his former comrades-in-arms. In the process of avenging Kostya’s death, Danila steals back hundreds of thousands of dollars the American mafioso scammed off a Russian NHL player (Kostya’s twin brother) and saves a Russian prostitute from the clutches of her American pimp. Minus all the killing and vigilante justice, Kovalev sees some of his own life story in Danila’s journey.
“Danila came to America to show for people what is true—like, fair,” Kovalev said. “My life, a little bit, I can compare with this movie. I came to America to get truth of my career. Because in Russia, nobody gave me opportunity to go for world championship. Nobody gave me for free—I take it. I came to America for proof.” The story told in Brat 2 dovetails with one of the persistent themes in Kovalev’s interviews and what appears to be an animating force in his career: The resentment Kovalev feels toward the Russian amateur boxing system. Politics and circumstance cheated him out of the opportunities he deserved, Kovalev believes, so like Danila, he came to the United States to make things right.
How does this happen? How does a boxer who currently sits in the top three of most pound-for-pound lists get overlooked by an amateur program as strong and organized as Russia’s? “Because the corruption system,” Klimas said, explaining that the clout of a fighter’s backers often matters more than talent or potential. ”It’s the guy who has behind him somebody who’s strong in politics or has money or has factories,” he added.
I started to ask Kovalev if his bitter history with Russian boxing meant he didn’t share the patriotic attitudes of fighters like Denis Lebedev, who has dressed like a Russian army paratrooper for his ring entrances, or Alexander Povetkin, who has proudly proclaimed, “I was born Russian and I sucked it in with my mother’s milk.” Kovalev nodded and cut me off before I reached the end of the question: “You know, if somebody gave me help in Russia, maybe I stay in Russia. But nobody, and therefore I leave this country to look for my dream.”
Brat 2 helps also sheds light on the most controversial episode of Kovalev’s career and the question it raised: Is he racist? Last year, Kovalev tweeted a gorilla joke about rival light heavyweight Adonis Stevenson. It was revolting. Kovalev apologized; his trainer John David Jackson, who is black, vouched for him; and his promoters at Main Events argued that because Kovalev is Russian, he wasn’t familiar with the red lines of American racial discourse. Whether or not Kovalev understood how his joke would be received, it’s disturbing that he felt comfortable tweeting it at all.
Likewise, as an American, it’s almost impossible to watch the scenes in Brat 2 set in Chicago’s black community and not feel offended. One of the film’s subplots revolves around Danila’s attempts to free a Russian prostitute from her black pimp. Nearly all of Brat 2’s black characters appear as ugly, racist caricatures, with the pimp dressed in a cheap fur coat and gold necklace that might as well have been purchased at a Halloween superstore. Later in the movie, Danila encounters a homeless black man and refers to him using a Russian word for black people, negr, which the homeless man hears as the N-word, and they nearly come to blows over the misunderstanding.
As we watched in Kilmas’s living room, this scene struck a chord with Kovalev’s manager, and he explained that the language Danila used was not meant as an epithet, and that the term was taught in Russian primary schools as the standard word for black people—no different from “Asian” or “Latino” or “white”—and that even diplomats used it. I asked Kovalev if movies like Brat 2 had influenced the way he thought of black neighborhoods in America. “It’s world,” he said. “In the world, everything good and bad. Also in Russia—good and bad. And in America, some streets are good and some streets no good and ugly.”
Brat 2 is difficult to interpret. Some critics and academics have argued that the movie’s nationalism is genuine, while others have suggested it’s ironic and subversive. The film is laden with references to the Chechen wars, Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers in WWII, and territory lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, none of which can be fully grasped unless you’re Russian or you have a Ph.D. in Slavic studies. The movie’s racism is undeniable, however, because its director and star express it on the Brat 2 website, where the Google translated first sentence of a section titled “Black and White” reads: “Solving the problem of racial discrimination, whites have maneuvered themselves into a dead end.”
