Sergey Kovalev, the WBO light heavyweight champion of the world, flew into New York last Friday from his training camp in Florida and took a car directly to the Russian part of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He was heading to the Underground Boxing gym, which is on the third floor of a building just next to the Q train tracks, above a bodega. He was there to work out.
Kovalev, who has knocked out 22 of the 24 men he's faced as a pro, has a fight in Atlantic City this Saturday, so the most intense part of his training was over. He was just here to pose for some pictures for some Russian photographers and get a sweat. He shook hands with some of the fighters from the gym, and stood in front of a hastily tacked-up step-and-repeat advertising his upcoming fight, and smiled, causing his flat face to wrinkle in an endearing way. Then he changed into a T-shirt and blue track suit pants with a little "K" logo pasted on them—for "Krusher," his nickname—and strode out of the little locker room with a WHOOSH, the crowd parting in his path.
He jogged out and immediately began bouncing in a big circle around the main room of the gym, which was empty except for a few hanging heavy bags, and was covered in wonderful rubber matting that was just soft enough to give a little, but not too much. As a matter of fact the floor was so nice that everyone had to remove their shoes when they came in the gym. Kovalev had on shoes, though. He also had on black fingerless gloves with gel in them, to protect the knuckles, and over those he wrapped both hands in blue cloth hand wraps, all while bouncing on his toes.
Around the gym he went, under the blue "Underground Boxing" flag showing a Russian bear with boxing gloves on, swishing over the smooth floor. As he moved he kicked his legs straight out in front of himself, as high as his face, and touched his toes. He turned sideways, shuffling his feet quickly, then kicked his legs up behind himself, touching his heels, then did some high stepping, swinging his arms out in front of him in circles, always circling, circling, circling.
He hopped into the gym's lone ring, grabbed the ropes, bent over, and stretched. First to the front, then to each side, then bent down and grabbed his ankles, then turned around and grabbed the ropes behind himself, leaning forward. His white boxing shoes also said "KRUSHER" along the side. He got down into a forward split, then pulled each leg in, in turn, lunging.He popped up and started shadowboxing. He moves well for a big man. (He is not that big, but he is big by boxing standards—probably 180 pounds that day, with surprisingly thin arms, considering how many men he has put to sleep. When I ask him the source of his power, he attributes it not to muscle, but to speed. "My first trainer tell me: stick your hand in fire, and grab fire," he says, miming a punch. "And your"—he touches the dark hair on his wrist—"must not be burned." He also claims to have "heavy bones," inherited from his mother.) Pap, pap, jab, right, around, around. Now he drops down into knuckle pushups. Now back up, pap, pap. Sweat covered his forearms. He went to the corner and took a sip from a tiny bottle of water. "Not easy," he said. He pulled his white socks high over the bottom of his pants. "Timer?" said someone in his entourage. "You have time?"
The gym timer buzzed. More shadowboxing. Kovalev did not look particularly fast, just yet. Human speed, at least. He squares up a bit when he throws out his straight right. He looks a little hittable. But he's been boxing since he was 11, and he's undefeated, so what do I know? He likes to end his combos with a little lead left uppercut. Jab, right, UPPERCUT, jack the jaw.
Now white tape covers his hands, over the blue wraps, over the black gel gloves. His trainer, John David Jackson, pulls red and black boxing gloves over Kovalev's hands. Jackson is a short and thickly muscled man with a sharply razored beard, a former fighter, and a famous trainer. Kovalev is his most famous student. Jackson wears tiny pads, just bigger than his own hands, to catch the punches. He stalks Kovalev like a fighter, then freezes and holds up the pads. Jab jab. Jab right. Jab right hook. Jab hook. Sometimes Jackson lays a pad on his chest, lets Kovalev touch it with his right hand, then throws a hook to make him duck, and then comes up with hook-right combo. Kovalev's hook is pretty hard, hard enough to knock you out. But the right hand is the eraser. It booms, even at medium speed. At one point Jackson catches a right that strays a little high and jerks his head back fast, inches from oblivion.
When the bell rings, Kovalev takes a break, walking around the ring. "Easy day, every day," he says. His English is moderately good, with a heavy Russian accent. "Easy money!" someone says. "You have money? You don't have problem," Kovalev says. "You don't have money? You have problem."
More pads. Three rounds. The gloves come off. Kovalev puts on a track suit jacket, bouncing again now, stripping the white tape off his hands. "Sorry, no power," he says, shaking his head. He's still tired from the flight. Someone puts a club music CD in the stereo, a steady, droning beat. A crate of tennis balls is brought out. Kovalev picks one out and starts bouncing it like a basketball, bouncing on his toes again in the main space, catching the ball and throwing combo punches, then bouncing again. He turns and starts throwing the ball off the wall, letting it bounce once and catching it, always on his toes. He clearly did not play baseball as a kid. Sometimes he throws flurries of punches while the ball is in the air. Throw, bounce, punches, catch. Throw, bounce, toes, catch. Now he bounces the ball more, shadows more, always moving. Light streams through the small windows high on the wall, but the gym is still gym. "I. Want. To. Enjoy the party," the club music drones. "I. Want. To. Enjoy the party."
Kovalev grabs a red plastic jump rope and immediately launches into a dozen double-unders, the rope hissing in the air. He skips around the gym, jumping over the rope, now whipping it side to side, sometimes tripping on it, tired now, sometimes stopping to shadow box, his hands faster than before. "I. Want. To. Enjoy the party." John David Jackson sits on the ring bobbing his head to the music, face expressionless. Now Kovalev slides back in the ring, circling around, grabbing the rope, stretching, pausing, sipping water, shadow boxing more, left right left, bobbing, ducking, then drops to his back, pulling his legs over his head, then forward, then back over his head, over and over, then crunches, his legs raised off the ground, then flipping into a forward lunge, stretching, each side, then pulling each leg in, grabbing the toes, stretching. He takes off his shoes and discards them. He sits in the ring for a moment, in his socks, not moving. He lays back, pulls his neck hard to one side, then to the other, then raises his arms above his head, pulling out each individual finger in turn. Then he turns face down, flat in the ring, and lays there for a full minute, unmoving.
The gleaming Revel Casino in Atlantic City is scheduled to close this summer if it doesn't find a buyer. But before it does, Sergey Kovalev will step into a boxing ring there on Saturday night and knock out Blake Caparello, an unfortunate Australian, with that straight right hand, or possibly with the left hook. Everyone in boxing will tell you that this is going to happen except for Sergey Kovalev, standing in his socks and dripping sweat on the rubber floor of the emptied-out Underground Boxing gym in Sheepshead Bay.
"This fight. This not ... checkers. You get punch too. Who know?" Sergey Kovalev smiles a face-wrinkling smile and shrugs, lifting his tired, heavy, deadly bones. "Only God know."