WARD-KOVALEV REFLECTIONS by Thomas Hauser — 2016 has been a disappointing year for boxing fans. Few of the fights that we wanted to see actually happened. Instead, we saw Canelo Alvarez running away from Gennady Golovkin; Tyson Fury taking a knee; the decline of Premier Boxing Champions; and the ruination of boxing in New York. The sport was hungry for a big fight that would showcase the best fighting the best. Within that framework, the November 19 match-up between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev loomed as the most important fight of the year.
Ward had a storied amateur career. He started boxing at age nine with Virgil Hunter as his trainer and lost his first bout. He fought 124 more times as an amateur and lost only four of those fights.
“I remember vividly the last time I lost a fight and the emotions I felt before and after,” Andre recently told this writer. “I was thirteen, almost fourteen years old and fighting a guy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, named John Revish in the finals of the National Silver Gloves. I knew he was good. I knew he was a puncher. And I allowed myself to be beaten before the fight started. Fear plays a large role in boxing. It’s how you use the fear that counts. Fear can motivate you. But if it goes to the dark side, you can be paralyzed by fear. That’s what happened to me in that fight, and I promised myself I’d never let it happen again.”
Ward won a gold medal in the 178-pound division at the 2004 Athens Olympics and is the only American male to have gold-medaled in boxing since 1996. The high point of his professional career to date has been an undefeated run in Showtime’s 168-pound “Super-Six” tournament that saw him vanquish Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch. Andre emerged from the tournament as a hot property. Gracious, well-spoken, 27 years old, he was grouped with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao at the top of most pound-for-pound lists. Nine months later, he knocked out Chad Dawson. Dawson was dead at the weight, but it was still a pretty good win.
Then things soured. Promotional problems, nagging injuries, and a disinclination to go in tough led Ward to four fights in four years against less than stellar opposition (Edwin Rodriguez, Paul Smith, Sullivan Barrera, and Alexander Brand). Three of those four bouts went the distance. And Roc Nation Sports (Andre’s new promoter) was unable to build the Ward brand to the extent that it wanted to.
Kovelev, now 33, was born in the factory town of Kopeysk, Russia. By his own admission, he participated in more than a few street robberies when he was young. At age eleven, he walked into a boxing gym for the first time.
“When I was in the amateurs,” Kovalev says, “I never thought that someday I would turn pro. For me, professional boxing was crazy, I thought pro boxing was just beating the whole brain out of your head. It’s very dangerous. In the amateurs, it was enough with injuries and some hard fights. I felt like I would never be able to do twelve rounds. My wife pushed me to turn pro. [A friend of Kovalev’s current manager, Egis Klimas] found me in Russia and met with me in Moscow and we started to talk about professional boxing. I started to think about it, but it was a maybe. Finally, I made my decision after the 2008 Russian championships, when I won the final fight and the victory was given to my opponent.”
Kovalev began his pro career in the United States in 2009 under the tutelage of trainer Don Turner. He now lives in Florida and, like Ward, entered the ring on November 19 undefeated as a pro. Sergey was also the reigning IBF, WBA, and WBO 175-pound champion and widely regarded as the best light-heavyweight in the world. John David Jackson is his current trainer, but Turner is still in the corner on fight night.
One of the remarkable things about Kovalev is his growing fluency in English.
“Sergey couldn’t speak English when he came to America,” Ellen Haley (director of publicity for Main Events) says. “It’s remarkable how much he has learned. If we say something he doesn’t understand, he’ll ask what it means and repeat it with us several times.”
As for boxing, John David Jackson observes, “Sergey’s biggest advantage is his punching power. Power like his is God-given. You either have it or you don’t, and he has it. His second biggest advantage is he’s a better boxer than most people give him credit for. Sergey is a very good boxer. He’s a very good technician. He knows how to box. He has better boxing skills than people realize.”
Kovalev doesn’t just knock people down; he hurts them.
“You never know when and how life will punch you,” Sergey says.
Virtually all fighters come from hard origins. When they start boxing, they substitute one kind of hard life for another. Like Kovalev, Andre Ward personifies that truth.
Ward was born in San Francisco to a black mother and white father. Both of his parents were addicts. His father’s curse was heroin; his mother’s, cocaine. Andre’s mother was largely absent during his childhood. Frank Ward tried to be a good father and provide for his two sons. But several stints in rehab spoke to the trouble he had staying clean.
Virgil Hunter took Andre and his brother in to live with his own family when Andre was twelve. Frank Ward died when Andre was sixteen. After that, Andre, by his own admission, went through a period of drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd. With Hunter’s help, he got back on track and qualified for the 2004 Olympics.
Looking back on it all, Ward says, “I got my values from my dad. He had his demons, but he died clean and sober. He’s been gone for over a decade now. If I could have him back for a day, I’d tell him how much I miss him and love him. I’d tell him about where I am in my career; the gold medal and everything that’s happened since then. And I’d want him to see my family.”
