Isaac Chilemba neutralized Sergey Kovalev for half of their bout Monday, then somehow left the ring on his own power, making him just the fourth man to do so in Kovalev’s 30 wins. You have to imagine Andre Ward was watching with a grin at home in advance of their superfight later this year. But should he have been, if he was?
The Kovalev-Chilemba bout was meant to be something of an easy warm-up against a nonetheless credible light heavyweight, albeit one coming of a loss. And it’s fair to say that Kovalev struggles the most with fighters who are far from conventional. Jean Pascal gave him some fits in their first meeting with his unpredictable, looping explosions.
Chilemba? He relied on herky-jerky movement, his own strangely timed leaps into combat and a few things that were more fundamental. For instance: He alternated leading, backing up and moving in more than one direction; he punched at times in the middle of Kovalev’s salvos; he kept his gloves up and strategically ducked and clinched; he feinted all over the place. The combination had Kovalev thinking more than he was punching, at least by his usual standard. He couldn’t find Chilemba very often early on, even though he was winning rounds simply by landing the harder punches.
Kovalev found the range in the 7th, though, with a one-two that dropped Chilemba, then he hurt him again in the 8th. But he couldn’t keep the pressure up once Chilemba recovered, and Kovalev was forced to take a unanimous decision.
Thus, the central question: Should Ward be encouraged by this? Pascal had his moments but lost. Chilemba had his moments but lost. Kovalev’s offensive destructiveness is such that you can be making life difficult for him and he’ll still drop you, even if he doesn’t stop you. And Kovalev wasn’t quite his usual self; he blamed fighting in Russia, which affected his nerves, whereas in the United States he doesn’t feel as much pressure.
Ward certainly can do all the technical things Chilemba did, only better. And he can maul with the best of them. But he’s not awkward, especially. He is just about the best practicing conventional fighter going, A-Z — defense, offense, variety, pedigree.
So the concerns should remain for Ward: He’s not proven he’s a powerful light heavyweight quite yet, and Kovalev had a bad night he’s unlikely to repeat and he might not have the makeup to maximize his advantages. Still, it’s not a bad thing that Kovalev didn’t look great. It might’ve even made Kovalev-Ward all the better.