Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Gordon Marino
The April, 1987 matchup between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler might be the best analog for Saturday’s Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward showdown. Like Ward and Kovalev, both Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin were supremely confident combatants. In their epic contest, it was the smaller versus bigger man, master boxer versus pulverizing puncher. At the same time, Leonard had some dynamite in his mitts and Hagler was technically skilled. Ditto Ward and Kovalev.
Like Gene Tunney dismantling Jack Dempsey, Leonard conquered Hagler by tying him up in mental and physical knots. The 32-year-old Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) will need to do the same if he is to keep his 20-year winning streak intact and usurp the light heavyweight crown from Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs).
Bernard Hopkins, who was knocked down and lost a lopsided decision to Kovalev in 2014, attests, “Everything Kovalev hits you with is hard.” But the Russian’s right hand, especially when delivered at long range, is arguably the most vaunted single shot in boxing today. His left hook has also torpedoed the dreams of many of his opponents and he can close the show in the 12th stanza as well as the first.
Andre “S.O.G.” Ward has a heavyweight ego and doesn’t much appreciate all the fanfare about Kovalev’s prodigious power. In the past, Ward has huffed about beating the big bangers in their own game, or as he terms it, “in a shootout.” However, going macho would not be a healthy strategy against the “Krusher.”
A sweet scientist of the highest order, Ward needs alternately to smother and slip away from Kovalev’s right. The 33-year-old Russian generally fights in a straight line. He bounces in and out with dexterity but he doesn’t move his head. His defense is his daunting offense. Kovalev has a ramrod of a jab but he brings it back low and drops his right hand when he shoots it. A converted southpaw, Ward boasts a fast and jolting left hook. It will be risky, but S.O.G can hook off Kovalev’s jab and can also punish him with the same punch when Kovalev reaches, as he sometimes does with his right.
This bout will not only be a test of speed, skill, and power but also a final exam of mental strength and discipline. Ward has said that he wants to take Kovalev into “the deep water.” In the world of the ring, that usually means that you aim to bring your rival into the late rounds. In this case, the deep end will be the early rounds.
Kovalev is a violent but calm spirit. It won’t be easy, but Ward needs to befuddle and frustrate Kovalev from the opening bell. And what is the recipe to drive Kovalev to distraction?
Bernard Hopkins could have put Ward’s war plan inside a fortune cookie. “Ward has to be the matador and the matrix,” said Hopkins. He has to be there and not be there. Stay in the pocket, punch, move to the side and jump back in again.
The jab will be important. No one deploys that punch in more ways than Ward, but his spearing straight left to the solar plexus could be especially effective in forcing Kovalev to stop and reset. On the inside, where Kovalev is less dangerous, Ward has to dig uppercuts and hooks and then become either an octopus or a wraith. There are few fighters superior to Ward in seamlessly transitioning from orthodox to southpaw and then back again. The switch should also be part of Ward’s repertoire but not until he has picked up the beat and timing of Kovalev’s martial strategy.