Kovalev-Ward – By all accounts, Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward will touch gloves on November 19th at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Of all the matchups in professional boxing that we are likely to see this year, this is the best and most difficult to handicap. The winner will make a strong case as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.
In case you missed it, former undisputed super-middleweight champ Andre Ward 30-0 (15) won a lopsided unanimous decision over the awkward and unwilling to mix it up Alexander Brand 25-2 (19) on Saturday, August 6th, the fight coming 26 days after WBA/IBF/WBO light heavyweight title holder Sergey Kovalev 30-0-1 (26) won an equally one-sided decision over Isaac Chilemba 24-4-2 (10).
In an ironic twist, neither Kovaklev nor Ward did anything in their tune-up bouts to sway anyone from one side to the other. I doubt that anyone that favored Kovalev to beat Ward was scared off after seeing Andre fight Brand…..and the same applies on the other side. If you thought Ward had the style and physicality to beat Kovalev before he fought Chilemba, I doubt Kovalev did anything to shake that opinion, despite Sergey dropping him twice.
Today in boxing certain fighters based on hype and reputation automatically warrant their bouts being on PPV, i.e. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez. Yet nine out of 10 times the outcome is never in question. This is nowhere near the case in Kovalev vs. Ward, and that’s what makes the fight so unique. Sergey Kovalev is a genuine life-taker and Andre Ward is a beautiful boxer with an outstanding boxing aptitude. No doubt by fight night, whoever the favorite is, the odds will be similar to those before the first Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns showdown back in 1981.
Kovalev beat up and knocked around a pretty rugged guy in Chilemba, but he couldn’t score the expected stoppage. In Ward’s case, he controlled every second against a very experienced and awkward fighter in Brand, but like Kovalev, he couldn’t finish him inside the distance. Andre tried for the stoppage a few times after the sixth round, but boxing insiders know you can’t knock out a fighter who refuses to exchange and open up.
My immediate thoughts after seeing Ward Saturday night is does he have the strength and punch to out-box Kovalev? Perhaps Ward was saving himself a little, looking to get in some rounds before facing Sergey, but I’m not convinced he’s the same fighter he was the night he took apart Chad Dawson in 2012. Kovalev has the length and the strength to keep Ward on his heels and fighting uphill.
In regards to Kovalev, everything he does offensively works off his left jab. In order for Ward to out-box Sergey, he’ll have to neutralize his jab, and in order to do that, he’ll have to get Kovalev’s respect early in the fight. I’m not certain he has the single-shot power to do that, but then again he lands so clean and accurately and sometimes clean shots can blunt the aggression of guys like Kovalev. Andre has never been a big puncher, so I think he’ll also have to augment his arsenal with rough tactics that will unsettle Kovalev. If he can mess with Sergey mentally there’s a chance he can unsettle him a little. Chilemba worked the rules at times versus Kovalev and Sergey let him, something Ward will pounce on. If Ward can get Kovalev’s attention or give him an iota of trepidation, inwardly, then Ward will own him. I just don’t know if I’m there in believing that he will.
What concerns me some is that for the first time in Ward’s career, I thought I picked up the beginning stages of him becoming an older fighter. There was a certain stiffness that I hadn’t noticed before. He was never a terrifically fluid fighter, so that’s not what I’m talking about. But there was a little of the rigidity that we saw late in Bernard Hopkins career (albeit at a much older age). Andre’s been fighting for a long time; maybe his body is starting to show it.
There’s no question Ward is the overall superior boxer and technician. Other than being the harder puncher, he does everything better. But Kovalev has the ultimate equalizer in boxing, and that’s his tremendous two handed punching power to the head and body. Add to that Kovalev can hurt Ward both inside and outside simply by fighting his fight and not changing anything up. We know what Sergey is going to be on the night of November 19th; the onus will be on Ward to either take away his jab or do something that makes him think instead of fighting instinctively. That’s a tall order, but then again is there ever a fighter more overrated than a big knockout puncher such as Kovalev in the weeks leading up to a big fight? The answer is no. The boxer is usually a little overlooked because he never seems as scary as the KO master. So I’m trying to keep a lid on that.
Two things that I can’t get out of my head are 1) in a big fight that’s such a close call like Kovalev-Ward, the fighter who’s been more active, in this case Kovalev, has the edge….and 2) I can’t escape the glowing praise that Bernard Hopkins exudes when he speaks of Kovalev. Bernard believes that every decision that went against him was a gift to his opponent, yet when he speaks of Kovalev, he does it with such reverence. And that’s because Kovalev is the only fighter that defeated him who came close to actually beating him up. There’s a lot to be said for that even though Bernard was almost 50 years old.
It’s too soon to make a pick on a fight that’s three months away. It’s definitely a great match-up, but it’s hard to know whether it’ll be a good fight. It could easily be a dud, which would favor Ward. Unfortunately, Kovalev-Ward won’t be a financial blockbuster. Yes, hard core fans and boxing purists wouldn’t miss it for anything, but the gate may underwhelm because there’s no bad guy involved. Both Sergey and Andre are first class fighters and professionals. They’ll shower each other for the next three months with high praise and respect. Neither guy will take a verbal cheap shot or attempt to denigrate the other. They know that talk and hype will have no bearing on the fight. The only thing Kovalev and Ward care about is what’ll unfold for the 36 minutes or less inside the ring on November 19th, and what a welcome change that will be — perhaps a little boring, but still welcome.
Photo courtesy of HBO, Kovalev-Ward by Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com