Light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, who reclaimed one of his old belts last month, will make his first defense against little-known Igor Mikhalkin on March 3 in the main event of an HBO-televised card at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, multiple sources told ESPN on Monday. The deal is in the process of being finalized, the sources said.
Mikhalkin had been in talks with Marcus Browne for a world title elimination fight that would give the winner a mandatory shot against light heavyweight titlist Artur Beterbiev. However, Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs), 32, a Germany-based Russian, who has won 10 fights in a row, including a 12-round decision against Doudou Mgumbu on Dec. 2 in France, withdrew from talks in recent days because the fight with Kovalev was offered - a much bigger fight for much more money than one with Browne.
Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs), 34, who is also from Russia but fights out of Los Angeles, lost his three world title belts by controversial decision to Andre Ward 13 months ago and then suffered an eighth-round knockout loss in the June 17 rematch. But when Ward retired in September, Kovalev was paired with Vyacheslav Shabranskyy to fight for one of the belts Ward gave up when he retired. Kovalev dominated the overmatched Shabranskyy en route to a blistering second-round knockout to win the vacant belt on Nov. 25, also at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Kovalev promoter Main Events and HBO had hoped to match Kovalev with top contender Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs), who is also with Main Events, in the March 3 main event. On the Kovalev-Barrera undercard, Barrera rallied from a first-round knockdown to win a wide unanimous 10-round decision against Felix Valera, to set up the obvious fight.
However, Barrera, 35, a Cuban defector fighting out Miami, is also the mandatory challenger for the light heavyweight belt held by Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), 27, of Russia, and though he was offered the fight with Kovalev, Barrera instead elected to fight Bivol for less money on HBO in the Kovalev-Mikhalkin co-feature, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told ESPN.
Bivol, who was ringside to watch both Kovalev and Barrera's Nov. 25 bouts knowing he might face them down the road, is getting the fight with Barrera that he wanted next.
"We are very interested in fighting the top fighters in the light heavyweight division. Barrera has been named the mandatory (challenger) for Bivol by the WBA and we would be glad to do that fight next," Vadim Kornilov, Bivol's manager, told ESPN recently.
Main Events CEO Kathy Duva declined to comment on the card, as it is still in the works.