Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Gordon Marino
In boxing, it is rare to have the best fight the best while they are still at their best, but we have just that on Saturday night in the rematch between Andre Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) and Sergey Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) at Mandaly Bay in Las Vegas on HBO Pay-Per-View (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Ward, aka the “S.O.G.” ("Son Of God"), will defend the light heavyweight crown that some say he robbed in his unanimous but controversial decision over Kovalev in November 2016.
In their first fight, Kovalev dominated the early stanzas, even notching a dramatic knockdown in Round 2 with a counter right that escaped Ward’s usually impeccable radar. However, after the midway point, Ward managed to negate Kovalev’s major weapon and score enough blows to convince three judges and some of the reporters in press row that he deserved the nod.
The punch counts were close with Kovalev landing more power shots and Ward planting more jabs. The Russian was the busier boxer; Ward the more accurate. There were many head scratching rounds for those scoring the action.
Still, the general consensus is that after about 18 minutes of exchanging leather, Ward, a master at adaptation, figured out Kovalev’s program. And now that the Bay area boxer understands Kovalev’s style, the rematch should be a continuation of the second half of bout No. 1.
John David Jackson, Kovalev’s trainer, does not agree, saying, “We won the first fight and there is not much more that Ward can do this time around.”
The dean of the sweet science, Bernard Hopkins, sees a lot of himself in Ward’s ability to hit without being hit and in his knack for neutralizing his opponent's offensive strengths. Nevertheless, B-Hop believes that Kovalev will make meaningful tweaks to his violent craft.
Hopkins, who lost a unanimous decision to Kovalev in 2014, stresses that there are few fighters with heavier hands than the Russian. “Sergey’s jab feels like a right hand from an orthodox fighter," said Hopkins. "It is that hard.”
In a recent conversation with Hopkins, I criticized Kovalev for failing to bend enough on the inside, but Hopkins countered, “With his jab and reach, Sergey has no business trying to fight on the inside. He has to be the matador. When the bull comes in you have to stick him and move to the side. Right from the first bell, Kovalev has to land that jab enough to make Ward conscious of it, to make him have second thoughts about rushing in.”
Actually, Kovalev was painting Ward with brain-rattling jabs up until the halfway point of their November fight. Then something happened and Ward was able to get inside, slip Kovalev’s shots, ram his body and tie up his lanky foe.
Boxing commentator Teddy Atlas has observed that when fighters are frequently clinching, they are making a silent pact to take a breather. Last go-around, it was Ward who practiced the Hopkins-like punch and grab. However, Sergey could have kept him outside with his jack-hammer jab or when Ward did break the perimeter, Kovalev could have stepped back or to the side and found other ways to refuse the invitation to wrestle.
Remember, just because Kovalev is the harder puncher, it does not follow that he has superior overall body strength. Jackson complained, “The wrestling drained a lot of Sergey’s energy. He can’t do that this time around. All Sergey has to do when Ward is inside is keep his elbows in and hands up. If Ward goes to the body, he’ll leave himself open.” And with Sergey's power, that could lead to a rough -- or early -- night for his opponent.
Kovalev sneers that Ward’s ability to climb back into the first fray had nothing to do with Ward and everything to do with the fact that from the fifth frame on, Kovalev was feeling flat. Jackson maintains because of over-training his man came into the fight with only half a tank. “In addition to everything else we were doing, Sergey would run 14 miles a day. For what? Boxing is not a marathon.”
Virgil Hunter, Ward’s trainer for the last 24 years, did epic motivational work in getting his mentee back into the contest after Ward was hurt badly in the second round. Asked about the changes in strategy that Ward made in the first fight and how those might be developed on Saturday, Hunter was mum, but he did say, “The big change was that the dog in Ward finally came out.” And Kovalev, the great intimidator, was not prepared for that dog.
