Photo: Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
All the projections, all the polls and all the pundits in the world can’t guarantee an outcome before the contest plays out. If that’s true even when an overwhelming favorite and underdog are involved, then what can we confidently predict when there is no favorite at all? Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward is not only 2016’s most important boxing match, but it’s primed to close at the betting windows as the most even-money major pay-per-view main event in more than a decade. If boxing is “the theater of the unexpected,” as Larry Merchant famously said, then Kovalev-Ward is the 20,000-seat arena of the unexpected.
Just how close to a coin flip is the main event of the Nov. 19 HBO Pay-Per-View event at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas? VegasInsider.com has Ward a -135 favorite and Kovalev a +105 underdog. When betting $100 on the underdog earns you a payout of $105, that essentially means there is no underdog. To find a major PPV with a main event like this, you have to go all the way back to Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales’ first fight on March 19, 2005, which had nearly identical odds (Pacquiao was -125, Morales +105). The 2013 fight between Tim Bradley (+125) and Juan Manuel Marquez (-145) comes close, but still, if you want to find a PPV fight as big as Kovalev-Ward that had oddsmakers as uncertain as they are about Kovalev-Ward, you have to go back a long way.
So what is it about Kovalev and Ward that makes them so hard to separate? Ward is 30-0 with 15 KOs; Kovalev is 30-0-1 with 26 KOs. When you’ve never seen either man lose, it’s that much harder to envision one of them doing so. And their styles create a contrast that prevents a simple “Fighter A is better than Fighter B” analysis. Ward is a true boxer with an off-the-charts ring IQ who takes away opponents’ offenses and gets the better of them just a fraction of an inch and a fraction of a second at a time. Kovalev is a devastating puncher with the technical boxing skills to set up his power and curb any inclination to call him one-dimensional.
“To be a champion,” Ward said as training camp wound down, “you have to be able to beat whatever’s in front of you, and Kovalev is not just a big puncher. He’s a boxer. He’s a thinker. He understands range, positioning and different things like that. There’s a lot more to him than just being a big puncher, but at the end of the day many people make the same mistake with me. They call me a great boxer or a great neutralizer, but there’s so much more going on with me than that. If I was just about defense and neutralizing, then a lot of these big punchers would just try to walk through me, and there’s a reason they’re not.”
“[Sergey] can fight you if it comes down to it, but on the flip side to that, Sergey is a very intelligent boxer and he knows how to fight,” John David Jackson, Kovalev’s trainer, said. “He doesn’t come into the ring trying to be a one-punch knockout artist … He looks to break down his opponents systematically. He does want a knockout, but he’s learned how to build up to the knockout. He knows how to cut the ring off and break guys down to the body, and if you want to fight with him and you’re looking for a shootout, you’re not going to win because his clip is fully loaded. Andre may be smart and very intelligent, but he’s fighting with half a clip. It’s like LL Cool J once said, [how you gonna go against] an army with a handgun? Ward has a handgun and he’s a fighting against a tank, and the tank is smart, he knows how to fight and how to systematically beat him.”
For two fighters with almost identical records who were born less than a year apart (Kovalev is 33, Ward 32), Saturday night’s combatants took very different paths to this showdown. Ward has been in the boxing spotlight for a dozen years, since he captured U.S. boxing’s only gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Kovalev didn’t have any spotlight shone on him until 2013, just as Ward was voluntary stepping out of the spotlight. Having rolled through the Super Six tournament to establish himself as the top 168-pounder in the world and to secure 2011 Fighter of the Year honors, Ward scored one more major win -- a ninth-round knockout of light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson --and then went into semi-exile as he worked out promotional conflicts. He hasn’t taken on a championship-caliber opponent in four years.
During that time, Kovalev stormed the sport. On the HBO Boxing Podcast, promoter Kathy Duva explained, “When he left Russia, he wasn’t a star, nobody knew him.” Kovalev knocked out former titleholder Gabriel Campillo to kick off 2013. His blowout of Nathan Cleverly seven months later opened more eyes. In 2014, he outboxed, outpunched and flat-out dominated Bernard Hopkins. Two stoppages of Jean Pascal followed. All of this happened while Ward was, more or less, on the sidelines.
Both Kovalev and Ward grew up with nothing, lost their fathers at a young age, found salvation in boxing and now are headlining their first pay-per-view together. For both fighters, the 30 wins on their undefeated records include five against fellow titleholders. And for both of them, the Vegas-event experience is new. Kovalev has fought in Sin City twice, once on an off-TV undercard in 2011 and once last year in a low-profile marking-time mandatory defense against Nadjib Mohammedi. Ward, somewhat surprisingly, has never fought in Las Vegas. Of his 28 fights in the U.S., 23 have been in his home state of California.
So this clash on Saturday night is a step up in more ways than one. Both men are facing their toughest opponent, and they’re doing it on their biggest stage with a chance to climb to the very pinnacle of the sport. That’s right: The winner of Kovalev-Ward will emerge with a strong claim to the pound-for-pound throne. Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko—they’re all magnificently talented, but none of them have a singular victory on their records that compares with handing either Sergey Kovalev or Andre Ward his first defeat.
And the win will mean that much more because neither fighter is the clear favorite, so neither will have merely met expectations by prevailing.
“I feel that this fight with Kovalev is 50-50,” Ward admitted. “I truly believe Kovalev is everything they say he is, and I’m everything that I’ve shown over the years.”
They can’t both win. Not a moment too soon, the time has come for uncertain speculation to give way to definitive answers.