Handicapping the rematch in boxing should be easier than handicapping the first meeting between two elite championship caliber fighters. And in some ways it is and other times, because of factors involving more than just who is the greater combatant, it isn’t. This is in play this weekend when light heavyweight champ Andre Ward 31-0 (15) fights Sergey Kovalev 31-1-1 (26), the man he dethroned for the title last November via a controversial 12-round unanimous decision.
When the bell rang to end the 12th and final round of their first meeting, I felt it was close but Kovalev won. As the fighters were waiting for the official decision, Ward seemed, via his body language, that he wasn’t sure he won, opposed to Kovalev, who in my view projected the air of someone who was certain he won.
“I had no emotions, no energy to do something, you know? I was empty and I was just killed by (the) decision. I shouldn’t do something. I couldn’t change something. What happened has happened. I just understood that I was robbed and I don’t have any more belts now.” Sergey Kovalev
“When you have three different judges who aren’t communicating throughout the course of a fight, who do this professionally and you look and yet they had some rounds here and there that may have been different but the same conclusion, whether it’s my fight or any other fight, I think you got to tip your hat to them.” Andre Ward
Based on their reactions alone, it’s obvious Ward, since he gave a cerebral song and dance justifying the decision in his favor, wasn’t as sure as Kovalev that he won. However, that doesn’t really matter because neither proved to the other that they were the superior fighter. Both will go into the rematch feeling as though they have something to prove but fully confident that they’re going to win. Ward wants to justify getting the decision, regardless of what he’s said – and Kovalev, more than exposing the decision, wants to show he’s clearly the better and more macho fighter. And that just might work to Ward’s advantage.
Historically, in bouts involving greats and near greats, when the assumed puncher beats the boxer in a close fight, if there’s a rematch the “boxer” or better “technician” usually wins. Muhammad Ali needed to see Joe Frazier a second time in order to figure he had to wrap up that left-hook when against the ropes and not attempt his own hooks and uppercuts from outside against Joe. Sugar Ray Leonard used his legs in his rematch with Roberto Duran and never attempted to fight him in the trenches. And Floyd Mayweather, who received a bigger gift in my opinion against Jose Luis Castillo the first time they fought, than Ward did against Kovalev, kept Jose occupied and at center ring, allowing himself the room to box and counter better in their rematch. Sure, there are examples of the puncher losing the first fight and adjusting to win the rematch, such as Joe Louis destroying Max Schmeling in one round when they fought the second time. But those instances are few and far between, and Joe Louis was also a great “boxer.”
For the rematch, Kovalev can’t change stylistically. He’s a boxer-puncher that must press the fight behind his strong jab in order to deliver his power shots. There may be some cookbook analysts who suggest something more sophisticated, but the guys making those remarks and videos would be laughed out of Kovalev’s camp. Sergey has to use his jab to keep Ward on his back foot, opposed to allowing him to counter it. As for Ward, I don’t believe he thinks he has to change much. Actually, I have a hunch he is going to try and use Kovalev’s presumed heavier aggression against him.
Strategically, Kovalev can only beat Ward by forcing the fight, something he believes he didn’t do enough of the last time because he tired. Ward seemed to be given rounds in the last fight more for not allowing Kovalev to steamroll him, than for what he actually did offensively. For months Sergey has been told he let Andre escape when he had him down in the second round, and that he wasn’t assertive enough during the second half of the fight. It’s safe to assume, based on Kovalev’s demeanor and the scoring of the last fight, that he’s going to let his hands go more this time, especially his power shots. Being that’s a given, Ward has probably trained himself to take advantage of Sergey’s over-aggression.
If you remember, back in the early to mid-70s, Muhammad Ali went out of his way to get Joe Frazier upset and mad. Muhammad figured he could take advantage of Joe if he was mad and reckless, but instead, it made Joe more determined and he pushed himself even more. Conversely, I don’t think fighting Andre Ward mad or in a semi-rage will help Kovalev as much as some folks do. In fact, I think it opens things up for Ward to get better and cleaner shots at Kovalev than he did the last time…..translating into Ward winning the rematch without any doubts. Basically, this time Kovalev will attempt to be more aggressive and Ward will look to survive, foul, tie him up and win ugly – and hope to get more clean shots on Kovalev if he’s more reckless than measured.
In picking the winner of big fights I have found that my first instinct is often the most accurate. This past November when the bell rang ending the first meeting between Ward and Kovalev, I immediately turned to a friend and colleague and said “Ward got beat but if they fight again, he wins without controversy.” If I think about it too long, I can make a case for both fighters coming out on top. But when I said “Ward wins the next time,” I remember being adamant as I had no reservations in thinking so. There was a reason for that — what exactly, I’m not quite sure — but whatever I picked up favoring Ward in a rematch was strong.
When the first bout concluded I felt confident that Kovalev, even thought I had him winning, wasn’t the greater fighter…..so I have to go with Ward by decision this time. But there is a caveat…..I know there’s no rematch clause in the contract, but I’m sorry, when handicapping big fights, the “what’s best for business?” aspect cannot be ignored. The winner versus any other light heavyweight is no more than a regular Showtime/HBO fight. A rubber match between Ward and Kovalev would be huge, especially if Kovalev escapes with a dubious decision, and that scares me picking Ward to win. I have no doubt that based on the decision in the last fight, American judges Glenn Feldman, Dave Moretti and Steve Weisfeld will be looking to shade the close rounds for Kovalev this time. And the more outrage there is over the decision again, the easier it will be to sell the rubber match. Couple that with the possibility that Ward may well retire if he goes up 2-0 over Kovalev, and another big payday will be gone. Whereas if Kovalev wins, with them being 1-1, it would make for a lucrative third fight and I can’t get that out of my mind.
Again, from a purely boxing vantage point, Ward has more ways to win, and should win. So for the record, relying on my initial feeling at the conclusion of the last fight and realizing Ward is the more versatile fighter, I’m staying with him……..but Kovalev eeking out a close or controversial decision to set up a third fight is more than plausible.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com