When the “boxer” beats the “puncher” the first time they fight – the rematch is usually a repeat of the first fight. When light heavyweight champ Andre Ward 32-0 (16) won a disputed unanimous decision over Sergey Kovalev 30-2-1 (26), the man he dethroned for the title last November, he had to get up off the canvas from a 2nd round knockdown. He also had to stage a huge rally during the second half of the bout. However, during the second half of the first fight, Ward solved the conundrum of Kovalev’s reach and power, winning five of the last seven rounds to escape with a one-point decision on all three judges’ cards.
When the bell sounded for the first round of their rematch this past weekend, it resembled what round 13 would’ve looked like had there been one last fall. In fact, for all but one slight change, had they’d been wearing the same trunks as the first meeting, it would’ve been nearly impossible to tell this was a different bout….but it was and I’ll touch on that in a moment. As most know Ward won the fight via 8th-round TKO. Going into the eighth round I had the fight scored 67-67 or 3-3-1 by rounds. If forced to score the even round, I would’ve had it 4-3 Kovalev.
On June 15th I wrote a pre-fight/prediction article for the sweet science. Watching the first bout, it was glaring to me that Kovalev would be limited regarding adjustments and the so-called “plan-B” lexicon. Anyone who has watched Sergey fight knows he can only be effective fighting one way, and that’s coming forward behind his jab, which didn’t quite get the job done in the eyes of the judges the last time.
Here are a few different quotes from June 15th:
“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 who suggest something more sophisticated, but the guys making those remarks would be laughed out of Kovalev’s camp. 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
During the rematch Kovalev altered two things. He pushed the action a little harder, or at least he attempted to, and he let his hands go more, which resulted in him leaning in more than he did the last time they fought. The net result of this allowed Ward to almost lay in wait for him, then move just enough to make him miss or blunt his punches – then counter back. Ward got a little lower and attacked Kovalev’s body from both sides this time out. Once Kovalev’s confidence was shook during the last two rounds, Ward would lead a little more and make good use of his head on the inside.
In the simplest terms, Kovalev did the only thing he was capable of doing, and that was increase the pressure. And Ward, knowing this, read it and used Kovalev’s aggression against him. No magic, no super-strategy concocted in a boxing laboratory, just Basic Boxing102. Had Kovalev let up some, Ward would’ve seized on that, knowing that he broke Sergey mentally and was in the process of doing it physically. Therefore, Kovalev was in a bind strategically. Add to that Ward’s rough house tactics, underrated physical strength, and solid body punching and Kovalev wasn’t leaving the ring with his titles returned.
What is really confounding is that I was counting on Ward fouling, holding, clinching and wrestling, yet Team Kovalev was completely undone by it — which is mind boggling since Ward has fought in that vein his entire career and in their first meeting. If Kovalev (and, more importantly, his trainer John David Jackson) didn’t factor in that Ward was going to make it rough and occasionally illegal in the rematch, Sergey didn’t deserve to win and John David didn’t deserve to get paid. How could they have not gotten ready for Ward’s tactics?
When Ward was throwing the borderline body shots and it was obvious the referee wasn’t going to help him out – he should’ve retaliated and hit him low back. Had Kovalev done that and was DQ’d, he probably would’ve got another shot at Ward, but he was complicit and wanted the referee to help him fight Ward. That’s something that Evander Holyfield or Bernard Hopkins would’ve never waited for. Ward would’ve gotten away with fouling them one time, and the second time it happened — if they waited for a second time — they would give it back to him and then some, fully aware that they wouldn’t get DQ’d off the first time they fouled.
Yes, there has been much controversy regarding Ward fouling. From what I saw, there was one blatant foul, maybe two. But they didn’t alter the outcome of the fight and with Kovalev complaining every time Ward veered to the body, it was at times hard to take his crying wolf seriously.
The fight turned with Ward’s short right hand to Kovalev’s chin towards the end of the eighth round. Once that landed the fight was over and Sergey wasn’t fighting back, at least not with any urgency. When the fight was halted, Kovalev was backed against the ropes and wasn’t defending himself, nor did he protest the stoppage. In the main Kovalev was beaten by a more versatile and durable fighter, one who didn’t have to be a strategic genius to gain the upper hand. Ward was smart. He knew Kovalev’s only choice was to attempt to bring more of what didn’t work the first time, only this time he took advantage of it, banking on Kovalev going at him hard and fast during the first half of the fight.
After seeing Kovalev the first time, Ward was never going to lose to him and they could fight 10 more times and the result would be the same. It just so happened that Sergey ran into a fighter who can stand up to his punch enough to fight back and present him with things he could never answer.
Andre Ward is clearly the best and most complete light heavyweight in boxing. Kovalev had one way to beat him, and that was to make his overload of power be the defining factor. The problem was Ward was versatile enough to use it against him….case closed.
Photo credit: Roc Nation Sports / Tom Hogan
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com