Photo: Ed Mulholland
Last November's fight between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev was supposed to identify the world's top light heavyweight. Instead, Ward's razor-thin, off-the-floor unanimous decision ignited one of the hottest scoring debates in recent years. However, it also spawned this rematch, and if the stakes aren't already high enough, Ward-Kovalev 2 will be only the second fight since The Ring began pound-for-pound ratings that its Nos. 1 and 2 fighters will meet head-to-head (Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Pernell Whitaker in 1993 was the other).
While both men are likely to be enshrined in Canastota, this match could determine which man will be remembered as the superior fighter. Then again, if Kovalev wins, this fight may well be the middle chapter of a trilogy.
Fight No. 1: The raw numbers favored Kovalev (126 vs. 116 overall and 78 vs. 61 power to Ward's 55 vs. 48 lead in landed jabs), but the percentages belonged to Ward (34% vs. 27% overall, 33% vs. 20% jabs, 36% vs. 34% power) as well as the second half of the fight, when Ward surged from landing six of 22 punches in the first six rounds to 13 of 34 in rounds 7 to 12.
Kovalev also accelerated in the second half (from nine of 36 in the first six rounds to 12 of 43 in rounds 7 to 12), but Ward's ability to slow the pace to his liking (28.1 punches per round for Ward to Kovalev's 39.5) and his better performance in the last half of the fight gave him a psychological and strategic edge that Kovalev couldn't overcome. The round-by-round breakdowns are telling because each man won six rounds in overall connects and landed power shots, while Ward forged a narrow lead in jab connects.
Given the narrative, it is surprising that the 10th round was Kovalev's best statistical round in terms of total connects (21 of 58 overall), not the second round when he scored the knockdown (16 of 49). As for Ward, the ninth was his best (17 of 38 overall). Another key to Ward's finishing kick was his power punching accuracy. In the first seven rounds, he never got above 36% (he was 14%, 0%, 30%, 27%, 36%, 25% and 25% in those rounds), but in rounds 8 to 12 he surged to 50%, 50%, 58%, 36% and 37%.
Conversely, Kovalev was consistent with his power accuracy as, aside from his 17% performance in Round 3, he ranged from 25% to 42%. Perception is a powerful tool for a boxer, and the overriding perception was that Kovalev was slowing down while Ward was surging. That probably allowed the Bay Area native to win enough close rounds to get the decision.
Inside the Numbers: In his last 11 fights, Ward has amassed a +15.1 plus/minus rating, which ranks No. 3 on the CompuBox Categorical Leaders list. In addition, Ward landed 37.7% of his total punches during that time (No. 4 on the list), 30.2% of his jabs (No. 3) and is one of only four fighters in boxing to land 30% or more of his jabs. Opponents land just 8.6 punches per round against Ward, half the division average, and only 5.9 power shots per round, nearly half the division average. Kovalev landed 10.5 total punches per round and 6.5 power shots per round in the first fight. Ward's opponents land just 22% of their total punches -- 8.6% lower than the division average -- and just 26.7% of their power punches (11.1% lower than the division average).
Kovalev amassed just a +0.8 plus/minus rating primarily due to his last six opponents landing 36.7% of their power punches. However, opponents landed just 7.8 total punches per round against the Russian -- less than half the division average of 16.1 per round -- and just 4.4 power punches per round (No. 3 on the list). Ward landed 9.7 total punches per round and 5.1 power shots per round vs. Kovalev in the first fight.
Prediction: The bitter feelings from the first fight will probably not carry over into the ring because both men are cerebral fighters. Ward has been this way throughout his career while Kovalev, once a free-swinging slugger, has diversified his game under trainer John David Jackson's tutelage. With 12 rounds against Kovalev under his belt and plenty of footage to analyze, Ward, who will now be given 12 fresh rounds to implement his findings, will carefully counter-punch and frustrate Kovalev en route to a wider win.