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Sergey Kovalev has gone from feared to polite, which makes him an attractive opponent for Canelo Alvarez

WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev speaks in front of his opponent Canelo Alvarez (far left) during a news conference at the KA Theatre at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev speaks in front of his opponent Canelo Alvarez, far left, during a news conference at the KA Theatre at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Sergey Kovalev never said thanks to opponents a few years ago. He didn’t have to. He was the “Krusher” and that’s what he did. He crushed. No apology or thanks necessary.

But there’s been a different Kovalev evident this week in the days before his looming fight with Canelo Alvarez at the MGM Grand. He might still live up to his Krusher nickname and logo. But it’s a polite Krush.

“Thanks,” he said to Alvarez at the final news conference this week.

There’s plenty to be thankful for, of course. According to people with Kovalev’s management team, the Russian is getting a career-high $12 million for fighting Alvarez, who is jumping up the scale from middleweight to light-heavy in a bid for his fourth title at a fourth weight.

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It’s a quick turnaround. Kovalev last fought on Aug. 24, scoring an 11th-round stoppage of British light-heavyweight Anthony Yarde in his native Russia. Within days, he got a call with an offer to fight Alvarez. He never hesitated. He never had second thoughts or considered some down time away from the training grind.

Canelo Alvarez looks to underline his reputation as the best while Sergey Kovalev will try to resurrect his career when they meet in the ring Saturday.

“I didn’t have an option,’’ Kovalev said. “I got a call. I say: I’m ready.”

It was a chance at life-changing money. It was also a chance at a fight that might allow him to regain what he lost in the couple of years since a controversial loss — a unanimous decision — to Andre Ward in 2016. Then, there was a devastating loss by eighth-round TKO to Ward in June 2017.

The Ward losses changed him. But exactly how is a question that won’t be answered until he faces the ever-evolving Alvarez. Did Ward strip him of the fear factor he projected in his 175-pound reign? He was at the top of the pound-for-pound debate, the bully at the top of light-heavyweight division, until he ran into Ward.

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Did Ward take from Kovalev what Evander Holyfield took from Mike Tyson? Tyson was never the same, never again feared, after two losses to Holyfield, first in November 1996 and then again in the infamous Bite Fight in June 1997. That’s one of the theories. A Kovalev no longer feared is a beatable Kovalev.

But fear isn’t wisdom, says Kovalev and his new trainer Buddy McGirt. Fear won’t beat Alvarez, they say. But some smarts might.

“I told Sergey: ‘You are an older person and that means you’ve got to be a smarter person,’” McGirt said.

In boxing terms, smarts are called ring IQ. For Kovalev, that means muscle memory. He’s been snarling less and jabbing more. There’s more technique in his language than taunts these days. He’s not somebody Ward would recognize. But it’s clear Alvarez likes him. They smile at each other in nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball face-offs. This is the same Alvarez who did some head-banging and nearly brawled with Gennady Golovkin at their last two weigh-ins.

Alvarez doesn’t fear him. Maybe, that’s why he’s fighting him.


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