With the turn of the calendar to 2016 the sports world is, at least in the near future, looking towards some exciting sports match ups early in the year. Such as the College Football National Championship between SEC champ Alabama and ACC champ Clemson. As of this morning the Super Bowl tournament is set with the Panthers, Cardinals, Vikings, Redskins, Seahawks and Packers representing the NFC and the Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Texans, Chiefs and Steelers representing the AFC.
In those potential match ups the chalk favors Alabama to beat Clemson, although I don't think that's a given because the Clemson offense is the exact type of offense with an athletic quarterback that has always given Nick Saban's Alabama teams fits. In the NFL the chalk favors either the Panthers or Cardinals to come out of the NFC and either the Patriots or the Broncos to win the AFC, although I think there's a case to be made for the Steelers to beat the banged up Patriots and the one dimensional running attack of the Broncos offense. Sure, upsets happen but aside from a Redskins vs Texans Super Bowl I don't think any other match up combination would be much of a shock to anyone who follows the NFL.
In professional sports, especially boxing, nothing is more exciting than a match up when those who are supposed to know can't pick the winner because the match up is so close on paper. I don't believe anything represents the “I can't pick the winner faction” better than the first fight between “Smokin” Joe Frazier 26-0 (23) and Muhammad Ali 31-0 (25) back in March of 1971. Back at that time many including myself were thinking, it's not that I can't pick the winner – it's more of a case that I can't picture either fighter losing. For once the realization of the event lived up to the expectation and it truly was a great fight that Frazier won by a unanimous decision.
As of this writing there are a multitude of interesting match ups that boxing fans are looking forward to hopefully seeing this year….such as Fury vs. Klitschko II, Golovkin vs. Alvarez and Roman Gonzalez vs. Naoya Inoue just to name a few. However, it's not a reach to make the case for one side over the other among those potential fights. And that's why the fight I'm most looking forward to hopefully happening in 2016 is Sergey Kovalev 28-0-1 (25) versus Andre Ward 28-0 (15). Ward is the most complete fighter in boxing with Floyd Mayweather having retired in September of 2015 and Kovalev, 32, is a dangerous hitter with both hands and he can also box. Kovalev vs. Ward is a fight that is the most difficult fight in boxing for me to handicap and give a strong lean to either side.
Yes, Ward, 31, is scheduled to fight a tune up this coming March and Kovalev is fighting a rematch with Jean Pascal at the end of this month. I seriously doubt Ward will lose and I expect Kovalev to stop Pascal again even with supposed miracle worker Freddie Roach in his corner this time.
There was a time when Andre Ward, before his year and a half absence from the ring, was considered no lower than the second best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing. Only Floyd Mayweather, who turned pro eight years before Ward, routinely out-polled him in the pound-for-pound debate. And the reason for Ward’s high ranking was, he is really that special and can do everything as a fighter in the ring. Andre is a master boxer and technician, and like Mayweather, he doesn't need much time to figure out what his opponent doesn't like and what their weaknesses are – and then feeds them a steady diet of it and forces them to do what they don’t want to do. And despite what most think, Ward punches hard enough to more than get Sergey's attention.
Andre has a terrific jab to the head and body, and he is tremendously effective using it offensively and defensively. He can step back and counter while allowing his opponent to lead, or at least making them think they are. He knows how to go after runners and movers, and he can fight on the inside and neutralize his opponents while doing so. He's very strong physically, and his punch resistance and stamina have never been a remote issue for him.
The only “but” when it comes to assessing Andre Ward that you hear is, he's not a life-taker when it comes to punching power. However, most writers and fans don't understand that punching power is overrated. Sure, it's a great equalizer, but it's only as good as the delivery system in place to get it to the intended target. Ward, like Mayweather today, Bernard Hopkins, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes from yesteryear, punch/ed plenty hard enough to win. As we saw in many of their high profile bouts, punching power was never much of a factor in determining their signature bouts during their careers.
Sergey Kovalev 27-0-1 (24) is clearly the most formidable and feared fighter in the light heavyweight division. Amazingly, Kovalev's ascendance has been a little overshadowed by middleweight Gennady Golovkin's emergence over the same time period. This in all honesty has befuddled me for two reasons. For starters, Kovalev is a more versatile fighter than Golovkin. I know some try and paint Gennady as an unbeatable wrecking machine, but in truth, he's basically an attacker. Yes, I know he can box, but back him up and he, like most attackers, aren't nearly as effective. Secondly, Kovalev has clearly beat better fighters and has compiled a more impressive resume than Golovkin.
Neither Kovalev nor Ward has ever faced a fighter like the other, not surprisingly because there's not many of them around. It's a real tough fight to handicap and pick the winner. And the proof of that is, yes, it's Andre Ward, and yet I can't tell you that I would pick him to win. Kovalev's long game and power will give Ward much to address. Will he, can he? That’s what makes the match up so compelling and anticipated.
No, Kovalev vs. Ward is not in the same universe as Frazier-Ali I, but it’s the toughest fight in professional boxing to build a strong case favoring one side over the other. And that’s why it is the fight I most want to see!
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com