TQBR Roundtable: Kovalev Vs Ward Edition

Whilst I admit we aren’t exactly the crew at My-T-Sharp, the staff here at TQBR is always up to gather round our smart phones and email each other at all hours of the night as we try to hash out our varying opinions of the sport’s biggest fights. Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward may not get much love from ESPN, but it’s a fight fan’s dream (wet and otherwise). The format is simple: I pose the questions and they try their best not to call me a fucking idiot whilst answering them.

As an addition: We would like to wish staff writer Jonathan Moreland a hearty congratulations on his recent nuptials. All the best, Jonathan.

Much of Ward’s advantage at 168 was his ability to manhandle opponents. Any chance he can do that to a big light heavyweight like Kovalev? Will he need to?

Lou Catalano: Ward is an excellent fighter for a number of reasons, but one of them is the ability to smother an opponent’s offense. I don’t think he’ll be able to manhandle Kovalev the way he has with other fighters, but I don’t necessarily think he’ll need to. Kovalev is a big guy, and his punches are so damn hard that he really doesn’t need to get a whole lot of torque on them in order to hurt his man. But Ward has a great defense, and I’m picturing the first few rounds going like a Bernard Hopkins fight — a quick punch here and there followed by some good ol’ man-smothering. He may not be able to overpower the Russian, but he’ll frustrate the hell out of him by tying him up.

Sam Sheppard: Ward was deceptively strong at 168, especially according to opponents like Carl Froch who thought they’d be able to physically bully him with relative ease. I don’t see it happening against a guy like Sergey Kovalev, who is simply too good at giving himself room (at least not without the help of the referee or multiple points being deducted!).

Tim Starks: He can, and it’s not much to do with size. I wrestled some in middle school and then for one year in high school before getting my ass handed to me so often that I quit. But in that time I learned about what leverage can do. To be sure, strength helps. But Ward, in a clinch, is masterful, however much people wish he wasn’t. He moves his legs, he positions his arms just so, he puts his head in the opponent’s chests, everything. And Kovalev is smarter in the ring than most anyone (or maybe everyone) Ward has faced, but his plan to “break Ward’s hands off” should Ward tie him up… that won’t work. And yet, it’s not obvious to me that Ward is going to fight him that way. So, it could be a part of the plan at times, when Kovalev gets too close, but if Ward wins I expect he’ll hunt and peck his way to victory from the outside.

Jonathan Moreland: I don’t think Ward will be able to “manhandle” Kovalev per se, but I think he’s plenty strong enough to still do what he wants on the inside. Like the Juggernaut, Kovalev becomes a calamitous force once he gains a head of steam. Ward’s going to have to dictate the fight’s pace out of necessity — and that means a whole lot of ugly jostling in close quarters. Each of my colleagues has cited S.O.G.’s world-class ability to clinch, smother and frustrate his opponents. Kovalev is a unique beast, but I don’t think he’ll be able to stay out of Ward’s clutches for sustained stretches.

Jeff Pryor: He will need to grapple at times if he is going to be successful in the fight and he will definitely give it a try, but I think Tim is right when he envisions more of a hunt and peck strategy working for Ward in this one. Kovalev is gonna be as rough as possible in those clinches and while I don’t see Ward backing away entirely from that style; distance will serve him better. It may take a few rounds for him to grudgingly admit that.

Matthew Swain: I think there will be plenty of moments when Ward will need to clinch Kovalev, and I agree with Tim’s assessment that leverage will be key, but I don’t see Kovalev submitting to it. He’s strong as bull and if he feels like he’s getting fouled, he’ll definitely respond in kind.

If Ward is able to disrupt Kovalev’s rhythm, will the Russian’s volume decrease? Why or why not?

Lou: Absolutely. We’ve seen this a million times — the puncher takes on a great defensive fighter, and suddenly he’s a statue. And then HBO commentator Harold Lederman loses his mind wondering WHY IN THE HELL WON’T THIS GUY THROW PUNCHES, JIM??? Ward is extremely intelligent in the ring, but you don’t have to be a member of Mensa to figure out that Kovalev punching you in the head repeatedly is very very bad news. Ward’s entire game plan will revolve around accurate punching and limiting Kovalev’s output. Hopkins tried this, but while his mind was ready, his body was no longer up to the task.

Sam: The only way I see Kovalev’s volume going down is if Ward is able to hurt him, either to the head (unlikely) or to the body (slightly more likely). I think Kovalev will know he needs to outwork Ward to win, or at least be seen to out-hustle him. If very few punches are thrown, that will certainly be viewed in Ward’s favour, in terms of the fight unfolding on his terms. This sort of perception could be key on Saturday night.

