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Sergey Kovalev returning to Madison Square Garden for title defense

When Sergey Kovalev fought at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York last month, he scored a dominant knockout and reclaimed one of the light heavyweight world title belts he once held. It's no wonder "Krusher" is excited to return there for his first defense.

Kovalev will fight Igor Mikhalkin on March 3 in the main event of HBO's "World Championship Boxing" in one of two 175-pound world title bouts on the card, promoter Main Events announced Friday.

"I really enjoyed fighting at Madison Square Garden in November. It feels like my home," Kovalev said. "I'm very excited to go back to MSG and to fight on HBO. Everyone should to have a great time watching my fight."

In the co-feature, world titleholder Dmitry Bivol will defend his 175-belt for the second time when he takes on mandatory challenger Sullivan Barrera.

"We're ready to showcase the light heavyweight division again at Madison Square Garden," Main Events CEO Kathy Duva said. "We have Kovalev and Barrera both returning to The Theater after big wins in November, and we're adding another light heavyweight champion to the card. Dmitry is a young champion with a bright future ahead of him if he can get past Sullivan, which is no easy task. And Sergey is taking on Igor Mikhalkin, who is a young, but experienced southpaw, and that's given him some trouble in the past."

Russia's Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs), 34, who now lives in Los Angeles, lost his three world title belts by controversial decision to Andre Ward in November 2016 and then got knocked out by Ward in the eighth-round of their rematch on June 17. But after Ward announced his retirement in September, Kovalev took on Vyacheslav Shabranskyy for one of the belts Ward relinquished.

Kovalev and Shabranskyy met Nov. 25 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden and Kovalev destroyed him in an utterly one-sided fight. Kovalev knocked him down twice in the first round and twice more in the second round in the second-round knockout victory.

Main Events and HBO preferred for Kovalev to face Barrera, whom Main Events also promotes, but Barrera elected to go for the fight against Bivol instead, despite it being for less money than a Kovalev bout. It's been no easy task to get top opponents to face Kovalev.

"It's still very difficult to find light heavyweights who want to fight Sergey. I'm surprised," said Egis Klimas, Kovalev's manager. "Many thanks to Igor Mikhalkin, who is confident enough to take on the 'Krusher' and get a big opportunity."

Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs), 32, who is from Russia but fights out of Germany, is an unknown outside of his home region, but he is the former European light heavyweight champion and has won 10 fights in a row, including a 12-round decision against Doudou Ngumbu on Dec. 2 in France. He had been in line for a world title elimination fight with Marcus Browne, but withdrew from those talks when the opportunity to fight Kovalev for his belt for money came up. He will be fighting in the United States for the first time.

"It is a great honor for me to fight in the United States. This will undoubtedly be the biggest and hardest fight in my career," Mikhalkin said. "Kovalev is for me the strongest man in this weight class. But I feel ready. The fight against Kovalev comes at the perfect time. I feel stronger than ever, and I want to show the American boxing audience a great fight."

Said Erol Ceylan, of EC Box Promotions, Mikhalkin's promoter: "Kovalev is a big name in the light heavyweight division. Igor has absolutely earned this fight, and he has the class to defeat Kovalev."

Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), 27, of Russia, who many believe is a future star and potential pound-for-pound level boxer, held an interim light heavyweight title but was elevated to full titleholder after Ward retired and Badou Jack vacated a belt. He made his first defense Nov. 4 in Monte Carlo and cut through Australia's Trent Broadhurst in one round. Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) figures to be a far more formidable challenger.

"This is not the first time that I am training for the most important fight of my career, and this motivates me and makes me happy," Bivol said. "Sullivan Barrera is what we wanted, and I am glad that we will meet in the ring soon."

Said Vadim Kornilov, Bivol's manager: "We are glad that our first appearance in 2018 will be against one of the best in the division in the legendary Madison Square Garden. Sullivan Barrera is a serious test for Bivol, and we have a lot of respect for him taking this fight. [Bivol] is fighting one of the best fighters in the division with only one career loss that came at the hands of Andre Ward. Bivol has already been mentioned as a possible pound-for-pound prospect by many, and we will continue fighting the best out there to prove this."

Barrera's only loss was a one-sided decision to Ward in a nontitle fight in 2016. He has won four fights in a row since, including a knockout of Shabranskyy and decisions against Joe Smith Jr. and Felix Valera. Barrera, 35, a Cuban defector fighting out Miami, Florida, faced Valera on the Kovalev-Shabranskyy undercard and survived a first-round knockdown for the second consecutive fight and went on for a lopsided 10-round decision.

"I came from Cuba with one dream, and that was to win a world title," Barrera said. "I know it won't be easy, and I know I chose the toughest road than anyone to get here. But I know all of the tough opponents I have agreed to fight and hard work will pay off. On March 3, I will become the most deserving light heavyweight champion in boxing."

The card faces possible major competition. Showtime is in the process of lining up a card that is expected to be headlined by heavyweight world titlist Deontay Wilder (39-0, 38 KOs) against top contender Luis "King Kong" Ortiz (28-0, 24 KOs) on the same night across town at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Author: Dan Rafael, ESPN
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