Kovalev ready for Ward showdown despite promotional ‘sticking points’
LOS ANGELES – The boxing world is three months out from one of the most anticipated fights of 2016 – Sergey Kovalev’s light heavyweight title defense against former super middleweight champ Andre Ward – and the defending unified beltholder is just as anxious to get to the Nov. 19 showdown as hardcore fans.
Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 knockouts), who was ringside for Ward’s shutout decision over Alexander Brand in Oakland, California on Saturday, spoke with members of the media about their upcoming HBO-Pay-Per-View headliner at Target Terrace at L.A. LIVE.
The 33-year-old Russian usually addresses the boxing press with a dry, low-key wit, but the WBO-WBA-IBF titleholder’s enthusiasm was evident on Tuesday.
“I’m really excited because we’re the best right now in the light heavyweight division,” Kovalev said at the start of the media gathering.
Some fans and media would disagree with that statement, noting that Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) has yet to face a legit top-10 contender since rising from the 168-pound division to campaign at 175 pounds. However, there’s no denying that Kovalev and Ward are among the best boxers, pound-for-pound, in the sport. The light heavyweights are consensus top five in the mythical rankings (Kovalev is No. 2 and Ward is No. 4 in THE RING’s Pound for Pound Top 10).
Ring announcer Michael Buffer, who MC’d Tuesday’s Q&A with the media, announced that Kovalev-Ward will be only the third time since THE RING has published its Pound for Pound Top 10 (which began in 1989) that two unbeaten boxers in the top five of the mythical rankings have squared off. It happened when Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor clashed in their 1990 classic; and it happened nine years later when Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad got it on for their pay-per-view blockbuster.
The significance of the fight isn’t lost on Kovalev, but he admitted that the pound-for-pound rankings that have become so important to the boxing media and hardcore fans (as well as to the networks and promoters for marketing purposes) haven’t always been on his radar.
“I never knew about it growing up in Russia,” he said. “It was never a goal of mine, I just wanted to win the title and be the best in my division.”
Kovalev, who is likely the first Russian fighter to be pound-for-pound ranked as high as he is since former undisputed junior welterweight champ Kostya Tszyu was on top of his game 15 years ago, isn’t even sure if his current mythical rankings resonates in Russia.
“I don’t know (if it’s significant there),” he said while chuckling. “I haven’t talked to all the fans. In my hometown, sure.” (Buffer added that Kovalev’s stature in his home region in Russia, where the boxer-puncher recently outpointed tough contender Isaac Chilemba, is beyond “champion” status. The hall-of-fame announcer said that to fans there, “Kovalev walks on water.”)
Beating Ward will give Kovalev that level of respect and adulation throughout Russia.
“It’s an important fight for me, for my career in the boxing world,” he said. “I dreamed to be on this level when I was a child, it’s everything to me.”
It’s everything to Ward as well but the 32-year-old Californian wasn’t present to convey that to the media. Main Events, the company that promotes Kovalev, and the executives of HBO Sports wanted the 2004 Olympic gold medalist to be part of what was supposed to be the formal announcement for the Nov. 19 fight but Ward and his promoter, Roc Nation Sports, had other ideas.
“I’m not disappointed (that Ward isn’t here) but it would be much better if he was,” Kovalev said. “(The) most important thing is (for Ward) to be in the ring (on Nov. 19).”
When asked why Ward didn’t take part in the media event, which was obviously put together to begin the promotion of a pay-per-view event that could be a hard sell outside of hardcore fandom, Main Events CEO Kathy Duva simply stated “Ward thought it was too close to his fight.”
When pressed to describe how negotiations with Roc Nation Sports have gone so far Duva put it this way:
“Living hell is a pretty good description. There are nice people who work for Roc Nation but the leadership is incapable of dealing in good faith.”
The upstart promotional company, founded by rap entrepreneur Jay-Z two years ago, has had its share of issues with more established promoters, including Star Boxing. Although the Kovalev-Ward fight was originally planned (by Duva and recently resigned RNS COO Dave Itskowitch) to take place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, RNS has since changed its mind so the site of the event is to be determined at a time when tickets should be going on sell.
When asked if the fight venue was the only “sticking point” left to iron out with RNS, Duva said:
“Today it’s the site, tomorrow it’ll be something else. There will be sticking points up until when these guys step into the ring and then I can finally sit back and allow the months of frustration to be erased in one fight.”
One gets the feeling that Duva will be most pleased if her fighter ends matters early against Ward, but Kovalev and his trainer John David Jackson are expecting a long night against the versatile stylist known for his ability to neutralize opponents’ strengths.
“It’s a challenge that I welcome,” said Jackson, a former world titleholder at 154 and 160 pounds. “Ward’s been undefeated for many years as an amateur and a pro and you have to take your hat off to him for that. He’s good at what he does so I have to find ways to systematically break him down with Sergey.
“I look at it as an opportunity to prove that I’m one of the best boxing trainers and teachers out there.”
Jackson, a ring savvy southpaw during his fighting days in the 1980s and ’90s, was asked what he thought of Ward recently comparing himself to Floyd Mayweather Jr., Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins.
“He’s far from Floyd and Roy, but he’s got a little of Bernard,” said Jackson, who lost a middleweight title bout to Hopkins in 1997. “It’s basic boxing with Ward and he’s good at what he does. He’s not them, he’s Ward, and he doesn’t need to compare himself to others.”
Jackson, who gained a measure of revenge against Hopkins by orchestrating the gameplan Kovalev used to shutout the future hall of famer in 2014, was asked what would happen if he could’ve fought Ward.
“Since I’m not the puncher that Sergey is it would be a boring fight,” he said, laughing. “It would be a very tactical fight and not what you want to see.”
But would you win, the writer asked.
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