Ward vs. Kovalev 2 Postfight Essay: The Puncher and the Thinker

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Photo: Ed Mulholland

By Gordon Marino

Before last Saturday’s fight, Sergey Kovalev was a volcano of vitriol, promising that he was going to destroy light heavyweight champion Andre Ward and end his career. But after suffering an eighth-round stoppage on Saturday night, it may be Kovalev’s career prospects that are in the very position in which he ended this fight, sitting on the ropes.

With lessons to be drawn about pacing, technique and controlling emotions, Saturday night at Mandalay Bay offers an education in the fight game. (The bout will replay on Saturday, June 24 on HBO World Championship Boxing at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

From the opening bell, it was an intensely physical fray. With the adrenaline surging, the action and movement was more frenzied than in their initial encounter. Ward (32-0, 16 KOs) came out more aggressively than he did in November. Both combatants were pitching fastballs and even though Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs) was planning to avoid the grappling of their first scrap, there was an enough wrestling to satisfy an MMA fan.

Going into the eighth round, two judges had Ward up by a point and the third had Kovalev with a three-point edge. I had Sergey up by two points, but even though his punishing jab was finding its mark, Kovalev was melting down and having his spirits broken.

On the inside, Ward was able to get lower than his lanky rival and rip powerful body shots. Throughout, Kovalev, who has the air of a bully, was moaning to the referee Tony Weeks that Ward’s artillery was landed south of the border. Some of it was, but when blasted on the beltline or below, the tough guy who vowed to destroy Ward would bend over in a fetal position as if to plead for help from the third man in the ring.

There is a reason that boxing is called “the sweet science,” even though few practitioners of the bruising art have the calm self-possession to think of themselves along those lines. Ward has certainly earned that right. Like Floyd Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins and Sugar Ray Leonard, the Bay Area fighter has the attention for detail of a lab-coated investigator and the pugilistic acumen to do something destructive with the knowledge that he is absorbing.

Even in the white heat of battle, Ward is constantly taking reads on the fighter who is doing everything in his considerable power to separate him from his senses. In the post-fight press conference, Ward recalled, “I was breathing, he was breathing, but I’m used to working tired. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable; that’s how we work, that’s how we train. When I saw him put his arms on the ropes in between the rounds – I watch all that stuff – that’s trouble for him.”

That was trouble for Kovalev. After 21 minutes of action, the Russian fighter was sucking wind. As he tired, he began pushing and telegraphing his punches. In the days before the bout, Hopkins warned that neither fighter could afford to be predictable. True to Hopkins’ prescription, Ward was mixing it up, moving in and out, and bringing his punches up and down and up. On the other hand, exhaustion and bad muscle memory had rendered Kovalev slower and easy to calculate. Over and over, it was jab right hand. Half of the time, when Kovalev pawed with his left, Ward instinctively leaned over to avoid the missile of a right that inevitably followed and then Ward would let fly with a flurry of potent body shots.

Kovalev’s head might as well have been a statue. Worse yet, after a few rounds, he was bringing his jab back low. Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch used to sneer that anyone who gets nailed with a right-hand lead is a sucker. Now and again, even early on, Ward was able to sucker Kovalev with a quick snapping right. But by the eighth stanza, Ward’s computer had the coup de grace set up.

Midway in the final frame, Kovalev briefly and ineffectively switched to southpaw then back to orthodox. Leaning in, Kovalev tossed a lazy jab, dragged his left back low and Ward, with his legs under him, thundered a right hand on the bull’s eye of Kovalev’s jaw. The man of iron fist and chin wobbled.

Ward, the man known as “S.O.G.,” has always been known as a shark when he has someone hurt and he immediately slipped into finisher mode against Kovalev. Keeping his hands in position, he chased the wounded Krusher around the ring, blasting away with body and head shots while always being careful to keep enough of a cushion to avoid smothering his power.

In the final seconds of the fight, Ward landed low blows that went undetected by the referee. If Kovalev had been a thinker, he would have simply taken a knee and collected himself. But Kovalev is not a thinker and instead just took a seat on the ropes and covered up. Weeks then waved the fight over.  

In the post-fight press conference, Ward made a telling observation. The champ praised his opponent but then said of him, “I felt his biggest mistake was going to be his arrogance. He just couldn’t fathom me hurting him. When they asked him about me having the power to stop him, he laughed at me. He just wasn’t ready for it. Anybody can be hurt, anybody can be stopped. You always gotta have a sober mind when you enter a fight like that.”

Evander Holyfield’s former mentor, Don Turner, was trying to help Kovalev with the X’s and O’s for this fight. After the bout, Turner acknowledged “Ward is good.” As for his charge, he all but sighed, “Kovalev is just a puncher.” In other words, with a few Rocky Marciano-type exceptions, a one-dimensional boxer who banks only on his sleep-inducing capacity will eventually be undone by a martial artist who, like Ward, has the aplomb and physical gifts to make his opponent pay for his boxing sins.

After the fight, Ward was wisely careful not to begin measuring himself against other immortal light heavies, such as that other Bay Area product, Archie Moore. Ward was not, however, demure about comparing himself to contemporaries. Since the proliferation of weight divisions, acknowledgement as the pound-for-pound best has usurped the significance of the heavyweight title. Asked if being the best of the best is important to him, Ward gleefully replied, “Of course it is but I don’t have a vote. When I beat a great fighter like Kovalev hopefully I will get the vote now.”

Though he sometimes keeps it under wraps, “S.O.G.” has an ego, and he has made it plain that more than defend his crown, he wants to do something special – “something that will raise eyebrows” like nabbing a cruiserweight or even heavyweight title belt.

Nevertheless, in this confusing era of 17 weight divisions and the alphabet soup of four sanctioning bodies, it would be refreshing and a boon to boxing to have one undisputed, unified title holder in a traditional weight division. I, for one, fervently hope that before he starts packing on the pounds, Ward sets a showdown date with WBC light heavyweight champion, Adonis Stevenson, and settles the score as to who is the legitimate 175-pound king.