As for Kovalev, some boxing fans will believe he made an awful mistake and that he can learn from it. Let’s hope he does, since Kovalev plans to raise his family in the United States. Other fans will never cheer for Kovalev again after his racist tweet. But this is prizefighting, where every concussive blow a boxer lands on his opponent can be seen as a brief lesson in moral relativity. Fans might not forgive racism or homophobia or domestic violence or strong-armed robbery, but they certainly know how to compartmentalize those issues.
The aspect of Brat 2 that resonates most deeply with Kovalev is its realism. That might sound like a strange way to describe a film whose plot is often preposterous, with Danila mowing down gang enforcers from Moscow to Chicago, bedding pop star Irina Saltykova, and biting into a hubcap-sized cheeseburger at the urging of a truck driver he befriends in the States. But the reality Kovalev sees in Brat 2 comes from the first half of the movie and its depiction of organized crime in early post-Soviet Russia, where protection rackets were stronger than local police forces, where disputes were often settled through violence rather than the rule of law, and where a goon misinterpreting the vague commands of his boss could get you killed.
“This is like a true story,” Kovalev said of Brat 2. “It was based maybe not on a true story but it’s looking like real life in our times.” In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the mid-’90s Russia Kovalev experienced as a teenager in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city at the footsteps of the Ural Mountains, was even more bleak and severe than the Moscow portrayed in the film. Chelyabinsk and its surrounding region had been home to several factories that provided raw materials, machinery, and nuclear weapons for the Soviet military. Former NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels, who visited Chelyabinsk several times over the past 25 years and whose book about the city, Putin Country, was released earlier this year, noted that Chelyabinsk used to be known throughout Russia as “Tankograd.”
Kovalev’s mother worked for a tractor manufacturer during his childhood. Garrels writes that when the USSR fell and the loss of state subsidies caused Chelyabinsk’s factories to unravel, workers sometimes received wages in the form of “bizarre goods like crystal vases or industrial pipe.” The only people in town who appeared to have cash, according to Garrels, were “mafia.” In a recent HBO pre-fight documentary on Kovalev’s and Ward’s respective upbringings, Kovalev’s mother said that during stretches in the ‘90s, her employer paid her in food. Back then, day-to-day life could be such a struggle for Kovalev’s family, that to escape, he’d dream of visiting America for a single day. “I was like, wow, I would like to see America, maybe just for one day to watch buildings,” he told me. “Is it true? Buildings like that—very high? In America, buses are driving children to school. It’s crazy! In Russia, nothing like that.”
The late-’90s, Kovalev’s prime teenage years, were what he called “the most dangerous time.”
“Because I grew up in the street,” he went on. “Street is different. Anything can happen. You never know what will be behind this corner, and who will be behind this corner.” Back then, the muscle for criminal gangs often came from ex-soldiers (like Danila) and former weightlifters or combat sports athletes who needed to make a living after the state support they’d received in Soviet times ran dry. I asked Kovalev if he wondered how his life might have turned out if he hadn’t made it as professional boxer. Would he have been forced to become one of those “serious guys,” as the mob heavies in Brat 2 are called? Even though he had the same background as many men who followed that path, Kovalev couldn’t see it. “Boxing helped me to be a real man,” he said. “If no boxing, maybe I was like a drug man, or no skill in life. Because a lot of trash was around me, and I grew up with my dream that only boxing can give me everything.”
Perhaps, but when I asked how he felt about his reputation as one of the meanest fighters in boxing, a figure whom HBO commentator Jim Lampley called the sport’s “most sinister presence in the ring,” Kovalev answered with a glint in his eye and all the cryptic menace of those “serious guys” in Brat 2.
“You know, if people think like that, then maybe it is.”
Ultimately, Kovalev won’t be remembered for talking like a gangster, tweeting like Donald Trump, or having a heart of gold. Like any boxer, his performance in the ring will determine his legacy. And if he manages to upset Andre Ward on Saturday night, the Krusher could find himself nipping at the heels of Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles, right there among the greatest light heavyweights of all time.
Rafe Bartholomew was features editor at Grantland and wrote Pacific Rims, a book about Philippine basketball.