The 1980s passed into history, what, 27½ years ago? So much has changed in America and in the world since then. But maybe not as much as any of us would like to believe.
Although the Soviet Union – once characterized by U.S. President Ronald Reagan as the “Evil Empire” – officially dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991, some of those old-time tensions between America and Russia again are bubbling to the surface. Even though there now are Russian billionaires (one of whom, Mikhail Prokhorov, is the majority owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets) living lavishly in the U.S. and a 2016 American presidential candidate (Bernie Sanders) whose socialist vision would have played well in Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution, all it takes to bring back memories of the Iron Curtain, Berlin Wall, nuclear arms race and spying on an epic scale by both sides is to turn on a television set. The hot-button word now in the political arena is “collusion,” and even in sports attention is turning to the once-familiar philosophical divide as represented by a power-punching Russian fighter against a smaller American who has been cast as a heroic figure since he became his country’s last male Olympic gold medalist in boxing at the 2004 Athens Games.
Is Ward-Kovalev II, to be staged Saturday night at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay (and televised via HBO Pay Per View), a virtual reenactment of 1985’s Rocky IV, with the snarling Sergey Kovalev the presumed embodiment of Soviet destroyer Ivan Drago and Andre Ward as the Stars-and-Stripes-draped Rocky Balboa equivalent? Depends on whom you ask.
“I’ve tried to stay out of the politics, whether it’s concerning our government or boxing,” Ward (31-0, KOs), from Oakland, Calif., replied when posed the ticklish question he just as soon would have sidestepped. “It’s best for me to just stay out of it completely. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not honored to represent my country, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do since I’ve been a little boy at the Junior Olympics level, all the way up to the Olympics. I’ve had a lot of international competition.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to live here in the United States and to represent my country. I’ve always tried to do that no matter who I’m fighting. I know there are parallels (to the Cold War and Rocky IV) for the players involved. It’s something that’s interesting, but I pretty much stay out of that.”
At first glance, the Rocky IV thing would not seem to apply here. The 34-year-old Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs), from Kopeysk, Russia, now resides in Los Angeles with his family and seems to have adapted quite comfortably to American-style capitalism. He is promoted by an American (Main Events CEO Kathy Duva) and is trained by an American (former WBO super welterweight and WBA middleweight champion John David Jackson). He even claims to have as many U.S. fans, if not more, than Ward, who won their first meeting last Nov. 19 on a razor-thin (all three judges scored it 114-113) and controversial unanimous decision.
“When I lost, I take a lot of punishment (criticism), in Russia more than America,” Kovalev said. “But even in America, boxing fans of Ward text me by Facebook, by Instagram, by social media that I won the fight. One read, `I No. 1 fan of Andre Ward, but he lost. You won. Right now I am your fan.’”
If, as Kovalev insists, rooting interests are not starkly drawn along nationalistic lines, why does Ward-Kovalev II feel as if it’s at least somewhat of a time-capsule return to the 1980s and a clash of competing ideologies?
For one thing, there were allegations of possible collusion not involving Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Two key members of Team Ward, manager James Prince and attorney Josh Dubin, claimed that Jackson had surreptitiously contacted the Ward camp and offered his services as a sort of double-agent. It is a contention that Jackson and Kovalev adamantly deny, adding additional intrigue to a plot line already rife with it. Jackson admits that there was contact, but it was initiated by Prince and Dubin and he immediately rejected the proposal.
“For them to say that I reached out to them, come on,” Jackson said with incredulity. “Seriously?”
Added Kovalev: “Most likely, they contacted John and they were trying to get some kind of strategy or some kind of secrets of my preparations for the fight. When they got the answer – no – they decided to raise a flag, that John is trying to get into their side.”
Boxing, of course, has long relied on standard-issue differences to hype matchups, and especially so when so much is at stake. Black vs. white is always a standby, and might also be at play in this instance, as are slugger vs. stylist, young vs. old, region vs. region and nation vs. nation. Two of the most eagerly anticipated bouts ever, pitting Germany’s Max Schmeling against America’s Joe Louis in the 1930s, were widely depicted as referendums on the respective merits of Nazism and American idealism, even if Schmeling was not a Nazi and racial inequality was still prevalent throughout much of the U.S.
There is general agreement that, the first time around, Kovalev – who registered a second-round knockdown – got the better of it in the first half of the scheduled 12-rounder, but that he faded down the stretch, opening the door for Ward to squeeze out that one-point margin on the scorecards submitted by judges Burt Clements, John McKaie and Glenn Trowbridge. Kovalev, not surprisingly, disagreed with the outcome, and he was not alone in that assessment. He since has steadfastly denounced Ward, 33, as a “fake champion” whose annexation of Kovalev’s WBA, IBF and WBO light heavyweight titles was a gross miscarriage of justice perhaps borne of patriotic bias.
“I’m a guest here in the USA and he’s a local, and all three judges are from the USA (as well as referee Robert Byrd),” Kovalev complained after the first fight. “This is sport. Don’t make it like politics.”
Jackson said he “had it 9-3 for us (in rounds) and, at worst, 8-4 for us. (Kovalev) won the fight. He dominated the first half of the fight. The second half he didn’t dominate as much as he could have, but what Ward did didn’t really justify him getting the decision. Sergey won the fight hands down.”
The sniping between the two camps has become increasingly personal, especially on the Kovalev side. “Krusher” has taken to referring to Ward as “Son of Judges,” a snarky spin on his “Son of God” nickname, and he vows not to allow men with pencils (three new American judges, Glenn Feldman, Dave Moretti and Steve Weisfeld, have been assigned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, as has referee Tony Weeks) to determine his fate again. Kovalev said his mission is to “beat the s— from (Ward) because he doesn’t deserve the belts and the status of a champion. I want to put him in his place,” that place being on the canvas and down for the count.
For his part, Ward appears to be nonplussed by Kovalev’s promise of violent retribution. If the Russian is a five-alarm fire, he intends to enter the ring as cool as a block of ice and fight like that, detached, unemotional, smart and effective.
“I really don’t know if the man is putting on a game,” Ward said of Kovalev’s histrionics. “I think he and his side, they out-think themselves. They’re trying to get in our heads and trying to do so much that they’re confusing themselves. A lot of what they do and say doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve been dealing with this so long, the threats and putting out stories that aren’t true, it just doesn’t move you.”
So now it’s on to the rematch that might or might not have implications that extend beyond the ring. Only the fighters can say for sure whether they’ll be striking blows just for themselves or for considerations that touch the hearts of any individual who has pledged allegiance to what they believe to be a higher cause.
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