In a Flawed Promotion, Andre Ward Makes a Statement

THE HAUSER REPORT — In an earlier era, the June 17 rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev would have been a can’t-miss promotion. Two of the best fighters in the world reprising a 2016 encounter that ended in controversy with Ward prevailing on the judges’ scorecards by a razor-thin margin. But this is 2017. Instead of galvanizing boxing fans, Ward-Kovalev II was symbolic of boxing’s problems.

There was a rematch clause in the contract for Kovalev-Ward I, but Team Ward balked at moving forward with the sequel. Andre seemed ambivalent. And Roc Nation Sports (his promoter) stood to lose several million dollars on the promotion because of its contract with Ward. Meanwhile, Kovalev and Main Events (Sergey’s promoter) desperately wanted the rematch; Kovalev for competitive and monetary reasons, Main Events as a financial imperative.

In the end, the fact that the Kovalev-Ward I contract contained a binding rematch clause was dispositive of the issue. But to get Ward-Kovalev II off the ground, Main Events CEO Kathy Duva ceded control of the venture to Roc Nation.

“They wanted to control the promotion,” Duva told writer Steve Kim. “They wanted to set the tone. They specifically used those words. They were going to do things the Roc way. So this is the Roc way.”

Kovalev-Ward I was one of the most anticipated fights of 2016. The rematch was close to stillborn.

Roc Nation Sports was founded by Shawn Corey Carter a/k/a Jay Z in 2013 and has made inroads in numerous sports, most notably with the signing of NBA star Kevin Durant and the NFL’s Dez Bryant. But in two-and-half years, it has failed to show that it can promote boxing at a world-class level without losing money.

There are a lot of moving pieces that have to be assembled into a well-oiled machine for a big fight to be properly promoted. Roc Nation has yet to show that it has mastered that discipline. Its two flagship fighters – Miguel Cotto and Andre Ward – have been cash drains for the company because of unrealistically large guaranteed purses. Cotto and Roc Nation Sports parted ways earlier this year. Industry insiders wouldn’t be surprised if Roc Nation left boxing shortly.

Michael Yormark (president and chief of branding and strategy) is Roc Nation Sports’ most visible management figure. But many crucial decisions in areas where Roc Nation’s boxing program is intertwined with the company’s larger mission are heavily influenced by Desiree Perez.

Perez has been criticized as having an abrasive management style reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. As reported by the New York Daily News, she was arrested in New York in 1994 for possession with intent to distribute 35 kilograms of cocaine. Federal authorities charged that she was part of a major drug-distribution ring, and she faced spending well over a decade in prison. But she cooperated with authorities and, after pleading no contest to criminal charges, served fourteen months in prison followed by ten years probation. Thereafter, she turned her life around and has become one of the most trusted members of Jay Z’s inner circle.

Regardless of who is making the decisions at Roc Nation Sports, Ward-Kovalev II struggled financially from the start. And before long, the atmosphere turned toxic.

Kovalev was already bitter about the judges’ decision in Kovalev-Ward I.

“I had no emotions,” Sergey said of the moment when the verdict was announced. “I was empty. I was just killed by decision. I couldn’t change something. I just understood that I was robbed and I don’t have any more belts now. I just have one goal; to beat Andre Ward and beat all shit from him because he doesn’t deserve the belt and the status of a champion. I lost respect for him, the way he acts. I don’t like him. I want to punish him because he puts his nose really up. I know only one thing: I want to destroy him. I want to punish him and get my belts back.”

Ward took the high road in response, saying, “It’s a climate right now where there’s a lot of talking. Guys don’t do what they say they’re going to do. They don’t perform, and then they find excuses on why they didn’t perform. There’s only a handful of guys in history that talked and then backed it up. We don’t have a lot of that today. It’s not a video game. It’s real life, and you’ve got to live it out.”

“Anytime there’s a close decision you’re going to have opinions either way,” Ward noted. “I’ve never refuted the fact that it was a close decision. I respect Kovalev as a champion. I won’t call him a former champion. He’s the real deal.”