Religion and boxing have given Ward’s life structure.
“My relationship with God is my foundation,” he states. “It’s the reason I’m able to be a good husband, a good father, and a good friend.”
Ward and his wife, Tiffany, live in a gated-community in Oakland with their four children (three sons and a daughter). Virgil Hunter looks at Andre’s life today and observes, “Andre knows who he is. He knows what he wants. And he has made enough money now to be okay with his past.”
Brin-Jonathan Butler in an article for Undefeated described the experience of meeting Ward for the first time: “There’s charm in his smile and warm handshake. But something changes when you feel the first chill from the cool breeze of his intelligence and power of observation. He has the poised glance of a masterfully composed croupier, giving away nothing while reflexively sizing up and processing all available data.”
Ward is articulate and thoughtful. There’s a dignity and pride about him that are sometimes mistaken for arrogance. He’s guarded and protects himself at all times. One gets the impression that, in all public situations, whether it’s in or out of the ring, Andre’s first instinct is to do a risk-reward calculation. Whatever situation he’s in, he wants to be control. He also takes great care in how he presents himself to the world.
“I don’t do a lot of interviews.,” Ward acknowledges. “I love speaking to the media if someone is really interested in listening. But too often, someone comes in. They already have a point of view, and all they want is to take a few quotes out of everything I say that they can use to validate the way they’ve already decided they want to portray me.”
Here, it should be noted that, after a long one-on-one interview with Andre several weeks ago, I compared my notes with some of the quotes in Butler’s article. In many instances, the wording was virtually identical. To repeat: Ward takes great care in how he presents himself to the world.
“I don’t want my story to be reduced to just another cliché; rags to riches, kid from the ghetto, and all that.” Ward told Butler. “I know I’m very guarded. How do you think I survived? Guarded is what got me by. But I want people to know what I’ve come through and overcome because maybe that can inspire somebody.”
Among other personal thoughts Ward has shared are:
* “I know what it is to be bi-racial, when both sides don’t accept you and you have that confusion of not feeling accepted. You’re left asking, ‘Who am I?’”
* “I’m aware of some of the things that people say about me. I’m boring. I don’t have a personality. I don’t do this; I don’t do that. I don’t engulf myself in it anymore the way I used to. I’m more secure now in who I am.”
* “They always say you change after you get famous. They don’t tell you that, really, it’s everyone else around you that changes.”
* “I’m not chasing fame. I’m fine with going places and no one knowing who I am.”
“I don’t know Andre Ward,” Hall-of-Fame matchmaker Bruce Trampler says. “Without knowing much about his promotional situation, I don’t like the way he left Dan Goossen [Andre’s previous promoter]. But in addition to his being a very good fighter, there’s one other thing that impressed me about him. I was in Reno in 2010 for a Top Rank card to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Jack Johnson against Jim Jeffries. It was the day of the fight. I was in a hamburger place called Johnny Rocket’s that was in the hotel. Ward was there with his wife and children, sitting about twenty feet away from me. I didn’t know him on a personal level and I didn’t want to intrude on his time with his family, so I didn’t go over to say hello. But I did watch him. And I was very impressed by the way he interacted with his family and the way he treated people who came over to him to say hello. I said to myself, ‘This guy has class. He’s a nice guy.’”
Ward is a consummate professional. He always comes prepared to fight. At the kick-off press conference for Kovalev-Ward, he told the media, “You don’t prepare for these moments in eight to ten weeks. I’ve been preparing for this moment since I was a kid. You guys only see us once or twice a year. Imagine what’s going on when you’re not around.”
The fact that Ward won an Olympic gold medal at 178-pounds, dropped down to 168 pounds when he turned pro, and stayed in the super-middleweight division until 2015 shows considerable discipline on his part. As for his ring craftsmanship, Hamilton Nolan writes, “Watching him for a round or two does not always reveal the depth of his talent. His speed is not blinding and his power is not overwhelming. His greatest gift is decision-making. At any given moment, he is always making the right choice. This starts as almost imperceptible and, over the course of a fight, adds up to domination. Every tiny mistake an opponent makes pulls Ward closer to victory. To an even greater degree than Mayweather, Ward is the thinking man’s champ.”
“I find a way to win,” Ward states. “That’s what I specialize in. I find a way. Half the battle is getting in the ring. Either you’re courageous or crazy to do it, but I get there.” Then he adds, “A fighter needs a mean streak. I wouldn’t want to be in the sport without one. I have a heart. I don’t want my opponent to be hurt badly. But during the fight, I’m not thinking about it.”
Ward’s hero is Roy Jones. “Roy is something special to me,” Andre says.
Suppose Ward got in the ring, and Roy Jones in his prime was in the opposite corner?
