Kovalev-Ward: Can the Steak Match the Sizzle?

It is not exactly a trick question, but the answer nonetheless is apt to be open to individual interpretation. What set of circumstances might prevent the boxing event of the year from being widely recognized as the fight of the year?

The most-anticipated, most-hyped matchup of 2016 unquestionably is Saturday night’s HBO Pay-Per-View pairing of IBF/WBO/WBA light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) and former WBA/WBC super middleweight titlist Andre Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Each man is a consensus top five pound-for-pound pick, and there will be an instant groundswell of public support for the winner to be elevated to the top spot for that unofficial but highly coveted designation.

“I think it would be really, really hard to argue against it,” Ward, 32, replied when asked if the victor deserves promotion to the summit of the P4P mountain. “I’m saying this based on both of our resumes and the fact that we are both willing to step up and face each other at this stage of our careers. We’re both 30-0 (to be fair, Kovalev does have a two-round technical draw with Grover Young, who claimed he was unable to continue after receiving an inadvertent punch behind the ear in their Aug. 27, 2011, bout) and we both have a lot to gain and a lot to lose. I think that the winner of this fight should be pound-for-pound No. 1.”

Countered the 33-year-old Kovalev:  “We’ll see about this after the fight.  But of course this fight is an opportunity for both of us to show the boxing world who is the best pound-for-pound. It is going to be a war between us. Who is the best boxer and who is the best athlete?”

If ring history has demonstrated anything, however, it is that the greater the expectations, the greater potential for disappointment should the choicest cut of steak fail to match its tantalizing sizzle. A prime example of such deflated hopes came on May 2, 2015, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. scored a typically efficient unanimous decision over fellow superstar Manny Pacquiao in the highest-grossing prizefight of all time. Although a classic battle had been promised by all concerned, what actually was delivered was something more akin to a high-level chess match, at least on Mayweather’s part.

Mayweather nonetheless was voted the Sugar Ray Robinson Award as Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America, but the bout itself lost out in balloting for the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier Fight of the Year Award to the much-less-heralded but hugely entertaining scrap between WBC super featherweight champion Takashi Miura and challenger Francisco Vargas, which Vargas won on a ninth-round stoppage.

It is thus left to Kovalev and Ward to not only produce a confrontation worthy of taking its place alongside such cherished epics as, say, Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Tayor I or Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, but to replicate the level of crowd-pleasing action for the current frontrunners for Fight of the Year, Francisco Vargas’ 12-round majority draw with Orlando Salido, a barnburner in which the pair combined to throw a CompuBox-record 1,593 power punches, and WBA welterweight champ Keith Thurman’s razor-thin unanimous decision over Shawn Porter.

On paper, at least, Kovalev-Ward should be every bit as good as advertised; Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist from Oakland, Calif., who has not lost since a boxing match since he was 12 years old, is favored by the narrowest of margins over the harder-hitting but perhaps less well-rounded Kovalev, a native of Kopeysk, Russia, who now resides in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

So how do you see it, Bernard Hopkins?

“It’s a fight that got made because both fighters wanted it,” said Hopkins, the ageless wonder who lost a wide unanimous decision to Kovalev on Nov. 8, 2014. “They looked for reasons to make it happen instead of reasons for not making it happen, and I give both sides a lot of credit for that.

“It’ll come down to who is able to dictate the tone and the pace. If Sergey Kovalev gets Andre Ward’s respect early, it’s going to be a rough night for Ward. But if Ward is able to systematically dissect Kovalev and not get in his line of fire early, he has a greater chance of winning because he’s the better all-around fighter. He has that extensive amateur background and isn’t going to be surprised by anything he sees from Sergey. He’s a student of the game. I see a lot of the young Bernard Hopkins in Andre Ward.”

Prodded to get off the fence and make a prediction as to the outcome, Hopkins, never shy about offering his opinion on anything, basically punted.

“I say a draw,” he said after some deliberation. “It’s 50-50.”

But, perhaps without even being aware of it, B-Hop – a defensive wizard whose strength, like Mayweather’s, is nudging opponents out of their comfort zone — might have offered more insight than he realized when he likened Ward to a younger version of himself.

“I know they (the fans) want blood, they want to see me knocked down and staggered,” Ward said of many spectators’ more primal instincts, the sort that aren’t always sated once the bell rings. “I’ve studied this sport for many years and if you look at old footage of Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather, it’s the same kind of things that were said about them. Those three guys are legends and hall of famers. You can’t be worried about (pleasing the crowd) because you some people get it and some won’t.

“Boxing has never been about one thing. In this day and age, the public is told that if it isn’t a knock-down, drag-out fight and one guy’s ear isn’t hanging off then it wasn’t worth your time or money. I don’t think that’s fair to the fighters, or fair to the (astute) fans. I feel the general public should be educated on what it’s looking at.”

If that isn’t an out-and-out admission that Ward is intent on doing unto Kovalev what Mayweather slickly did to Pacquiao or Hopkins to Kelly Pavlik, then it’s the next closest thing.  It’s a funny thing about fight plans, though. Sometimes they don’t work out quite the way you think they will.

Kovalev has underappreciated boxing skills, but he is at heart a blunt-force-trauma kind of fighter who has won 13 of his last 15 bouts inside the distance. He will be looking to batter Ward into submission just as he has done to so many others.

“I want to destroy him,” Kovalev said of his standard objective. “I will kick his ass.”

Kovalev’s trainer, John David Jackson, said his guy is more technically efficient than some have been led to believe.

“Ward is smart at what he does, but a lot of what he does is not fighting,” Jackson surmised. “It’s surviving and making his opponent frustrated with the tactics that he uses. Sergey, on the other hand, is a pure all-around fighter. He doesn’t come into the ring trying to be a one-punch knockout artist. In his brilliance he looks to break down his opponents systematically. He does want a knockout, but he knows how to build up to the knockdown. He cuts the ring off and breaks guys down to the body.”

Kovalev-Ward is a good bet to produce the Fighter of the Year. Whether it is hailed as the Fight of the Year remains to be seen.

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