Ten years ago, on August 17, 2013, Gary Buckland, Ovill McKenzie and Nathan Cleverly were stopped by Stephen Smith, Enzo Maccarinelli and the previously little-known Sergey Kovalev on one of the most brutal nights of fights Britain has seen. Smith, Maccarinelli, trainers Joe Gallagher and John David Jackson, and the promoter Frank Warren, revisit 10 years on
By Declan Warrington
Frank Warren He’d said, “I want to fight this [Sergey] Kovalev”. “Listen, he is a tough, tough fella” – but I believed in him at the time; Dean [Powell] said the same – “but you’re a good fighter – we’ll get it on home soil, but don’t take it for granted”. He was on a roll at the time. He begged us to make the fight. Begged us.
John David Jackson [Nathan Cleverly] was underestimating Sergey. Sergey was just making a name for himself – his power was better than most people thought. He was just coming into his own. Sergey was [also] a better boxer than he gave himself credit for.
When I got over there I did an interview with his father [Vince] and his father made it sound like Nathan was going to run through Sergey. I told his father during the interview, “You’ve highly underestimated Sergey – this guy’s the real deal”. Since he was champion they was so high on him – I can’t knock them for it, but he thought he was invincible.
Joe Gallagher Kovalev was an outstanding amateur so I was aware of him – as were the lads. He came with a huge knockout reputation and had Kathy Duva behind him. I remember him having a big entourage and his team being hugely confident.
Enzo Maccarinelli The weigh-in – I remember seeing Kovalev and had a few words with him, and he seemed cold. Here to do a job. Cleverly was getting in with the crowd – like a homecoming.
Stephen Smith Cleverly was riding the crest of a wave.
Warren There was a change at the weigh-in – his whole demeanour. Sometimes you get this vibe off someone. A look in their eyes; the way they look at the guy. You feel like the confidence is suddenly not there.
Smith The morning of the weigh-in there was an interview. Gary Buckland had said, “Smith hasn’t got the power to trouble me”. He was a tough, tough man. His work-rate was really good.
He jumped in two-footed with his jab. If I could counter him up the middle, preferably with an uppercut, he’d jump on to it. We worked on that in the gym. I had Anthony Crolla in the changing room throwing jabs at me and pushing his feet in and slipping his jab and throwing an uppercut. Repeatedly.
[After the fight started] I was trying to keep me legs loose and be ready. Stayed relax and started getting me shots off.
[In the fifth] he backed me up to the ropes, jumped in with the jab and I remember thinking, “Now – just go for it”, and it worked a treat. The shot landed flush. As soon as it landed – you know straight away. His bodyweight fell through the punch – like your hand goes through the chin. It’s a special feeling. He fell forward and I jumped out of his way to let him fall. I didn’t look back until I went to a neutral corner – I knew he was gone.
Gallagher We had been working all camp on that shot. I remember telling Swifty off after round one for going out and having a tear up with him. I wanted Swifty to box and have Gary fall in on his jab and he did.
Smith Someone grabbed me from behind, picked me up and spun me around – the first thing I’d seen was Gary and he was still face down on the canvas so I got worried and wanted him to be okay. I won the fight and I’m buzzing but I could hear panic in the background and voices screaming. “That’s their son.”
Warren That was devastating, wasn’t it? If it’s your son or your brother you can understand that.
Smith The minute I landed the shot I remember thinking, “Who hasn’t got the power?”. When I see he was hurt, everything come home to me. You’ll see me push me brother off, and I got on my knees and said a prayer for him.
Gallagher We were delighted, then realised Gary wasn’t moving and calmed things down. He’s a top man. Tough as nails, and had fought one of my lads before – John Murray.
Smith The build-up was all Kovalev; Kovalev. This Russian was coming over. When we was eating dinner after the weigh-in, I’m sure it was Joe said to me, “He’s killed a man”. It must have stuck in me mind. I don’t know whether it was in me subconscious but when I turned round and he was laying there still it all just come to me.
