It was the signature fight of his career. He fought an undefeated opponent in the opponent’s home country. In spite of being undefeated and two years earlier beating the great Bernard Hopkins so decisively that all boxing fans finally knew Hopkins was finished as a championship caliber fighter, he was yet a slight underdog against an opponent who was moving up in weight to challenge him. Yes, I’m talking about former light heavyweight champ Sergey Kovalev 30-1-1 (26) as he was heading into his first bout against former undisputed super-middleweight champ Andre Ward 31-0 (15) last November.
Prior to facing Ward, Kovalev was winning his fights easily; so overwhelmingly, in fact, that he seldom lost a round. He showed versatility in that he could fight effectively from mid-range and also dominate on the inside. His power and steady aggression immediately forced his opponents into defending and trying to survive, including Hopkins. And in the early going of his bout with Ward, it looked as if that was going to be the case again. Kovalev dropped Ward in the second round with a good right hand, not necessarily the hardest he ever landed, but its impact was blunt enough to have Ward bracing for the canvas on the way down. Ward got up, used the next round or so to clear his head, and fought Kovalev on even terms and out-boxed him the rest of the way to make the ending controversial.
After 12 closely contested rounds, the three judges would have final say…..and all three scored it 114-113 Ward. After the fight, a poll of 63 media members revealed that 46 scored the fight for Kovalev, 16 saw it for Ward, and one scored it a draw. HBO’s Harold Lederman scored it 116-111 for Kovalev and former color analyst Larry Merchant called it a hometown decision, something Kovalev suggested when he was interviewed in the ring after the fight. Of the 16 who scored the fight for Ward, 11 of them only had Andre winning by a point. Conversely, an overwhelming majority of those who saw it for Kovalev had it by more than a point. I scored it 114-113 Kovalev watching it live with the second round knockdown being the difference. The case supporting Kovalev winning is only slightly stronger than the one for Ward and I have no issue with those who saw it for Ward. It was a very hard fight to score and too close for the decision to be considered a robbery. Pacquiao-Bradley I it wasn’t.
With the rematch approaching this weekend, something that hasn’t been debated is how the pressure is on Kovalev to win. Regardless of how much he and his fans believe he clearly defeated Ward the first time they fought, the record will stand forever that he lost. Furthermore, Kovalev, who has been promoted and hyped to be a special fighter, has only faced two marque/great opponents – Bernard Hopkins, who was two months shy of turning 50 when they fought, and Ward. And the record says he’s 1-1 in those bouts and the win was against a fighter who was a decade past his peak.
Legendary champions make their name and build their legacy beating fighters in or near their prime who are seen as their equal, which applies to Ward regarding Kovalev’s career resume. Ward can boast he beat Kovalev and scored the signature win of his career when they fought last year. He’s not under water and fighting the rematch to justify his standing as a great fighter because he’s already done that. His goal heading into the rematch is solely to add another layer of proof that he is the greater fighter and the judges scored the first fight correctly.
Kovalev faces a much more daunting task. For starters, he must win the fight and cannot be 0-2 versus Ward. Beating Ward this time will be even more difficult now that Andre survived the knockdown and excelled down the stretch. The odds are that Ward is going to be the most complete fighter that Kovalev faced during his prime. Great fighters are few and far between, and Sergey, in order to be thought of as being a special fighter, will always be linked to Ward, so it’s imperative that he beats him…….It’s plausible that at some point in the future, it’ll be difficult to mention Kovalev without mentioning Ward.
During the past month Kovalev has said that Ward punches like a girl and how badly he doesn’t want to just beat him, but to knock him out and end his career. That’s a big check to have to cover, especially against a fighter who hasn’t lost in the ring since he was a teenager and was gaining confidence as the last fight was ending. And of the two of them, Ward is the fighter who is more suited to adjusting his style for a second meeting. As good as Kovalev is — and yes he’s a good boxer and not just a “catch and kill” style fighter — he’s relying mostly on his power to turn the fight his way – and Ward knows it.
Fighters are measured by who they fought and beat and when they beat them. Kovalev doesn’t get a ton of credit for beating Hopkins conclusively because Bernard was on a steep decline. Some would argue that the Ward that Kovalev is facing this weekend isn’t Ward at his best, and they’re probably right, but Ward hasn’t shown signs of being on the decline. Beating Ward in 2017 is a big deal for Kovalev, and if he does it he will get his due props.
Rivalries in boxing are what fans remember. Yes, Roberto Duran lost two out of three to Sugar Ray Leonard, but Roberto was an established all-time great before they fought. Losing to Leonard doesn’t hurt Duran’s legacy, and he did win the most celebrated of their three fights. Kovalev doesn’t own a resume anywhere near as terrific as Duran’s. As of this writing you can’t mention Kovalev’s name without mentioning Ward. And that will be in play even more so after the rematch.
So if Kovalev were to lose, that is what he will probably be most remembered for. Sure, he can go on and possibly win the cruiserweight title and make a few successful defenses of it, but it won’t erase the fact that he couldn’t beat the best fighter of his generation, Andre Ward, in two tries. If he does prevail, he may get a chance to fight a rubber match, but if he doesn’t, he’ll never see Ward in the ring again and losing to him in consecutive bouts will diminish him historically and always haunt him. That is why Kovalev has more pressure on him. Unlike Ward, Kovalev is not playing with house money this time.
If Kovalev loses to Ward unambiguously, he will never eclipse it. In another close fight, business favors Kovalev getting the nod. The judges are going to be giving him a little more of a gift than in the first fight. So if he winds up losing a decision this time around, he won’t be able to build a case that he got robbed.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com