Super Fight 2016: Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward, “Pound-for-Pound”
By: Matt O’Brien
On November 19th at the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, two of boxing’s most highly rated fighters meet in a battle for the WBA, WBO and IBF light-heavyweight world championships. While the bout has not quite captured mainstream media attention in the manner of a Mayweather-Pacquiao type mega event, it is nevertheless a rare meeting between undefeated, elite talents in the prime of their careers. The fighters enter with a combined record of 60-0-1, with 41 knockouts. Below, I analyse the case for each man’s prospects of victory.
The Case for Kovalev
Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev’s nickname is well deserved: he goes into his most high profile contest with a devastating 84% KO ratio, with just 4 of his 31 career opponents hearing the final bell. Only wily veterans Bernard Hopkins and Isaac Chilemba have managed to take Kovalev the full championship distance – though both of those were still knocked to the canvas. In fact, the Krusher has scored a total of 16 official knockdowns in his last 9 fights, since blasting Nathan Cleverly to defeat and claiming his first world title, in August 2013. Considering that Andre Ward enters the match with a comparatively low 50% KO ratio and has gone the 12-round distance 7 times in his last 9 bouts, the Russian is quite obviously the puncher in this fight.
Set against the formidable punching power of Kovalev is also a lingering question mark over the challenger’s chin. In the 4th round of a 2005 middleweight contest vs. the 6-2-1 Darnell Boone, Ward was knocked down and appeared badly hurt after being hit with a peach of a right uppercut flush on the jaw. Though the knockdown stands as an isolated incident and Ward’s chin has passed every other test in the 11 years since, it could potentially be the lone chink in his otherwise impenetrable armour. Certainly, we have never seen Ward absorb the kind of hellacious shots that Kovalev can dish out.
We should be wary of falling into the trap of casting Kovalev as simply “just” a puncher in this fight, though. Under the fine tutelage of former world champion John David Jackson, the Russian has exhibited some excellent boxing skills and tactical nous in order to set up his vaunted power shots. Against 66-fight veteran Bernard Hopkins, in particular, the Krusher demonstrated that he could box effectively to a more patient strategy when required, refusing to be drawn into recklessly attacking the wiser, older counter-puncher.
Fighting most effectively at long range, a thudding left jab maintains the champ’s preferred distance. But while the heavy lead hand is dangerous in its own right, it’s the follow-up, booming right hand – thrown straight down the pipe or round the side of the guard – that’s by far his most potent weapon. A vicious body attack supplements the poleaxing one-two combination upstairs, with numerous opponents being hurt or stopped at the end of his punishing long rights and left hooks to the midsection.
The champion has also shown that he is dangerous late into a fight, with both Hopkins and Chilemba close to being stopped in the 12th round, as the Russian unleashed a barrage in an effort to close the show. Even against Chilemba, in a performance that can very reasonably be described as an “off night”, Kovalev still displayed an impressive variety of combination punching when he eventually found some rhythm later in the contest.
Perhaps we should also be wary of placing too much stock in the relatively poor showing against Chilemba. Having struggled somewhat, one could say that Kovalev benefitted both in terms of stylistic preparation and ensuring that, mentally, now he is in exactly the right frame of mind: focused, with his feet firmly on the ground, absent the kind of complacency that has been the undoing of so many big punchers in the past. Beating such an awkward opponent was therefore arguably the ideal preparation before facing a foe as difficult as Ward.
All in all then, we know that Kovalev’s punching power is going to pose serious problems – but tactically he is no slouch, either. And while he excels when he has the distance to extend his punches, he has the size and physical strength that could provide an antidote to the American’s masterful inside game. Ward is not used to being bullied in the ring, and could be beaten into a retreat when met, for once, with a force he cannot control. If anyone is going to overcome the classy American in this manner, the Krusher is likely to be the man.
The Case For Ward
The last time Andre Ward lost a competitive boxing match he was 12 years old. The subsequent years have seen him capture an Olympic gold medal, claim the WBA, WBC and lineal super middleweight championships, emerge victorious in the talent-laden Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament, and TKO the lineal light-heavyweight champion. He is therefore, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most competent practitioners of the sweet science alive today.
