World War II: Ward vs Kovalev 2 preview
Chris Williamson previews the eagerly awaited light heavyweight rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev and weighs up in which direction the contest will swing...
It's perhaps a compliment to the health of boxing right now that the mouthwatering rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev has approached with so little ballyhoo.
In a year where fans have already enjoyed a heavyweight battle for the ages between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko and are looking forward to middleweight supremacy being settled in September by Gennady Golovkin and Saul Alvarez, the rematch between the best two light heavyweights in the world has attracted far fewer column inches than you would have thought.
Perhaps we've come to expect a constant flow of great matches, although frenzied reaction this week to the announcement of a twelve-round 'boxing' match between the sport's most famous figure, Floyd Mayweather Jr, and the UFC's Conor McGregor in August only served to bring the low-key nature of the Ward vs Kovalev 2 build-up into sharper focus.
When the duo met in Las Vegas last November they delivered a fascinating, momentum-swinging fight between two of the very finest boxers of their era at the right weight (should I say right sport?) and in their primes.
During a high-level technical bout, both men were pushed into revealing qualities they'd never had to show before - Kovalev demonstrated that his pulverising power was effective at elite level during a ruthlessly efficient first half in which he hurt and floored the American challenger.
Indeed, Kovalev swept all five of the opening rounds on my card, which - with a knockdown in the second - meant Ward had to win every remaining session to claim Kovalev's WBA, IBF and WBO light-heavyweight titles. In my view - and many observers won't agree - that's exactly what he went on to do.
I had the impression Kovalev won most of his early rounds clearly, with Ward 'stealing' his by much thinner margins (the sixth, for example, was an excellent round for both fighters) which mathematically, of course, register exactly the same number of points.
It seemed to me that Ward - relatively new at the 175lb weight and certainly facing his most formidable opponent to date - took time to become accustomed to the sheer firepower and intensity of the visitor, in particular the Russian's stun-gun of a jab. In the face of this pressure and following this adjustment period, Ward resoundingly reacted as great champions do. "This is what greatness is," as trainer Virgil Hunter told Ward, rallying his man between rounds three and four.
The unbeaten American certainly went on to display that greatness, coming into the fight until by rounds nine and ten Kovalev had noticeably slowed and the power of his punches seemed diminished. After twelve rounds all three American judges scored the fight 114-113 to declare Ward the new champion.
Compubox numbers show that Kovalev both threw and landed more than Ward, with 474 against 338 and 126 (27%) against 116 (34%) respectively. Power shots thrown and landed also favoured Kovalev, but again it is worth emphasising that these numbers are tabulated over an entire fight and don't necessarily reflect who won individual rounds.
One question going into the rematch at the smaller Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas is whether it was Ward's adjustments or some weakening on Kovalev's part which most contributed to the bout being a contest of two such distinct halves. The Russian has argued that he over-trained, telling media: "What I remember most is that I lost energy in the second part of the fight; I mean, the fifth round and after this, Andre Ward started to be more active, busy, inside the ring."
The Ward camp counter that his own persistent body attack - like that of countryman Errol Spence when recently annexing the IBF welterweight title from Kell Brook - paid dividends as the bout wore on. Ward appeared superbly conditioned having hired Mackie Shilstone as part of his team, a man with a rich history of sculpting fighters scientifically to perform at heavier weights, including Bernard Hopkins prior to his own light-heavyweight championship winning performance against Antonio Tarver.
Rematches usually favour the more cerebral fighter, the one who is most able to adjust to the experiences gained from the first fight. Floyd Mayweather, for example, one of the smartest in-ring fighters of his generation, improved significantly in his two championship rematches with Jose Luis Castillo and Marcos Maidana. Most would suggest the smarter fighter here is Ward, particularly given how well he adjusted after such a torrid start to the first fight.
It's worth noting, however, that Kovalev has proved very effective thus far in rematches, having brutalised both Darnell Boone and Jean Pascal in return fights. One might see mental parallels with the Pascal rematch, given a lively war of words and clear dislike for his opponent on Kovalev's part. Despite the brutal beating Kovalev gave Pascal second time around, the Russian was noticeably sloppier and easier to hit when angered and looking to finish his Canadian rival. This kind of emotional approach may play into Ward's skilled hands.
Kovalev regrets not connecting more cleanly with the right hand which floored Ward and points to the parallels with his rivalry with Pascal. "I wasn't surprised that he got up. I would have been surprised if he didn't get up, because I hit him with these [lower] knuckles of my fist, these fingers. It wasn't a straight punch. My arm was extended," Kovalev explained. "I want to kick his ass like I did with Jean Pascal in the rematch. I want to have fun in there.
"When I see his face, I want to punch it. I will get this opportunity on 17 June and I'm very happy for this opportunity to smash his face. I don't like this guy," added Kovalev. "He and his team are liars. He said that he gave me this rematch as a present for the boxing fans. Don't lie. It was in the contract that you must give me [the rematch] or you retire. Jay-Z [President of Roc Nation, the lead promoters here] pay him like $7 million so of course he gives [the rematch]," Kovalev explained before adding threateningly: "I don't want to do any business with this team anymore, after this fight...only Ward is going inside the ring. They will pay for everything that they say and they do."
Ward has never rematched a professional opponent until now and has responded to suggestions from Kovalev's camp that they won the first fight.
"You got to look at the other side of the coin, there’s a lot of people that thought I won the fight and he got what he asked for. Now after this, we don’t want to hear any excuses, " Ward said this week. "In this sport, I have very little room for error. I always have the pressure on my side – no matter if I’m the challenger or the champion.
"I come here looking forward to bringing back everything that I brought, including those belts. I’m excited. All of this talking is getting ready to be over. We’re getting ready for my favourite part, which is the fight. June 17. It’s about business, so I did what I had to do the first time. I’m looking to turn it up this time."
There's nothing to suggest this won't be another excellent fight. I tend to believe there is more upside and improvement to come from Ward's side and expect he'll have benefited tremendously from the 'gut check' he passed last November.
Kovalev is fired up and will surely have his moments on Saturday but my pick is for a slightly clearer Ward victory to retain his titles in another absorbing contest.