Both fighters and their brain trusts had excuses. Hunter revealed, “Andre had a cyst on the back of his right knee. Early in the fight, he came to the corner and said that his knee was stiff, that it was hard to move, to feint and turn on his punches.” Since then, the cyst has been removed and Hunter predicts that we will see a more mobile and aggressive Ward on June 17.
In their first encounter, Ward repeatedly bent and speared Kovalev with a jab to the body. With that traditional punch, a fighter has his legs under him and as a result is in perfect position to come up and explode a right with maximum force. It was an integral part Mike Tyson’s repertoire.
Either out of indifference to Ward’s power, or imagining that the judges were not registering jabs to the body, Kovalev did nothing to avoid the incoming left. Over 12 rounds, Ward’s jabs and hooks to the body sapped Sergey’s energy and disturbed his timing. On Saturday, Kovalev cannot let Ward use his body like a heavy bag with impunity.
From the amateurs on, boxers learn to bring the right behind the jab. The constant practice with the 1-2 creates a muscle memory that makes it difficult to switch up and start the fistic drumbeat with the right hand. Ward, however, revealed that going way back he has always mixed it up, always practiced at throwing a right then a jab along with the usual jab (right hand). As a result, Ward boasts one of the premier right hand leads in boxing. Though not as often as he would have liked, Ward managed some head-snapping lead rights against Kovalev in their first meeting.
For that reason and others, on his improvement checklist, Sergey needs to include lifting his left. He has a bad habit of dragging his left hand back low after he jabs. Worse yet, he drops his right when he jabs, leaving a window for Ward’s best punch, his cobra quick left hook.
Though he is no Hector Camacho, Kovalev boasts good footwork. He is usually adept at cutting off the ring, even against light-footed foes; but in the second half of the first fight, Kovalev often seemed to be aimlessly following Ward around, just trying to land his right hand. But if he is going to deliver his Suzie–Q, Kovalev has to slide over as Ward moves to his right.
According to CompuBox, Kovalev let fly with almost 500 punches. That wasn’t bad, but Jackson stresses that the combination to unlocking Ward “is more combinations not more punches.” In November, the Krusher failed to bring the left hook behind the right. And going back to his early career, he resorted to head-hunting, oblivious to targets beneath the chin. If Ward goes under or smothers the left hook to the head, Kovalev needs to bring that same punch to the body. Finally, the uppercut is one of the Krusher’s cruelest weapons, but he left it on the shelf in their first fight. He should remember to bring it along this time around.
Ask Kovalev the tired boxing question -- what does this fight mean to you? -- and you will get a sincere, one-word answer: “everything.” Press Ward and he’ll respond that it is just another big fight. However, despite his quiet demeanor, Ward has a heavyweight ego. The 31-year-old who has not lost a bout since 1998 is eager to punch out any questions about who is the best 178-pound pugilist on the planet.
Though the outcome of their first contest left many doubts, there is no doubt that between these two highly skilled boxers Ward has the edge in speed and mobility, Kovalev in power. But who has the mental advantage?
Kovalev says, “I am hungry and I am angry.” With the visage of a hitman, the hardest-punching light heavyweight since Bob Foster promises Ward, “I will kick you ass.” Smoldering anger in the world of the ring can work one of two ways. It can motivate a fighter to take risks and keep moving forward through blizzards of pain and punishment. On the other hand, blood in the eye can also be poison, exhausting a fighter and causing him to telegraph his blows, as in Marvin Hagler’s 1987 attempt to decapitate Sugar Ray Leonard. Kovalev is taking this fight very personally, threatening Ward, “I will destroy you. I will end your career.” That is bad intentions squared.
Act One revealed that Ward does not scare. He recalls that between his amateur and pro careers, “I have fought 50 Kovalevs.” All talk. If mental muscle is measured by control of your emotions, then Ward would seem to have the bigger biceps. When Kovalev fumes, Ward incites, “Get mad. I want you to get as mad as you can get.” He may just get that wish.