What a difference seven months makes. Despite the quality of both boxers, I never once deviated from my prediction of a comfortable win for Andre Ward when he tackled unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, last November 19 in Las Vegas.
After being in the wilderness for three years, Ward was back to reassert his dominance in a new division. Despite the seven-pound jump from super middleweight to light heavyweight, the super-skilled American would be too slick, too talented and too hard to find.
Bang! Down goes Ward.
In Round 2, Kovalev offered a range-finder jab and Ward, sublimely schooled, did what he’s been trained to do since he was an amateur. He looked for the counter right over the top. The problem was Ward was out of position and Kovalev’s right hand was already on the way. The shot didn’t land perfectly but it did damage.
Kovalev had been scoring well up until the knockdown. He’d established his jab, pierced the guard with combinations and his judgment of distance was superb. I gave the hard-hitting Russian four of the first six rounds and then the pattern changed.
If Kovalev had surprised onlookers with his skills, Ward was now going to display his guts, guile and ability to adjust. The challenger elected to punch inside Kovalev’s assaults and scored well. During lulls, he began to use feints or used his feet to change the angles. Slowly, Kovalev’s accuracy began to drop, although the Russian did have a big 10th. The crowd reacted angrily when Ward was awarded a tight 12-round unanimous decision.
For the record, I had Ward a one-point winner but that does not tell the story. The majority of fans and media gave Kovalev the fight and the Russian had made his statement. That’s why, this Saturday, the pair go at it again at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. The buildup has been loaded with animosity and let’s hope that carries itself into the prize ring.
(Scores from 1-5)
HANDSPEED (WARD 5/ KOVALEV 5) – After seeing this match up once, there is no discernable difference in speed. Both men have extremely fast hands.
ENDURANCE (5/5) – Two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Both are proven 12-round operators.
FOOTWORK (5/4.5) – In the first half of their fight, Kovalev’s feet were superb. He is the first man to score with consistency against Ward and his feet got him into position. When he’s on point, Ward’s movement is first class.
POWER (LEAD HAND) (3.5/5) – Kovalev is a ferocious puncher, whereas Ward keeps you honest. “The Krusher” will take any shot Ward cares to throw but he won’t want to take too many.
POWER (TRAIL HAND) (3.5/5) – See POWER (LEAD HAND)
JAB (5/5) – I gave Ward the edge in this area, heading into fight one. Not anymore. Kovalev’s accuracy on the stick was very impressive.
HOOK (4.5/5) – Ward has real snap on the hook and he uses it offensively and defensively. Kovalev wants to cause destruction with any power shot he throws.
ABILITY TO SLIP AND BLOCK (4.5/4) – Early on, Ward didn’t cope well with Kovalev and was caught more than ever. Has he slipped slightly or is Kovalev just that good? Probably a little of both.
PHYSICAL CONDITION (5/5) – Elite-level professionals with the conditioning to match.
POISE AND ABILITY TO COPE WITH EXTERNAL PRESSURES (5/4.5) – Kovalev has been livid throughout most of the buildup to the rematch and is still smarting over the decision in fight one. Best to forget it. Ward looks far more relaxed.
KILLER INSTINCT (3.5/5) – Kovalev is the guy trying to inflict damage, although I felt he could have gone through the gears a bit more last time. Ward is the smart boxer, looking to pile up points.
INTELLIGENCE AND STRATEGIC DEXTERITY (5/4) – This saved Ward last time. He showed remarkable cunning to pull the fight back in his favor. Kovalev, for me, was found wanting when it mattered most.
EXPERIENCE (5/5) – Both have been there, done it and bought the t-shirt.
BODY PUNCHING (5/4.5) – Anything Kovalev hits you with you will feel but Ward was more effective to the body last time.
INFIGHTING SKILLS (5/4) – Ward was flustered on the outside in the first fight. He made the necessary adjustments to get inside and it worked. He is extremely adept at fitting in short, snappy punches to the midsection.
QUALITY OF OPPONENTS (5/5) – When fans accuse fighters of ducking opponents, neither of these guys are likely to be in the conversation.
CHIN AND RESILIENCE (4.5/5) – Darnell Boone had “S.O.G.” down 12 years ago and Kovalev knocked him off his feet with a single shot. That said, the American does have good recuperative powers. I doubt we will ever see Kovalev knocked out at light heavyweight. He is durability personified.
CROSS/ UPPERCUT (4.5/5) – Ward has every punch in the book and uses them selectively. Again, Kovalev just wants to hurt you. The Russian’s right cross is a dynamite punch.
ATHLETICISM (5/4.5) – I will still give Ward the edge here but not by much. Kovalev’s reflexes, timing and fluidity were standout in portions of fight one.
CORNER (5/4) – The communication between trainer John David Jackson and Kovalev was all but nonexistent last time. Conversely, Virgil Hunter had the night of his life with Ward, who responded in kind. Rumors are swirling that Kovalev has been doing his own thing in training camp and that is not a wise move.
If past is prologue in the Ward-Kovalev saga, then my summary could be way off the mark.
Even though I had him losing a very close fight, Kovalev impressed me more in this matchup. He did let himself down by drifting to the inside in the second half but, this time around, I think Kovalev will look to maintain range for 12 hard rounds and make Ward pay for getting close.
There is a train of thought that Ward will pick up where he left off but that’s easier said than done. The American struggled with this style confrontation in November and I doubt he can completely solve the puzzle against such a formidable opponent in just seven months.
I foresee a very close and competitive fight and I’m going with my gut. Kovalev is the sentimental favorite because many feel he was very unlucky not to have handed Ward his first professional loss. I can see an argument for both men winning, same as last time, but I believe Kovalev will get the nod and we’ll be screaming for a trilogy.
Tom Gray is a U.K. Correspondent/ Editor for RingTV.com and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Gray_Boxing.
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