Opposites attack: Kovalev vs Ward preview

Chris Williamson
17/11/2016 8:54am

"We are not afraid of getting hurt but we are afraid of losing. A prizefighter who gets knocked out or is badly outclassed suffers in a way he will never forget. He is beaten under the bright lights in front of thousands of witnesses who curse him and spit at him, and he knows that he is being watched too, by many more on television and in the movies. And he knows that the tax agents will soon visit him - and they always try and get their share before he winds up flat broke. The losing fighter loses more than just his pride and the fight; he loses part of his future, he is one step closer to the slums he came from."
- Floyd Patterson, world heavyweight champion, 1961.

As a shift in political power suggests some thawing in open hostility between the USA and Russia, the two most accomplished professional fighters from each nation prepare to face each other on Saturday in Las Vegas. Competition between the two countries has long been steeped in symbolism, whether commercially, through science, culture or sport and, of course, there is no sport more steeped in gladiatorial symbolism than boxing.

If boxing competition provides a metaphor for dominance, the classic weight divisions carry a timeless gravitas and genuine championship bouts a special aura. While acknowledging the PBC-cocooned but legitimate claim of WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, this fight is the real deal; two boxers following in the fistic footsteps of Bob Fitzsimmons, Archie Moore, Bob Foster and Michael Spinks. As Andre Ward himself said at the press conference to announce the bout, "this fight sells itself".

It certainly should, for the fight and the division are special. While one might appreciate modern day behemoths roaming up at heavyweight with admiration in the way one might watch a superhero movie or equally enjoy the lightning speed and skill demonstrated by lighter weight champions, at light-heavyweight, the man on the street can more naturally empathise. The dimensions at this weight are more like our own, and the practitioners enjoy a balance of athleticism and power ideal for producing compelling spectacle.

Despite a shared weight and occupation, Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward have little in common apart from unfamiliarity with failure and eloquence in this hardest game. Kovalev is a fearsome, determined and active champion (the Russian holds the WBA "super", IBF and WBO versions of the title) who consistently seeks tough challenges.

A long term HBO deal and near-total focus from promoter Main Events has provided a platform for regular and impressive assignments. It's hard to recall a more uncompromising, single-minded character than the Russian champion. Kovalev's crewcut haircut, piercing stare and unsophisticated demeanour come together in the mould of a gangster-style character from the Grand Theft Auto video game series.

If it's an unspoken rule while dominating a great-but-aged fighter to take a foot off the pedal once victory is assured (see Roy Jones Jr's pomp at this weight against Mike McCallum), then Kovalev's mentality dismisses such tradition as weak and sentimental. The Russian - with some of us watching through our fingers - continued an assault aimed at separating old master Bernard Hopkins from consciousness until the very last bell of their unification match in 2014.

When Boxing Monthly visited Russia earlier this year, the cultural differences witnessed suggested its people are a different, hard breed; where hotel gyms in the UK may normally include a running machine, perhaps rowing apparatus and free weights, those in Moscow offer skipping ropes, heavy bags and a choice of boxing gloves and pads.

In the current (November) issue of Boxing Monthly magazine, John A. MacDonald speaks to Kovalev and manager Egis Klimas, who vividly describe their navigation through an incredibly gruelling boxing journey, one which MacDonald reveals was unpaid for a significant period.

Since bludgeoning Welshman Nathan Cleverly to defeat three years ago to claim his first (WBO) version of the title, Kovalev has proved an active champion, notably in unifying with Hopkins (wide unanimous decision win) and twice stopping former WBC boss Jean Pascal.

It seems telling that Kovalev and team don't appear to regard his current status as their summit. As Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events colourfully noted, "he's kicked everyone's ass on the way up [toward this moment]." Editor Graham Houston also points out in BM's magazine preview that with Cleverly now a champion of sorts again (in the eyes the WBA), Kovalev's violent Cardiff coronation now looks even more impressive than it did at the time.

Kovalev is an educated pressure fighter with an outstanding jab and excellent inside fighting skills. The Russian's power is clearly exceptional, with 26 early finishes on a 30-0-1 ledger. Lionell Thompson fought Kovalev in 2012 and vividly describes Sergey's "crazy punching power". Thompson is interested to see what happens when the American tastes this power and tips Kovalev to win on Saturday.

As for the American, Ward is an out-and-out winner. It's well documented that the 2004 Olympic gold medallist hasn't lost as amateur or pro since he was twelve years old.
Despite inactivity, Paul Zanon paints a compelling portrait in the current issue of BM of a competitor who relishes testing challenges, such as inclusion in the 'Super Six' super-middleweight tournament, the first bout of which pitted Ward against favourite Mikkel Kessler at a time when Edison Miranda had arguably provided his stiffest test.

However, Ward's inactivity combined with relatively soft opposition since moving up to the heavier weight must surely present a disadvantage against the busy and naturally larger champion. Ward's most impressive win was the final of the 'Super Six' against Britain's Carl Froch back in 2011. Notably, Ward controlled the tempo of that fight and proved stronger and cuter on the inside.

Froch was always more comfortable at mid and long range however, and Kovalev is a different animal. During the Hopkins fight, the Russian used excellent footwork, physical strength and an effective inside game to nullify the older man's tricks. Where Bernard had lulled lesser alphabet champs Tavoris Cloud and Beibut Shumenov into his pace and his fight, Kovalev proved focused, active and single-minded.

It's unusual and welcome for two such fighters to clash while enjoying a kind of 'unbeatable' aura. In that sense this clash reminds me of the 1994 match between James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. Prior to the bout, I found it almost impossible to picture either man losing.

It'll be fascinating to learn if Ward can dictate the tempo using his footwork, defence, timing and strength, as he did in Atlantic City against Froch. Equally, with the experience gained from easily handling the wily master Hopkins, might Kovalev outwork and out-punch Ward? Two of the more cerebral of modern trainers in John David Jackson (Kovalev) and Virgil Hunter (Ward) have no doubt been busy constructing tactics and drills with these results in mind.

Jones Jr, former undisputed ruler at the weight, struggled to find an adversary to truly test his greatness until meeting Antonio Tarver, who brutally ended his reign at the second attempt. Jones Jr usually provides an interesting perspective and finds his loyalty conflicted in this bout. "Andre (is) my homie; I ain't saying anything bad about him, and Sergey is my countryman! I'm a Ruskie," he laughed recently, referring to the Russian nationality granted following a personal meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Jones also considers Kovalev's widely criticised, awkward home assignment against Isaac Chilemba last time out as good preparation for Ward.

Although tricky to predict the outcome of a bout between two unbeaten, top level operators largely dominating their opposition, I pick Kovalev to retain his title by convincing decision. Ward will find the taste of power and uncompromising pace set by the determined Russian hard to swallow, struggling to maintain his composure and impose Hunter's game plan. Since Ward is undoubtedly made of strong stuff, he is unlikely to wilt as the champion retains the titles in a compelling distance fight.