“That’s a tough one,” Andre answers. “Roy is the guy. He’ll always be the guy in my mind. Part of it would be the mental part of fighting someone I’ve always looked up to. Like all fighters – all athletes, really – I have a switch. I’d have to turn the switch like Larry Holmes did with Ali and say, ‘We’re not friends right now. It’s not teacher and student. I’m your equal.’ And once I did that; Roy was such a great fighter. He’s a guy I’d really have problems with. I’d go with a heavy dose of fundamentals. From time to time, I’d try to show him a bit of himself; lead left hooks and things like that. But mostly fundamentals.”
Boxing has taken a toll on Ward over the years.
“You don’t feel most of the punches,” he says. “They’re just reminders. But I really don’t like to get hit. I feel violated every time I get hit. And 125 amateur fights, thirty professional fights, all that training. I’ve taken a lot of punishment. You might not see it. I might not be lying on the canvas, unconscious. But my wife sees me when I have trouble getting out of bed and I’m in pain for days after a fight.”
“Andre doesn’t want to be great,” HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley says. “He wants to be perfect.”
Kovalev-Ward shaped up as the biggest ring challenge either man had faced to date. It was a toss-up fight between two elite boxers. And unlike a situation where an aging champion is challenged by a considerably younger opponent, age wouldn’t be a factor. Kovalev is only ten months older than Ward.
There was a hint of controversy at the September 6 kick-off press conference in New York.
“When I see Andre Ward [in the hotel] this morning,” Kovalev advised the media, “I say ‘hi.’ He didn’t even say ‘hi.’ Nothing. F*** him.”
“We’re getting ready to fight,” Ward responded. “We’re not friends. We’re not buddies. We passed in the hallway. I gave him a head nod. I don’t know what he was looking for. If he’s using that to motivate himself, that’s cool.”
Kovalev-Ward was Andre’s first fight in Las Vegas. Sergey had fought there twice before but never in a major bout. It was the first pay-per-view fight for either man. And it was a legacy fight for both of them.
The contest also had huge implications for Roc Nation Sports (Ward’s promoter) and Main Events (which promotes Kovalev).
Boxing has been a money-losing venture for Roc Nation Sports. Its flagship fighters (Ward and Miguel Cotto) have huge contractual guarantees. And after two years, the rest of its boxing program has yet to develop. The sweet science has been a cash drain for Roc Nation founder, rap impressario Shawn Carter a/k/a Jay Z. But he can afford it.
Main Events, by contrast, is a boxing promotional company that has to make ends meet based on its revenue flow from the sweet science. At present, its primary revenue stream is generated by Kovalev.
Kovalev-Ward never rose in magnitude as an event to the level of its merit as a fight. The November 8 presidential election dominated the pre-fight news, and the Chicago Cubs’ World Series triumph all but eliminated boxing from the sports media. Boxing still suffers from the fan resentment that followed the May, 5, 2015, encounter between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Pacquiao’s November 5 fight against Jesse Vargas siphoned off some pay-per-view dollars that might otherwise have gone to Kovalev-Ward. UFC’s November 12 card at Madison Square Garden (which marked the return of MMA to New York) was another distraction. During fight week, there was more talk in the general sports media about the possibility of Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor and Mayweather-Pacquiao II than there was about Kovalev-Ward.
Kovalev’s partisans noted that it had been a long time since Ward went in tough. Moreover, Andre’s primary opponents in the “Super-Six” tournament – Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler, and Arthur Abraham – were good fighters but not great ones. Kovalev would have been heavily favored to beat any of them. Sergey’s November 2014 victory over Bernard Hopkins was also seen as a factor. The mental pressure, mind games, and tactical measures that went into fighting Hopkins were expected serve Kovalev well against Ward.
“The same thing that happened to Hopkins will happen to Ward,” John David Jackson said.
Jackson also said the following:
* “A lot of so-called experts say that Ward is the smarter fight. Ward is smart at what he does, but a lot of what he does is not fighting. It’s surviving and making his opponent frustrated with the tactics that he uses. Sergey can fight against any style. He’s very intelligent in the ring. He knows how to solve other fighters’ defensive mechanisms.”
* “Ward is crafty and patient. But you can’t be that patient and crafty when you got a guy who has bombs in both hands. You don’t have time to dictate the pace of the fight and jab here and hold there when you have a guy coming at you with power in both hands. He’s not going to be able to do all of the things that he wants to do. This fight here, he has to fight. Then he’s rolling the dice. If Ward engages, he’ll make himself vulnerable and leave himself open to counter-punches.”
* “Sergey is a pure all-around fighter. He can fight you if it comes down to it. But on the flip side, Sergey is a very intelligent boxer. He doesn’t come into the ring trying to be a one punch knockout artist. He looks to break down his opponents systematically. He does want a knockout, but he’s learned how to build up to the knockout. He knows how to cut the ring off and break guys down to the body.”