I’ve been there with me brothers – it’s an horrible feeling. [Post-fight] he was just sitting there [in his changing room] so I give him a hug and wished him all the best. I’ve got more respect than to go in belt on me shoulder – I just went in on me own. I didn’t like it at all.
Maccarinelli I was a boxer second; a boxing fan first. [Post-fight] I was in the fucking [TV] van watching the boxing. Someone had told me there’d been a knockout so I just wanted to see it. I remember seeing Stephen in the hotel. “You fucker – I normally have the best knockout of the night.” It was a tremendous shot.
Gallagher It was one of the best knockouts in a British ring for years. The execution was on point.
Maccarinelli I’d had a fucking nightmare year. I lost my dad [Mario]; something went on with my son; I’d failed a UK Anti-Doping test from a supplement that didn’t have the ingredient on the banned list. That [getting stopped, controversially, first time against McKenzie in November 2012] just topped my year off.
Gary [Lockett, my trainer] wanted the blueprint of what [Tony] Bellew did the second time [to beat McKenzie with a disciplined performance in 2011]. But something happened to me on fight night where I’d have to go and try to knock someone out. I had to put everything on the line. I remember saying, “Ga, I don’t like it – I’m going to go at him. He won’t be as strong as me – trust me”.
The atmosphere was electric. Probably one of the best I’ve been in. Everyone was wishing me well, and I went at him from the start.
Warren Enzo was a tremendous puncher – and he was a tough bastard.
Maccarinelli Whenever I used to box I’d ask my boys which hand I was going to win with. They picked the right hand, so I tried, all night, tapping with the left hand and throwing a right uppercut.
Warren It was tough for both of them, but he done what he had to do. You can see the way it’s going.
Maccarinelli “Thirty seconds [of the 11th] to go, Enzo.” I could see him tiring so I jumped on him, and decided I was going to try it the other way. I tapped him with a right hand and brought the left uppercut up. It just nailed him. He was out on his feet. I actually threw a punch again and he’s lucky I missed him with the second.
‘Cause I’ve always been a knockout artist, from a young age, I had this really nasty streak in me – for a split second. I know it’s horrible to say but, just for that split second, I wouldn’t have cared. I never wanted to hurt anyone, but when I was in that ring I had this switch where I didn’t care.
It was vindication; I thought about my dad straight away; he was my biggest fan. Everything come together. The celebration – I dropped to my knees. Gary came over and give us a massive hug.
Smith I was in the same changing room as Ovill McKenzie, and he was sitting there in a similar position to Buckland. With his head down. I kept it [celebrating] to meself until I got back to the hotel. When you do your urine sample for your drug test – he was obviously pissing blood. I remember thinking, “Wow. I’m so lucky I’m here and not there”. He looked so down.
Warren It was a tough, tough fight.
Warren It was a Welsh night, wasn’t it? It was a bit of a homecoming for him as well – for Nathan – and there was a good build-up to the fight.
Maccarinelli I knew what was going to happen. I said to someone in Frank Warren’s camp, “Why aren’t you out watching Cleverly?”. He said, “‘Cause I know what’s going to happen – I told him and warned him not to take it. His father wanted it. He’ll be lucky to go three rounds”.
Gallagher Kovalev started at a quick pace and [Cleverly] was uncomfortable with his power all the way through.
Jackson Early on Sergey punched into his arms, so by the third or fourth round Nathan was done, because you can’t lift your arms. I figured Sergey would knock him out but he hit him with other shots also. The plan was to break him down, physically; hit his arms; hit him in his body; wear him out that way and the knockout will come later on.
Maccarinelli All the talk was if Cleverly won it was me and Cleverly next. You could see from an early stage Cleverly was on to a hiding to nothing.
Jackson When he hit Nathan, whatever game plan Nathan had he threw it out the window. “This guy can punch.”
