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Kovalev stops Mikhalkin to defend light heavyweight title

(AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

By BRIAN MAHONEY

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) Back on track after two straight powerful performances, Sergey Kovalev looks ready for a bigger test.

He wasn't interested in talking about another fight with Andre Ward.

How about a match with another rugged Russian?

Kovalev powerfully defended his WBO light heavyweight title Saturday night, opening a deep cut under fellow Russian Igor Mikhalkin's right eye that forced the fight to be stopped with 35 seconds left in the seventh round.

"Krusher" won his second consecutive fight since his back-to-back losses to Ward, dealing punishment to his former amateur teammate in the first defense of the title he regained in his last bout.

That followed an earlier victory at Madison Square Garden for WBA 175-pound champion and fellow Russian Dmitry Bivol, who remained unbeaten with a 12th-round stoppage of Cuba's Sullivan Barrera.

Maybe Kovalev-Bivol is the match to make.

"If it's a big money fight, I am always ready for that," Kovalev said.

Kovalev (32-2-1, 28 KOs) took some punches but simply walked through them and opened the cut in the sixth round. Then in the seventh, referee Steve Willis halted the action and sent Mikhalkin to the corner after a flurry of punches to his face, and the physician said the fight needed to be halted.

He had to work longer and harder than his November victory over Slava Shabranskyy, whom he stopped in two rounds in the same arena to take back one of the titles Ward vacated upon retirement.

"This was better work than the last fight for sure," Kovalev said.

Mikhalkin (21-2) had a bloody U.S. debut, winning just one round on one judge's card.

Mikhalkin landed some clean shots, as "Krusher" either wasn't seeing the straight lefts from the southpaw or simply wasn't respecting his power. Mikhalkin has only nine knockouts and it became clear he wouldn't get another - though Kovalev did say he felt some of the body shots.

Kovalev has fought two relative unknowns since he lost his three belts in a close decision loss to Ward in 2016 and then was stopped in the eighth round last June in the rematch.

He certainly seems ready for something tougher - though he didn't seem interested in hearing that Ward teased a possible third fight.

"I don't think about that right now," he said. "I just want to do what the fans want to see and I love boxing."

Promoter Kathy Duva said she hoped Kovalev would fight again at MSG in July, though it was too early to consider the opponent.

Fans - Russian ones, at least - might like to see him against Bivol, who was dominant in the biggest fight of his career.

Bivol (13-0, 11 KOs) was dominating the fight and a little over a minute from winning an easy decision when he caught Barrera with a hard right to the head to set up the knockdown. Barrera was able to get up in time but the referee stopped the fight at 1:41 of the round.

"In the first few rounds I was a little reserved trying to plan for the rest of the right," Bivol said through an interpreter. "When it got to the 12th round I knew I would be able to knock him out so I stepped on the gas."

Bivol outlanded Barrera 243-75 in total punches, according the final stats, in his second defense of the title he was given when Ward retired. He wasn't bothered by a cut near the right eye in the second round that the ringside doctor checked a couple of times in the later rounds but never affected him.

Barrera (21-2) was offered a fight first with Kovalev but chose instead to take less money for a shot at Bivol, perhaps counting on his experience over his 27-year-old opponent.

But he had no answer for the champion's speed and accuracy and did well to last as long as he did. His only previous loss had been to Ward.

Bivol may still be young, but he looks ready.

"It's not up to us who I fight," he said. "I can only be the best if I fight the best and I have the belt, so come get it."

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Updated March 4, 2018

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