WARD-KOVALEV REFLECTIONS (2) by Thomas Hauser — Prior to the November 19 championship fight between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward, Ward had spent approximately ten hours in the ring in actual combat over the course of thirty professional fights. Kovalev had logged roughly four hours in 31 bouts. For 36 minutes of combat, they were at war with one another.
When I’m at ringside for a major fight, I watch the action closely for three minutes of every round. Most of the notes I take are written down on an 8-1/2 by 11-inch pad in the one-minute rest period between rounds. Occasionally, I scrawl a note during a round without looking down at my pad. I also score each round.
The notes I wrote while sitting in the press section during Kovalev-Ward are below. Some of these comments were cumulative and reflected what I’d seen in earlier rounds
Round 1 – Each man boxing cautiously. . . Ward coming in with his head down . . . Kovalev rocks Ward with a hard stiff jab . . . Ward holding on . . . Robert Byrd breaks them while Kovalev is pumping rights to the body.
Round 2 – Kovalev stalking . . . His jab is effective . . . Drops Ward with a straight right hand . . . Ward seems a bit shaken . . . They both threw right hands and Kovalev’s landed.
Round 3 – Ward leading with his head . . . Throwing elbows . . . Wrestling . . . Did fighting Hopkins prepare Kovalev for this?
Round 4 – Ward making defensive adjustments . . . Kovalev not scoring cleanly, but ineffective aggression is better than no aggression at all.
Round 5 – Very few clean punches landing . . . Lead left hook is Ward’s best weapon, but he hasn’t done much with it so far.
Round 6 – Ward wrestling, elbowing. The more he sees what Robert Byrd is letting him get away with, the more he does it.
Round 7 – Ward finding a better distance . . . Few solid punches landing. Stiff jabs elicit “oohs” from the crowd.
Round 8 – Kovalev stalking, Ward pot-shotting.
Round 9 – Kovalev seems to be tiring a bit . . . There are times when this resembles Greco-Roman wrestling.
Round 10 – Robert Byrd has been out of position too often in this fight. And he has given Ward license to do pretty much what he wants.
Round 11 – Ward seems a bit tired . . . Finally, Byrd warns Ward. Was it for lacing or a forearm to the throat. He did both . . . Several more low blows from Ward.
Round 12 – Ward comes out more aggressively . . . It was a good fight; not a great one.
It was a difficult fight to score. There were a lot of close rounds. According to CompuBox, Kovalev outlanded Ward by a 126-to-116 margin. Also, Sergey landed the harder blows. But take away round two and the statistics were roughly even.
Sitting at ringside, I scored the bout 115-113 (6-5-1 in rounds) for Kovalev. Most, but not all, of the media at ringside thought that Sergey had won. Harold Lederman of HBO scored the bout 116-111 for Kovalev. ESPN had it 115-112 for Kovalev.
All three judges – Burt Clements, Glenn Trowbridge, and John McKaie – scored the fight 114-113 in Ward’s favor. Watching a video replay several days later, I felt that 114-113 for Ward was within the realm of reason. But as Frank Lotierzo wrote afterward, “It’s easier to make the case for Kovalev winning than it is for Ward.”
Kovalev was more direct in his post-fight comments. “It is the wrong decision,” Sergey said. “The witnesses are here. They saw it. It is the USA, and all the judges were from the USA. It is a sport. Don’t make it politics. It is a sport, and I won the fight.”
Robert Byrd’s refereeing was more problematic than the judging. Byrd let Ward lead with his head and grapple for much of the fight. He overlooked Andre’s low blows, elbows, and forearms to the throat, and seemed more prone to break clinches when Kovalev had a free hand and was pumping blows to Ward’s body. Byrd was also out of position for much of the fight. His performance was disappointing and surprising since, in the past, he has usually positioned himself well and refused to tolerate excessive holding and other inappropriate tactics.
I don’t blame Ward for fighting the way he did. He did what he had to do to win. As long as Byrd let him get away with it, so be it. But Byrd is 74 years old. And men in their seventies have lost a step. Trust me; I’m seventy years old. I know.
Bob Bennett (executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) has defended Byrd’s refereeing of Kovalev-Ward.
“Robert was consistent,” Bennett said several days after the bout. “He didn’t want to dictate the flow of the fight. I don’t think his age was a factor. I think he did a good job.”
A contrary view was expressed by Larry Merchant. I had breakfast with Merchant at the airport on the morning after Kovalev-Ward. “I didn’t like the way Robert Byrd handled himself,” Merchant said. “It wasn’t a level playing field. There have been times when I’ve been really troubled by what I saw a referee do during a fight. I was troubled by Richard Steele at Chavez-Taylor. I was troubled by the way the referee [Eddie Cotton] handled Lewis-Tyson. I didn’t like the refereeing job [by Joe Cortez] at Mayweather-Hatton. And I was troubled by Robert Byrd last night. There was an aroma to it.”
A source close to the Nevada State Athletic Commission says that Byrd underwent back surgery last year. After refereeing Ishe Smith vs. Tommy Rainone in Las Vegas on December 18, 2015, he was out of action for nine months. That surgery should have been disclosed to each fighter’s camp before Kovalev-Ward. Had there been disclosure, it’s likely that the Kovalev camp would have pressed for a different referee.
Because of Byrd’s stewardship and controversy over the judges’ decision, Kovalev-Ward was not a fully satisfying night. Of course, Ward had predicted as much. “There always seems to be a ‘but’ in the equation when people talk about me,” Andre said earlier this month. “After I beat Kovalev, some people will give me my due and others will say that all I did was outbox him.”
Give Ward credit. He got off the canvas, fought to win, and won.
As for the future; the Kovalev camp says that it has an airtight clause that guarantees an immediate rematch. Roc Nation seems less than enthusiastic about that prospect.
Early indications are that the pay-per-view numbers for Kovalev-Ward will be disappointing. The announced attendance of 13,310 was far short of a sellout, and thousands of tickets were given away through Tidal (a global music and entertainment platform). Roc Nation had guaranteed Ward a reported $5 million to fight Kovalev. And Andre’s contract with his promoter would seem to indicate more red ink for Jay Z and company if Ward-Kovalev II happens.
Also, there’s no indication that Ward is chomping at the bit to get back in the ring with Kovalev. And Andre has been known to sit on the sidelines for long periods of time.
Meanwhile, it makes sense to step back and take a long look at Ward. Only in America could a boxer win an Olympic gold medal; be thoughtful, articulate, and a good family man; live his life free of scandal; emerge victorious from a legitimate “Super-Six” tournament; triumph over Sergey Kovalev; be recognized as one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound; and be largely ignored by the mainstream sports media.
How good a fighter is Ward?
“That’s not for me to say,” Andre answers. “But I know I’m a really good fighter. I’ve never cheated the sport. I’ve played my part in the amateurs and the pros. I’ve always given my all. Greatness is being able to repeat a great performance again and again and again. I think I’ve done that.”
“But boxing is just a season for me,” Ward continues. “It’s what I do. It isn’t who I am. I won’t be doing this forever. No one does. What I want is to walk away from boxing on my own terms. Right now, I have laser focus on finishing strong. Then I’ll look forward to whatever comes next. I’ll have a life after boxing. I just don’t know yet what it will be. And I hope that, after I leave the sport, boxing will be a little better because I was in it.”
It will be.
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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.