But then Andre tarnished his good-guy image by leaving town early and blowing off an edition of Face-Off that was scheduled to be recorded by HBO in Las Vegas on May 7, one day after Canelo Alvarez vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. That didn’t hurt Andre financially because Roc Nation had guaranteed him an oversized $6,500,000 purse for the fight. But it hurt Kovalev, Main Events, and Roc Nation, all of whom were dependent on pay-per-view buys as their primary revenue stream from Ward-Kovalev II.

Things deteriorated further from there.

Prior to Kovalev-Ward I, Team Ward had tried to sow discord in the Kovalev camp by floating the idea that Sergey was being underpaid by Main Events. In truth, based on the economic realities of the fight, Andre was being overpaid by Roc Nation, which has never been able to balance its boxing economic balance sheet.

In the build-up to Ward-Kovalev II, the Ward camp sought to drive a wedge between Sergey and his trainer, John David Jackson. Both James Prince (Ward’s manager) and Josh Dubin (Andre’s lawyer) claimed that Jackson had reached out to them about the possibility of working with Ward and Virgil Hunter in preparation for the rematch. “We thought about it strongly,” Prince told BoxingScene.com. “That’s why we were conversating with him, because we felt that he could be somewhat of an asset. But at the end of the day, it was an asset that we really didn’t need.”

Meanwhile, there seemed to be even more enmity between Main Events and Roc Nation than between the fighters. In an interview posted on Twitter, Michael Yormark declared, “They’ve done nothing to promote this fight. Kathy [Duva] really has done nothing. Sergey has done nothing. Let’s be honest. Sergey has no following. Main Events has had him for five, six years. What have they done with him? Nobody knows who he is. He has no following. He can’t sell tickets. He can’t sell pay-per-view.”

The problem with these attacks was that the promotional message was all wrong. It was focusing on personal insults rather than the merits of what was expected to be a very good fight.

Kovalev had started strong in Kovalev-Ward I, knocking Ward down in the second round before fading late.

“I’ve never had to come from behind like that in a professional fight,” Ward said afterward “I don’t want to be there, and I don’t feel like I should be there. But you prepare for those moments long before fight night.”

In addition to questioning the judges’ decision in Kovalev-Ward I, many people (this writer included) felt that referee Robert Byrd had interpreted the rules in a way that allowed Andre to lead with his head and grapple rather than box for much of the fight. However, Sergey put that issue to rest during the kick-off press tour for Ward-Kovalev II when he said, “The referee was good. I have no problems with the referee in the fight.”

Kovalev also said the reason he faded late in Kovalev-Ward I was that he’d overtrained for the bout. But that seemed like rationalization. And in any event, Ward contributed significantly to making Sergey tired.

“I’m not here to prove anything although, obviously, my goal is to win in a more definitive fashion.” Ward said as Ward-Kovalev II approached. “It’s my job to pick up where we left off. Of course, there’s adjustments that need to be made. But at the end of the day, I just have to be me and being myself is going to be enough. I fought this man for twelve rounds. There’s nothing scary about him. He didn’t knock me down in the ninth or tenth round and have me holding on to survive. He knocked me down in the second round, and I came back from it. Everybody wants to talk about the knockdown. Did you see the next ten rounds? June 17 won’t be any different except I’ll start a little earlier.”

The fight was contested at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

Kovalev’s “grand arrival” at Mandalay Bay was not so grand. Meeting with the media, Segey declared, “Ward and his team are liars. He said that he gave me this rematch as a present for the boxing fans. Don’t lie. It was in the contract that you must give me this or you retire. When I see his face, I want to punch it. I am very happy for this opportunity to smash his face. I don’t like this guy.”

At the final pre-fight press conference on Thursday, Kovalev spoke and then left the dais with the rest of his team before Ward was introduced.

