SERGEY KOVALEV VS. ANDRE WARD: A RARE MATCHUP
Note: This story appears in the January 2017 issue of THE RING Magazine, which is on newsstands now. Click here to subscribe or buy individual issues.
The Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward fight is a rarity in a number of ways.
Two fighters in the RING pound-for-pound Top 10 – Kovalev No. 2, Ward No. 4 – are fighting one another. Rare. Two undefeated fighters in the Top 10 are fighting one another. Very rare. And two undefeated fighters in the Top 5 are fighting one another. Extremely rare.
THE RING contributor Lee Groves did some research and came up with this:
Kovalev vs. Ward is only the third matchup in which undefeated fighters rated in the RING Top 5 have faced off since the magazine instituted pound-for-pound ratings. The other two: Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor in 1990 and Felix Trinidad vs. Oscar De La Hoya in 1999.
That’s how special Kovalev vs. Ward is.
And one more thing that makes it unusual: It’s perceived as a 50-50 fight, as uncertainties abound before the opening bell. Here are some key questions going into the fight.
- Is Ward the same fighter who blazed through the Super Six World Boxing Classic?
The answer to that question could determine the outcome. Ward established himself as a major force in the Super Six tournament, from 2009 to 2011. He defeated in succession Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika (outside the Super Six), Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch to win the competition and become the likely successor to Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao as the No. 1 fighter in the world. That was followed by a 10th-round knockout victory over Chad Dawson in September 2012. Ward was on top of the world. Then, because of promotional and injury problems, he has fought only four times since Dawson. That includes a period of 3½ years in which he fought only twice, inactivity that can build crippling ring rust. And his two most recent fights – victories over Sullivan Barrera and Alexander Brand – tell us little because of the so-so opposition. The Ward of old probably would’ve neutralized Kovalev, assuming he could cope with the Russian’s size. The current version, if he’s diminished at all, could be in trouble. And many believe he is diminished.
- Will Kovalev be too big and strong for Ward?
Ward would point out that he was a light heavyweight in his amateur career, which means he’s no stranger to dealing with 175-pounders. And it’s not a stretch to say that the former 168-pound titleholder has grown into his new division. He’s 32, after all. The potential problem for Ward is that he hasn’t faced a light heavyweight of Kovalev’s ability, strength and punching power. Ward has performed like an anaconda that gradually wraps itself around its prey, leaving it helpless as the former Olympian claims another one-sided victory. That was fairly easy to do at 168 pounds. Will it work at 175? And what happens when Kovalev, one of the bigger punchers in the sport, lands a clean shot on Ward’s chin? Ward has been able to absorb hard punches on the rare instances when they’ve landed. But it’s one thing to take a shot from a super middleweight and another to take one from a light heavyweight, particularly one like Kovalev. We’ll see what happens.
- Can Ward earn Kovalev’s respect?
Kovalev isn’t likely to fight Ward the same way he fought Bernard Hopkins, which was to rely primarily on his boxing skills. Krusher more likely will try to live up to his moniker; expect him to attack aggressively to both the head and body in an effort to break down a man who Kovalev probably feels will be at a size and strength disadvantage. Ward’s skills could go a long way in helping him cope. Clever, experienced boxers have a way of defusing aggression by moving their feet, holding when necessary or beating the aggressor to the punch. That is probably what Ward will try to do. He’ll also have to get Kovalev to respect his punching power, at least to some degree. Ward’s opponents probably would tell you that he punches harder than you might think but does he have enough pop to slow Kovalev down? If he doesn’t, it could be an uphill battle for him for as long as the fight lasts.
- Does Kovalev have the ability to compete with a fighter of Ward’s skills?
Kovalev demonstrated against Hopkins that he is more than a hard-punching stalker, as he adopted a surprising game plan and outboxed the old master in 2014. And don’t be fooled by Hopkins’ age at the time, 49; he could still frustrate almost all light heavyweights even at that point of his career. That said, most believe the version of Hopkins who lost to Kovalev is inferior to a gifted and much younger Andre Ward. And that could mean trouble for Kovalev if Ward is even near the fighter he once was and can handle the Russian’s strength. Ward, at his best, is quick, moves well laterally and has impeccable timing. There’s a good reason he hasn’t lost a fight since he was a minor. Kovalev acknowledged that proficient boxer Isaac Chilemba, his most recent opponent, frustrated him to some degree en route to a unanimous decision victory. Chilemba is pretty good but he’s no Ward. That’s why some believe Ward will do to Kovalev what he has done to most of his opponents – outbox him, outthink him and beat him more easily than a 50-50 matchup might suggest.
- What will happen on the inside?
This is one intriguing aspect of the fight. Ward has been a master of inside fighting, slipping punches and slipping his own shots in while sometimes pushing the boundaries set down by the rules. Some have called him a dirty fighter; some say he’s resourceful. Bottom line: He has been dominating in close. Of course, the fact his opponent in this fight is Kovalev could change the equation. A big, strong fighter – especially one with ability and experience – is very difficult to manhandle. It’s easy to imagine Ward attempting to hold Kovalev only to have Kovalev quickly bust free as a result of his superior strength. And, if Ward gets nasty, don’t expect Kovalev to play along. He has a mean side; he’ll retaliate. It’s also not difficult to imagine that Ward does have the requisite muscle to hold and battle violently with Kovalev inside. And even if he’s deficient in the strength department, he probably is clever and experienced enough to compensate in other ways. How the infighting plays out could have a significant impact on the result.