Gallagher Kovalev was quick out of the blocks with good jabs and right hands. I remember him landing a variety of hooks to head and body, with both hands. Nathan felt a right hook in round one on top of his head that made him think. Nathan stayed right in front of Kovalev and was getting caught pretty much with everything.
Maccarinelli People knew straight away – as soon as he got caught. They knew the writing was on the wall. It went a bit subdued, and it stayed subdued.
Warren It sucked all the air out of the room, didn’t it? The crowd sensed it. You could see that he went from fancying it to not fancying it.
Smith The atmosphere completely changed. He was in a bit of trouble. People were shellshocked.
Warren He’d caught Kovalev, and Kovalev went back to the corner – I remember he spat his gum shield. Kovalev was a monster, monster, monster puncher – [Cleverly] just didn’t fancy it after that. After he had him in trouble and he didn’t capitalise on it, he started showing him too much respect and I knew then he weren’t gonna win.
Smith He was just so spiteful. He burst on to the scene for a lot of people that night. Every time he landed he had Cleverly rocked to his boots – not many had seen the likes of that come through for a while. Iron in his gloves. Whatever shot he landed seemed to have an effect on him.
Maccarinelli It was the jab; the footwork. He was cutting that ring down slowly but methodically. He was too strong. He was even falling short with the jab on purpose to get Cleverly to over-reach, and would nail him. It was a cracking one-sided performance.
I think [Cleverly] believed he was the puncher. I think his dad fed his ego and made him believe he was better than he was. Cleverly had no business being in the ring with Kovalev. I think he thought he could overwhelm him.
Warren He caught him with a real good shot and never done anything after that.
Jackson [Cleverly] probably thought, “I can get him in deep water and get him”, but it didn’t last so long for us to worry about that.
Maccarinelli He just battered him. If [referee Terry] O’Connor hadn’t helped him he wouldn’t have found his corner and they’d have stopped it there and then [at the end of the third round]. He went well above and beyond what a referee should do. His job is to protect the fighter – I don’t think he protected Cleverly that night.
Jackson The referee tried to help him out. Figured, “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe he’ll come back”, but he was gonna get the guy killed. He could get hurt real bad at least – Sergey was not trying to take any prisoners. He was trying to get this guy out of there.
Maccarinelli I can’t think of another fight I was watching live as a one-sided dismantling at world level. He looked six, seven – maybe 10 – levels above.
Warren It was all over. He didn’t wanna be there.
Jackson He’d dismantled Cleverly.
Warren After the fight it was like a relief [for Nathan] – like he didn’t want to be a boxer. It reminded me in some ways of when [Anthony] Joshua got beat by [in 2019, Andy] Ruiz. Nathan did not give his all in that fight, and his old man and Dean Powell said the same thing. We was really disappointed in him. I’m not knocking Kovalev, but Cleverly was a good fighter.
There just wasn’t that massive disappointment [from Cleverly].
That night he changed dramatically as a fighter, and was never the same.
Maccarinelli The three main fights – all knockouts, and nasty knockouts as well. He never recovered.
Smith I had this big interest ‘cause I’d heard [Kovalev’s] reputation and hadn’t watched him. It was a great bill to be a part of. There were three big fights and explosive endings. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in [another] night like that.
Jackson He was under the radar with everybody. He knew, “I got to get this title now”. Once the word got out about Sergey they went crazy. He could punch; he was a decent boxer. Once he won the fight you couldn’t hide how good he was.
It opened doors for him. That night changed his life.
Smith Our Liam and loads of me mates – V Festival was on that weekend – went to the fight and then the festival. After that fight, loads of us were there, and honest to god, you could see Kovalev hats everywhere where they’d got a box and the lads all had them on.
Warren It was a setback. It was a massive letdown, to be honest. [A fight with Bernard Hopkins] would have been close to happening.
It’s up in the top five [of brutal nights I’ve promoted], that’s for sure. It was a real fighting card – an unbelievable card.