Photo: Will Hart
Genuine 50-50 fights are rare in boxing and matches that pit undefeated top-five pound-for-pound campaigners are even harder to come by. In fact, second-ranked Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev vs. fourth-ranked Andre “S.O.G.” Ward marks only the third such fight since The Ring began publishing pound-for-pound ratings in 1990 (Chavez-Taylor I and Trinidad-De La Hoya are the others). What's more, the winner may also stamp his ticket for a most treasured destination -- Canastota and enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Needless to say, much is at stake. Will the fight live up to the hype?
All-Around "Krusher": Since teaming with trainer John David Jackson, Kovalev, who previously banked on power, aggression and volume, has refined and expanded his game, so much so that he was able to out-box the professorial Bernard Hopkins, the closest equivalent to Ward among Kovalev's most recent opponents in terms of ring IQ and all-around skill. Kovalev set the tone by scoring a knockdown with his first landed right hand, then used his length to control the action. Kovalev, who averaged 48.8 punches per round, limited Hopkins to an abysmal 16.2. Thanks to a 12th round that saw Kovalev land 38 punches and 29 power shots (both the highest single-round totals by a Hopkins opponent), he expanded his final leads to 166-65 overall, 45-25 jabs and 121-40 power.
Since then, Kovalev has fought four times, three of which were against thoughtful boxers in Jean Pascal (twice) and Isaac Chilemba, and one of which was against the unorthodox volume-puncher Nadjib Mohammedi. Those fights further illustrated Kovalev's stylistic metamorphosis in that he reduced his work rate to 53.4 (far below the 91.7 he logged against Nathan Cleverly in August 2013) and vastly increased his jab effectiveness (29.1 thrown/8.8 connects per round, the latter figure well above the 4.4 light heavyweight average; and 30% accuracy, far better than the 22% division average). Kovalev can both bang and box, as he landed 7.4 jabs per round in his last five fights, well above the division average. Further, Kovalev's offense is his defense; his last five opponents landed just 7.3 total punches per round (which ranks No. 3 among CompuBox Categorical Leaders) and just 4.2 power shots per round (No. 3 among CompuBox Categorical Leaders).
Elegant Dominance: Since Ward emerged from a career-long 19-month layoff caused by injury and promotional wrangling, his statistical performances have been phenomenal. Granted, all three foes -- Paul Smith, Sullivan Barrera and Alexander Brand -- boasted aggressive styles that were tailored to Ward's strengths, but against foes with a combined 77-6 record Ward still produced eye-popping numbers. Averaging 46.6 punches per round to his opponents’ 38.6 average, Ward nearly tripled their total connects (17.8 vs. 6.2) and landed power shots (10.3 vs. 3.7) while tripling their jab connects (7.5 vs. 2.5). The accuracy gaps were extraordinary: 38% vs. 16% overall, 28% vs. 13% jabs and 53% vs. 20% power.
That said, it's been quite a while since Ward faced a real threat to his undefeated streak, which, including his amateur career, is now 18 years long. The good news for Ward is that even then he dominated. In the December 2011 Super Six final against Carl Froch, Ward led 243-156 overall, 107-47 jabs and 136-109 power as well as 42% vs. 23% overall, 43% vs. 19% jabs and 42% vs. 25% power. Better yet, he controlled pace as he averaged 47.8 punches per round while limiting the high-flying Froch to 56.9. In his last 10 fights, Ward has amassed a +15.9 plus/minus rating, which ranks No. 1 on the CompuBox Categorical Leaders list. He's accurate, landing 38% of his total punches (No. 4 among CompuBox Categorical Leaders), and landed 6.9 jabs per round (30.4%, which is 10% higher than the division average). Opponents landed just 8.4 power shots per round vs. Ward, half the division average, and just 5.8 power shots per round, also half the division average. This fight could be tactical: Ward and Kovalev's opponents combined landed just 15.7 punches per round and 10 power shots per round, less than half the division average in both categories.
Prediction: Ward would have feasted against the old, wild-swinging Kovalev, but in dominating Hopkins, Kovalev proved he can wage a disciplined, strategically sound game plan from beginning to end. He'll need all that brain power to cope with Ward's versatility, but S.O.G.’s versatility doesn't include one-punch, fight-turning power. Here's the key: Kovalev has the length and intelligence to box with Ward but Ward doesn't have the power to punch with Kovalev, a career light heavyweight who boasts the second-highest KO percentage among 175-pound champions in boxing history. For once, Ward will meet someone who is more versatile, and that will result in a points victory for Kovalev, who needs to press the action.