Most promotions grow larger in the public consciousness as a fight approaches. Ward-Kovalev II seemed to shrink as the hour of reckoning neared.

Ward was a 7-to-5 betting favorite. Many media personnel who thought Sergey won the first fight were picking Andre in the rematch.

It was assumed that the bout would be interesting but not necessarily entertaining. That was the kiss of death. Few fans wanted to see rounds four through twelve of Kovalev-Ward I all over again. But the expectation was, that’s what they would get.

“The first fight,” Bart Barry wrote, “ended in a way that anticipates a predictable result the next time, no matter how many mean sentences the combatants speak about one another. Kovalev’s best chance of beating Ward happened ten rounds ago. Every moment since then has made a Kovalev victory less probable. As this fight nears, interest dwindles.”

Roc Nation did a good job of selling sponsorships. But pay-per-view buys were tracking at a dismally low level. Kovalev-Ward I had generated roughly 165,000 buys, which was a disappointing number. A source close to the promotion of Ward-Kovalev II says that, initially, Roc Nation maintained in marketing strategy sessions that, with proper promotion, Ward-Kovalev II could engender as many as 300,000 buys. In the end, the rematch fell short of the pay-per-view numbers for their first fight.

On Wednesday of fight week, tickets for Ward-Kovalev II were posted on Groupon at a 32 percent discount with an additional discount of $15 per order. Papering the house with “freebies” and selling tickets at discount is not uncommon in boxing. But usually, it’s quietly done. Selling tickets on Groupon is a public announcement that anyone who paid full price is a sucker.

Also on Wednesday of fight week, Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor was announced. That further marginalized Ward-Kovalev II in terms of media coverage and conversation among fans. On the morning of the Ward-Kovalev rematch, the New York Times sports section devoted most of its front page and much of page four to Mayweather-McGregor. The Times wouldn’t have devoted that space to Ward-Kovalev II under any circumstances. But it symbolized the latter’s plight.

Ward and Kovalev each weighed in at 175 pounds.

Kovalev was the aggressor in round one and did enough to win the stanza since Ward was in stay-away-from-me mode. In rounds two and three, Sergey continued moving forward. But Andre blunted his aggression with movement, kept Kovalev from getting off the way he wanted to, tied him up when Sergey got inside, and landed occasional punches that were hard enough to get Kovalev’s attention. Ward also began letting his hands go more (including a hook that landed below the belt and earned a warning from referee Tony Weeks).

By round five, Kovalev appeared to be tiring. He was still the aggressor but it had become ineffective aggression. He was losing his edge and seemed frustrated by his inability to land cleanly on Ward. More significantly, in a precursor of things to come, Ward landed two hurting body shots at the two-minute mark of round five. That was followed by a left hook up top in round six that was better than anything Kovalev had landed so far.

By round seven, Kovalev seemed to be just going through the motions. According to CompuBox, he would outland Ward by a 95-to-80 margin during the fight and have an edge in punches landed in every round but the fourth and final stanzas. But Andre was becoming dominant.

One minute into round eight, three body blows (at least one of them low) doubled Kovalev over and sent him back against the ropes. More body shots softened him up further. A straight right hand staggered him badly. Now Sergey was struggling to survive. There were more body shots, two of them flagrantly low . . . And referee Tony Weeks stopped the fight.

Ward was ahead 67-66 on two of the judges’ scorecards at the time of the stoppage and trailed 68-65 on the third.

Controversy followed.

Paulie Malignaggi was at ringside covering the fight for SKY-TV and said afterward, “I thought the stoppage was terrible. It wasn’t like he was hurt to the point where you had to stop the fight. You see guys get that hurt a lot of times in fights and you don’t even think about stopping the fight. Ward was hurting Kovalev to the body. But give the fight the proper ending. What’s going on? What was with that stoppage? All of a sudden, he stopped the fight. I wasn’t even sure what he was doing. I thought maybe he was calling a low blow. The last thing on my mind was that he was stopping the fight.”

