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Why light heavyweight champ Sergey Kovalev may be facing an undefeated trap

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Often, when the late, great trainer Emanuel Steward was evaluating a fighter, he'd count how many undefeated fighters he'd beaten. It meant something to Steward when a fighter would have a series of wins over unbeaten men.

Not all unbeaten boxers are created equally, and records in boxing can be about as meaningful as a long drive on the practice range.

But sometimes, Steward would reason, when those fighters would get to 15-0 or 20-0 or whatever, they'd begin to believe they were better and more talented than they actually were. And then they frequently would perform that way.

That brings us to Cedric Agnew, who on Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City faces Sergey Kovalev in the main event of a card being televised by HBO.

Agnew was chosen specifically because he could make Kovalev look good. He's 26-0 with 13 knockouts, which indicate he doesn't punch particularly hard. In the fight before his last one, he fought an eight-rounder. In the bout before that, he'd fought a six-rounder.

Kovalev, the WBO light heavyweight champion, is one of the hottest names in the business and, arguably, its biggest puncher. Until he lands a big money fight against either IBF champion Bernard Hopkins or WBC champ Adonis Stevenson, he'll be matched carefully so as not to ruin the looming major payday.

That's where Agnew – undefeated Cedric Agnew – comes in. It's easy to dismiss him as nothing more than cannon fodder and suggest Kovalev will blow him away.

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Sergey Kovalev, right, stopped Nathan Cleverly in the fourth round of their August 2013 bout. (Getty Images)

At some level, that's what executives at Main Events, which promotes Kovalev; his management team and HBO, which have invested in him as one of their marquee fighters, expect will happen.

Most likely, it will. Agnew is coming off an impressive win over Yusaf Mack, a decent though not great opponent, in a fight that was nearly a year ago. He's skilled enough not to look out of place, but he's not the kind of puncher that could derail a charging Kovalev with one perfectly placed, perfectly timed counter shot.

Agnew, of course, says all the right things.

"I think he is a decent fighter, but I don't see anything spectacular coming from him," Agnew said of Kovalev. "In my personal opinion, I just think he is ordinary."

Some may say it's nothing more than whistling past the graveyard.

But Agnew is undefeated, and Steward always viewed undefeated fighters with a special reverence saved only for those who never left a ring in defeat.

And Agnew has a chance. Those who haven't followed his career closely, which is likely 99.99 percent of the American population, may not give him much of a chance.

But sometimes, a chance is all a guy needs.

"We are glad a lot of people are underestimating Agnew," promoter Malcolm Garrett of Garrett Promotions said. "He is a very skilled fighter. He is champing at the bit. He has been flying a bit under the radar, which may not be the worst thing."

He's right, of course. Flying under the radar before a fight like this is actually a good thing.

Kovalev has been nothing less than professional and has done his job, but never before in a professional career that began in 2009 has he faced a situation like he will on Saturday.

He's fighting a bout he is expected to not only win, but win spectacularly, with the specter of a career-defining bout against Stevenson looming large.

If Kovalev were ever to look ahead and not be as prepared, not be as motivated, not be as focused, it would be against a guy like Agnew, who's not going to remind anyone of Floyd Mayweather with his boxing skills.

He's a solid, mid-level professional boxer, no more, no less.

But he happens to be a solid, mid-level professional boxer who is taking on a much bigger name. Kovalev has everything to lose. If Kovalev blows out Agnew in two or three rounds, it's no big deal because it's what he is expected to do.

If the rounds begin to mount and Agnew is still in it, though, who knows how Kovalev will react?

Has he prepared for a grueling battle? Is he ready for a gut-check fight he needs to pull out down the stretch? Can he perform in Rounds 9, 10, 11 and 12 like he has in Rounds 1, 2, 3 and 4?

It's impossible to know, because Kovalev hasn't been in that position before. He's only gone past four rounds twice in his 24 fights. He's never heard the bell for Round 9. He's 23-0-1 – the draw happened when an opponent couldn't continue after a second-round accidental foul – and has six first-round knockouts and nine second-round knockouts on his rèsumè.

That kind of punching power is why HBO is so enamored with him and why boxing insiders are so intrigued by a potential Kovalev-Stevenson bout.

For any of that to happen, Kovalev has to defeat Cedric Agnew on HBO on Saturday.

If Emanuel Steward were around, he'd remind that it's undefeated Cedric Agnew and suggest it wouldn't be wise to dismiss him so lightly.

Kovalev figures to win and he figures to win in a romp.

One only wonders whether he has heeded Steward's wise words about undefeated fighters.

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