Re-Visiting the Ward vs. Kovalev I “Robbery”
By: Matt O’Brien
In the immediate aftermath of Andre Ward’s unanimous victory over Sergey Kovalev in their first fight last November, emotions from both sets of fans were running high and the controversial nature of the decision elicited some intense scrutiny of the judges’ scorecards. Cries of “robbery” flooded the web, with a deluge of fans enthusiastically taking up the “boxing is crooked” narrative. With the immediate rematch looming, here I take a look back and re-examine some of the perceptions, misconceptions and post-fight reaction to their first encounter.
One of the most widely circulated post-fight misconceptions has been the idea that the deficit created by the second-round knockdown fundamentally altered Ward’s chances of victory on the judges’ cards. See, for example, the myriad variations of the argument that, “there’s no way Ward won – especially with the knockdown!”
Somewhat counter-intuitively though, mathematically speaking the 10-8 round made no difference to the final outcome. Which sounds silly on the face of it, until you do some pretty basic maths: 7-5 in rounds gives a score of 115-113; minus a point from the winner’s score and you are still left with exactly the same winner. In fact, the only scenario where a knockdown ever plays a decisive role in the scoring (assuming no further point deductions occur, which they did not) is where the twelve rounds are evenly split at six each between both fighters.
So while it may be tempting to fall for the idea that Ward’s second-round trip to the canvas gave him a mountain to climb on the cards, actually the task facing him remained the same: he still needed to win a total of seven rounds in order to take the belts home. Of course, whether or not he deserved to win seven of the remaining rounds is a contentious issue, but assuming he did, the knockdown in round two is a moot point.
Perceptions vs. Reality
It’s also often been said that, having climbed off the canvas, Ward was then given too much credit in the scoring simply because he wasn’t “getting beaten up as badly as he was earlier”, rather than for actually winning the rounds. And there is some merit to this idea. After all, anyone who was expecting and/or hoping that Ward would be the superior boxer going into the fight would have found enough reason to justify their pre-fight narrative based on the way he responded in the ensuing rounds.
However, this kind of perception cuts both ways. The most tangible and dramatic moments are naturally the ones that leave the most lasting impression in our minds, and with the Russian continuing to be the aggressor after flooring Ward in the second, the lingering sense that he was still dominating the action even after the seminal moment had passed was not an easy one to shake off. As Max Kellerman noted for the HBO commentary during the sixth round: “Psychologically I think it sways observers to think that Kovalev is doing maybe a little better than he’s actually doing.”
The reality unfolding in the rounds following the knockdown was probably somewhere in-between these two perspectives. Kovalev continued to be the aggressor, but he was never quite as effective as he was in the second round; meanwhile Ward did begin to get a foothold in the fight, but had not established any kind of firm control.
The Late Rounds Rally
One of the main bones of contention from those who cried robbery was Ward’s virtual whitewash on the scorecards over the second half of the fight, in which Kovalev was only awarded a single round (the twelfth) by a single judge. With most of these rounds being closely contested, many fans cited the near clean-sweep as evidence of the judges’ incompetence, since there was no way Ward “dominated” Kovalev so conclusively.
The problem with this argument is that rounds that are decisively won and those that are nicked by the finest of margins are both scored 10-9, and judges are supposed to view every round as an individual entity, not try to “balance” their scores according to how close the action has been overall. In other words, a series of rounds that are edged by one fighter produce a lopsided score total that does not necessarily reflect just how competitive the action as a whole has been. Consequently, even though Ward did not “dominate” Kovalev over the second half of the fight, in the sense of putting a beating on him and decisively winning every single round, that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve to “dominate” the scoring on the cards, assuming that he was consistently doing better – even by the tiniest of margins. And there is evidence to support the idea that this was actually the case.
Firstly, the punch stats indicate that Ward was the more effective boxer from round seven onwards. Although Kovalev recorded a slightly higher number of landed punches over the fight as a whole (10 more total punches) over the last half of the fight it was Ward who connected with more (80-74 in total), landing more in four out of the last six rounds. He also connected at a higher percentage in every round from 7-12, even though Kovalev threw more shots in all except the seventh – indicating that while the champion was still the aggressor, it was the challenger who had the much superior accuracy and defence.
Secondly, it’s also worth bearing in mind Kovalev’s own words in the buildup to the rematch. Speaking on HBO’s “24/7” program, the former champ admitted that, “[the] first four rounds, I didn’t feel it. But in the fifth round, my energy finished… I mean, I finished the fight, all the twelve rounds. But I just don’t know how I managed all the remaining seven rounds.” Again, this would seem to indicate that Ward’s second-half resurgence was much more than just a figment of our imaginations.
The Swing Rounds
HBO’s Harold Lederman is a respected analyst and the broadcaster’s longtime on-air scoring guide. He had Kovalev winning the fight comfortably, by a margin of 116-111. Taking the scorecard of someone who had Kovalev clearly winning the fight as a benchmark then, is it really so outlandish to suggest that Ward should have emerged the winner? The evidence says no: in fact, even using a card that favours Kovalev so widely, it only takes three swing rounds out of twelve to produce a different result. And it is not difficult to find three such potential rounds on his card.
Consider, for example, that after eight completed rounds Lederman had Kovalev in a 5-3 lead. Notably though, Lederman’s colleague Max Kellerman stated during the eighth round: “In terms of the scores, Harold has given two rounds to Kovalev that I thought could have been given to Ward”. Swinging just one of these rounds on Lederman’s card would then put the fighters dead even at four rounds each going into the last third of the fight. Then consider Lederman’s view of the ninth round, which seemed way off base. Ward clearly landed the more eye-catching blows and according to the punch stats it was actually his best round of the fight (Kellerman again immediately voiced his opinion that he thought Lederman’s reading of the round was wrong).
Far from needing to give Ward “every benefit of the doubt” then, in fact using Lederman’s card we’d only need to swing two rounds out of the first eleven to put Ward into a 6-5 lead going into the final round. As it turned out, the twelfth was another close one in which the official judges and many pundits were split – a classic “swing round” that could reasonably be scored in either direction.
The upshot of all of this is that whether or not you thought Ward deserved the decision, it makes no sense to claim that the judges’ verdict was implausible. The truth is that it was a close fight where both men had palpable moments of ascendency. Kovalev made an excellent start, but his lead was far from insurmountable and Ward clearly fought more effectively over the second half of the fight. From the third round onwards there were several swing rounds where a good case could be made for either boxer; which way you saw those rounds essentially determined how you scored the fight.
So if you thought Kovalev deserved to be the winner, by all means state your case. But let’s not pretend the first fight was a robbery – the sport has enough problems without adding phony ones to the list. The two men will settle their difference in the ring tonight, so let’s hope the result will be more clear cut this time whichever way it goes, and just sit back and enjoy a rematch between two of the best fighters in the sport.