Kovalev headlines MSG's light heavyweight title doubleheader

Igor Mikhalkin spars with a trainer during a media workout at Mendez Gym, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in New York. Mikhalkin is slated to fight Sergey Kovalev for Kovalev's WBO light heavyweight title on Saturday, March 3, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Sergey Kovalev returns to defend the WBO light heavyweight title he reclaimed in his last fight when he faces Igor Mikhalkin on Saturday at Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK — For someone who was one of boxing's feared fighters, Sergey Kovalev didn't look so intimidating.

He threw his arm around his opponent for a hug, taking time to chat and pose together for photos like old pals.

They are. Kovalev figures he's known Igor Mikhalkin since he was about 17, back when they were amateur teammates in Russia.

Come Saturday, that will mean nothing.

"We were like friends, but only friends can beat on each other and don't be upset at each other," Kovalev said.

They meet in the Theater at Madison Square Garden for the WBO light heavyweight title that Kovalev (31-2-1, 27 KOs) regained in his last fight after dropping it in the first of his consecutive losses to Andre Ward.

Kovalev has changed plenty since then, but "Krusher" wants to show his punishing power hasn't gone anywhere.

"Saturday night will be an interesting fight because we will beat each other very, very hard," Kovalev said.

The match against Mikhalkin (21-1, 9 KOs) is one of two title fights in the 175-pound division on Saturday's card, which will be televised by HBO. Dmitry Bivol (12-0, 10 KOs), another Russian, defends his WBA belt against Cuban Sullivan Barrera (21-1, 14 KOs) in the other.

Barrera was initially offered the fight against Kovalev in what would have been a matchup between fighters whose only losses were to Ward. Instead, he took less money for the shot at Bivol's belt and Kovalev ended up with Mikhalkin.

They went separate ways since their amateur days, with Kovalev, 34, moving on to win three light heavyweight titles and fight in major bouts in the U.S. Mikhalkin, now based in Germany, stayed behind to do his fighting in Europe, and now he has a chance to make a worldwide name for himself if he can knock off Kovalev.

"This is most likely the most important fight in my career," Mikhalkin said. "This is the greatest opponent I've ever fought."

But it was a damaged one after the losses to Ward, the first by a narrow decision but the second when Kovalev was stopped in the eighth round. He easily won back the WBO belt that Ward vacated after retiring when he stopped Slava Shabranskyy at MSG in November. But he realized he still needed to re-evaluate his training and travel.

"To lose after being world champion, such a dominant world champion, is a bitter blow. Some guys never recover from that," promoter Kathy Duva said. "But a rare few take an honest look at the way they are doing things, they change what needs to be changed and no matter how difficult, no matter what you have to give up to do it. This is hard. Sergey is not afraid of hard, as we all know."

Now trained by Abror Tursunpulatov, Kovalev believes rededicating himself could bring him to a level he hadn't reached even when he was rolling through everyone in front of him.

"I am motivated for the new chapter in my boxing career, and I showed in the last fight that I am back and now I am on my way to my goals," Kovalev said.

Perhaps those could include a match against the winner of the other championship bout on the card, which takes place in the shadow of the heavyweight title fight between Deontay Wilder and Cuba's Luis Ortiz across town in Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

Kovalev has already been a star. For Mikhalkin, Bivol and Barrera, it's a chance to become one.

"I train like every fight is my last fight because every fight is the most important fight," Bivol said. "On Saturday night, the fans will get to see what I am all about."

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

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