Kathy Duva asked Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett for an immediate video review of the blows that led to the stoppage, which is legal under Nevada law. But Bennett declined and later explained, “The only way we can look at an instant replay is under one condition: when a punch or kick terminates the bout and the referee isn’t sure whether it’s a legal or illegal blow. I asked [Tony Weeks], ‘Do you want to look at the instant replay?’ And he said, “No. I’m satisfied they were on the beltline.”

By contrast, in the fight immediately preceding Ward-Kovalev (Guillermo Rigondeax vs. Moises Flores), referee Vic Drakulich acknowledged to Bennett that he was unsure whether a knockout punch had come before or after the bell ending round one. There was an immediate ringside video review of the issue. Bennett then relied on what he says was incorrect information given to him from the HBO production truck rather than make his own independent determination, and Rigondeaux was declared the winner by knockout. “No contest” would have been the correct ruling in that fight, and the Nevada State Athletic Commission is expected to act accordingly after a hearing later this week.

But back to Ward-Kovalev . . .

Ward said the body shots were “borderline.”

Kovalev didn’t object immediately when the fight was stopped. But grasping the full reality of the situation, he soon proclaimed, “He hit with four low blows. The ref didn’t call them. I felt I could have continued. This is bullshit.”

Main Events quickly sent out a press release headlined “Sergey Kovalev TKO’d by Low Blows.”

And Kathy Duva declared, “I’m still having a hard time processing what I just witnessed. I saw someone who should have been disqualified get his hand held up. Sergey got hit with three low blows, four actually, in the last round. We’ll file a protest on Monday.”

The final low blow in Ward-Kovalev is clearly shown on video at

https://twitter.com/streetfitebanch/status/876289907655938049/photo/1

The view from here is that Tony Weeks should have given Kovalev five minutes to recover from the low blows and deducted a point from Ward (who’d been previously warned for going low). Most likely, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Kovalev looked to be finished. But the same could have been said of Anthony Joshua after six rounds against Wladimir Klitschko. And boxing fans know how that turned out.

Meanwhile, controversy over the ending shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Ward turned in an impressive performance.

Andre was an Olympic gold medalist. He has fought and beaten more than a few top-tier fighters in their prime. His talent warrants his being regarded as a superstar. But as Larry Merchant recently noted, talent isn’t enough. Being a superstar requires that the public feel a connection to a fighter and be moved by him. Ward’s style of fighting is too clinical and he’s perceived as too aloof for that connection to occur.

Or as Matthew Swain wrote, “Ward is calculated precisely at every moment. In the ring, he uses balance, timing, and range to make the fight exactly as he wants it to be. It’s like a symphony that you know is technically perfect but lacks anything emotive. Ward is much the same in person. Every phrase, every facial movement, every appearance is controlled to room temperature.”

Ward views things differently.

“I’m boring because I don’t act a certain way on 24/7?” Andre asks rhetorically. “What’s that about? I’m understated. That’s my lane and I’m comfortable in it. I can’t go into a fight thinking about its entertainment value. I just need to do me, execute the game plan, and get my hand raised at the end of the fight.”

And in a June 7 media conference call, Ward elaborated on that theme, saying, “Everybody has to be careful when they say ‘the fans,’ because they don’t speak for all the fans. It amazes me that you’ll have one person speak for all boxing fans all over the world. If you love boxing, yes, you may have a certain style that you favor. But when I look at the sport of boxing; the guys that were on top for ten years, eight years, seven years, they could do it all. They could bang with you when it was to their advantage. They could outbox you when it was to their advantage. And if you love boxing, you love it all. I appreciate the boxer. I appreciate the boxer-puncher. I appreciate the brawler, who maybe doesn’t have the skill to box. I think it’s really selfish to just act as if one style is the only style that all fans across the world want to see and that everybody else is not worth watching. I think that’s inaccurate, and I don’t think that’s the way the sport should be represented.”

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.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.

Ward prevailing

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