* “If Sergey hits him flush, Ward will go down like a ton of bricks. If Ward tries to prove that he has power, that would work to our advantage because it means he’ll have to stand there and try to engage with Sergey. Ward has a handgun; he’s a fighting against a tank; and the tank is smart.”
“You can be a technician. Don Turner added. “You can be this; you can be that. But when you get hit by Kovalev, everything changes.”
Could Kovalev win a decision against Ward?
“The judges gave Sergey every round against Hopkins,” Turner said.
But those who thought Ward would win voiced equal confidence. Good defense beats good offense in most sports. Andre had risen to the occasion at the Olympics and the Super-Six tournament. Bart Barry spoke for many of his sportswriting brethren when he opined, “Ward has approximately twice Kovalev’s craft and can effectively fight while moving in three times as many directions as Kovalev, who does incredibly well while moving forward and moving forward.”
Kovalev’s signature wins had been against Hopkins (a tough out, but 49 years old at the time) and Jean Pascal (who’d lost to both Hopkins and Carl Froch).
“I’m not Bernard Hopkins,” Ward declared. “And no disrespect to Bernard, I’m not 49 years old, almost 50, which is what Bernard was when he fought Kovalev.”
“One way to beat Kovalev is to get off first,” Virgil Hunter said. “Hit him just hard enough to keep him off balance and force Sergey to reset. Bernard Hopkins knew that. But at age 49, he couldn’t do it.“
“Andre hits hard enough to get Kovalev’s attention,” Hunter continued. “And his punches are sharp enough to cut. If Andre gets Kovalev’s attention early, if Kovalev says to himself, ‘This guy hits harder than I thought,’ it changes the flow of the fight. Can Andre knock Kovalev out with one shot? No. But he can hit Kovalev often enough and hard enough to knock him out.”
Ward also had his say on the matter:
* “I don’t have a style. I’m formless. I’m unpredictable. People can’t put their finger on my style. I can’t put my finger on my style. My greatest asset is my mind and the fact that people underestimate me. They look at me and say, ‘He’s good; he can box.’ But I’m more than that. I do what I have to do to win. I am what I need to be.”
* “Kovalev is not just a big puncher. He’s a boxer. He’s a thinker. He understands range, positioning, and things like that. He comes from a good boxing background. He’s technically sound. He can do multiple things in the ring. We’re not ignorant of that. There’s a lot more to him than just being a big puncher. But most European fighters like range. They aren’t trained to fight on the inside. Obviously, that’s something we’ll try to take advantage of. It’s all about execution.”
* “At the end of the day, many people make the same mistake with me. They call me a great boxer or a great neutralizer, but there’s so much more going on with me than that. If I was just about defense and neutralizing, then a lot of these big punchers would walk through me. And there’s a reason they don’t.”
* “However Kovalev wants to bring it, we’ve got our game plan. It’s about making constant adjustments, the ebbs and flows. You got to find ways to make adjustments to get the job done in those big moments. That’s what’s going to separate the guy who gets his hand raised at the end of the fight from the guy who doesn’t.”
Lennox Lewis visited the media center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas one day before Kovalev-Ward and reminisced about being at ringside with Andre in Montreal for the second Kovalev-Pascal fight.
“Andre was there to check out Kovalev,” Lennox recalled. “And after a few rounds, he told me, ‘I’ve seen what I have to see. He doesn’t know enough.’”
That said; both sides understood that the outcome of Kovalev-Ward was very much in doubt.
Sergey Kovalev: “This fight is a huge test for me. He’s a great boxer. He’s a great champion. He’s undefeated. This fight is fifty-fifty who will win. Underdog, favorite; it does not matter.”
Andre Ward: “Sergey is good. To be honest with you, I expected Kovalev-Hopkins to be more competitive than it was. But I’ve been in these situations before. So has Kovalev. He’s got to get it done. I’ve got to get it done.”
John David Jackson: “Ward is a very smart fighter. He has been able to be evasive and avoid the big shots. He does that very well. He suffocates his opponents so they can’t punch. He is able to deflect a lot of your strengths while exposing a lot of your weaknesses. There’s been a lot of talk on both sides. Come Saturday, that’s all over with and it will be about who’s the best man in the ring.”
Virgil Hunter: “We’re in with a dangerous fighter. We know that. I want the best Andre Ward and the best Sergey Kovalev in the ring on fight night. Then we’ll see who’s the better fighter.”
Just prior to each fighter weighing in at the division limit of 175 pounds, Don Turner was asked, “What’s going to happen in this fight?”
“Who knows?” Turner answered.
Part Two of “Reflections on Kovalev-Ward” will be posted on The Sweet Science tomorrow.
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.