In large part thanks to the aforementioned Super Six tournament held by Showtime, Ward’s résumé includes a very impressive list of fighters from the 168 and 175lb divisions: Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch and Chad Dawson were all defeated in a magnificent run from November 2009 to September 2012.
Unfortunately, a protracted promotional dispute and injuries outside of the ring led to a disappointing period of inactivity for Ward, who scored just four wins in the four years following the impressive stoppage of Dawson. The paucity of ring time also coincided with a notable dip in the quality of his opponents, and consequently the American’s pound-for-pound credentials have taken something of a hit, as more active elite fighters have tended to leapfrog him in the rankings.
With that being said, we should not confuse the disappointing drop in Ward’s activity and quality of opposition with evidence that his skills have declined in the ring, or that his dedication to the sport has waned. He remains a superb boxer, barely losing a round in his last four contests. Andre is a master of distance and utilizes fantastic footwork in order to maximize his ability to both land and avoid punches. Indeed, since his ascension to the world ranks it is hard to think of many clear examples where he’s been tagged with full-bloodied shots on the chin – never mind being rocked or seriously hurt.
This mastery of ring generalship often does not make for riveting viewing, as Ward is more than happy to stay out of range and score with accurate, stabbing, Mayweather-esque jabs to both head and body while effortlessly blocking, parrying and dodging incoming swings. But it is incredibly effective.
The deftness of Ward’s footwork and the awkwardness and skill of his boxing style bode very well in the context of Kovalev’s previous outing, against the slippery but unexceptional Isaac Chilemba. Most worrying for the Russian on that night – particularly during the early rounds of the fight – was the African’s ability to land consistent, fast jabs and frustrate the Krusher’s aggressive and typically effective offense with his educated footwork.
This does not mean though that Ward will simply “run” from his Russian adversary. On the contrary, the challenger’s inside game is worthy of some of the craftiest, roughest old-school fighters to ever lace the gloves. Of fighters in recent years, Ward reminds very much of a vintage Bernard Hopkins, in this regard: cunning, strong, full of guile and more than happy to occupy the grey space between bending the rules and gaining a competitive advantage. He is an expert at grabbing, pushing and maneuvering his opponents at close quarters, restricting their ability to fire effective shots while maintaining his own punching position and landing hard, sneaky hooks and uppercuts.
The American rarely displays one-punch knockout power and (much like Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather before him) never attempts to bring matters to a hasty conclusion at the expense of a strategic advantage. However, he does bring speed, accuracy and technique in abundance. So while it would be a surprise to see the Russian KO’d or stopped, we should not be shocked to see him physically and mentally discouraged as the bout wears on. Ward’s blend of savvy inside fighting and exceptional footwork give him an excellent chance of becoming the first man to nullify the Krusher.
Although Ward is an extremely physical fighter and Kovalev is far more than just a “bombs-away” slugger, this fight nevertheless essentially fits the mold of a classic meeting between a “boxer” and a “puncher”. And history, I think, has taught us that when a formidable offense meets an excellent defense, more often than not it is the defense that prevails.
Of course, the Boone fight will inevitably be referenced as evidence of Ward’s inability to take a heavy punch, but I tend to be of the opinion that any fighter who has gone through the number of rounds Ward has gone through at the level he has fought at, must necessarily be able to hold a pretty decent shot. In any case, Ward’s positioning, footwork and timing are so effective that I see them as more likely being the determining factors here, rather than his punch resistance.
Unless Kovalev is able to land cleanly and hurt Ward in the early rounds, his desperation to score with heavier blows will only increase as the bout wears on, and the difference in their speed and footwork is only likely to be exacerbated. Although Kovalev will be dangerous throughout, I expect Ward to dictate where and how the most meaningful, scoring exchanges take place. I think the American has the skills and physical tools necessary to out-think, out-box and out-hustle his Russian counterpart, and I envisage a game but frustrated champion surrendering his titles via a fairly clear, unanimous decision.