Tim: I lean more Lou than Sam here. No doubt, Kovalev is going to know he has to work. But Ward is going to smother him physically, mentally and strategically. Ward knows that he has to keep Kovalev from landing if he’s going to win. So Ward is going to do everything to keep that from happening, and I trust his brain to get the job done more than Kovalev’s (not that Kovalev has a bad boxing brain at all).

Jonathan: Yes, Ward will disrupt Kovalev’s rhythm, and yes, Krusher’s volume will decrease. It seems inevitable. Ward’s sole focus will be to keep Kovalev off-kilter and a defensive-minded fighter of his caliber is more likely to have success getting his opponent stuck in the muck than not. I think the key to the fight is whether or not Kovalev can land the harder shots when he’s given the chance, because I expect his opportunities to be few and far between.

Jeff: Ward is great at smothering and being tactical; if he can disrupt Kovalev’s rhythm of course his numbers will drop. If Kovalev gets in that position he may have to find an extra gear like Joe Calzaghe did when Mikkel Kessler was hanging tough in their super middleweight battle some years ago. In that fight Calzaghe pulled away by willing himself to just keep throwing no matter what. Styles are completely different here, but Kovalev could do worse than to emulate  Calzaghe’s mindset in this one.

Matthew: I’m in total agreement with Jeff here. I’m certain that Ward will disrupt Kovalev’s rhythm. There’s no one in the sport better at that than he is, but I think it will cause Kovalev to find another gear.

How much will Ward’s total lack of opposition during the last four years hurt him? Or will it?

Lou: Ward spent much of the last few years getting his ass handed to him in court and beating guys that didn’t belong anywhere near him. For most fighters, the lack of opposition heading into a massive fight against an extremely dangerous opponent would be suicidal. But I don’t get that feeling here. Ward is somewhat like Floyd Mayweather, who could spend four years in the tropics swimming with sea turtles and still pop out and win a 12 round shutout against anybody. He’s special, and Ward is, too. I think he’s ready, god-awful opposition or not.

Sam: I believe, through a combination of age, injuries and inactivity, that Ward is visibly diminished when set against to his 2011/2012 peak. The guy who got tagged a bunch of times by Sullivan Barrera, and swung wildly against Alexander Brand, is not the same guy who demolished Chad Dawson and schooled Froch. Having said all that, I still think this version of him is good enough to beat just about anyone, and I’ve always felt he was the kind of guy who rose to the big occasion. I’m not expecting him to be rusty, in other words.

Tim: It’s the main reason to lean Kovalev, other than Kovalev. Ward just hasn’t looked spectacular against either of his last two opponents, like he’s a step slower and rusty. Neither opponent was going to make him look un-rusty or fast, but if he can’t look great against that crew, it’s troubling. One of the ways you get rusty is by not facing anyone elite. Ipso facto.

Jonathan: Ward giving uninspiring performances against weak opposition is more concerning than the quality of opposition itself. Ward is a special kind of fighter, though. I agree with Lou and Sam — it just doesn’t feel like Ward needs to have been challenged lately to stay sharp. I’m not expecting to see ring rust and think he rises to the occasion for this megafight.

Jeff: It doesn’t help. As others have pointed out Ward seems like the kind of talent who can perform at a high level no matter the length of layoff and he does have a history of showing up big against the best opponents. It will rear its head as a factor if Kovalev can land a big shot or two in the first few rounds. Early momentum for Kovalev would be the worst scenario for Ward.

Matthew: We know how the current iteration of Ward fares against mediocre fighters, and it doesn’t fill me with confidence about his ability to beat Kovalev. There’s no way that he won’t have some rust and the huge uptick in speed and power will trouble him.

What’s your pick for the fight?

Lou: I’ve gone back and forth a few times here, but I now believe this is Ward’s fight. Kovalev is a beast, and despite appearing to be completely psychotic, he’s no dummy. He’s not a one-dimensional brawler, and I think he’ll give “S.O.G.” some problems.  But Ward is just too good all around, and my prediction is that he’ll win a unanimous decision and mark his status as the best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound. Let’s just hope it isn’t a snooze-fest. We don’t need any of those.

Sam: Ward via a close (and possibly controversial) decision, in a fight where he is hurt at least once. I think this will be a very divisive contest in terms of scoring, with plenty of bad feeling on both sides once the winner is announced.

Tim Starks: Despite all that I said about the rust and stuff, Ward has a habit of rising to the occasion. His best performances have usually been against his best opponents. I’ve gone back and forth a million times on who I thought would win this one, and I’m a little surprised to see the others picking Ward so far. But here I am, about to do the same. I’m increasingly having trouble seeing him get hit clean enough for it to make a difference. Ward is masterful at not getting hit clean, basically ever, and while Kovalev is better at hitting, I just don’t see Ward giving him the openings. Ward should win a decision by nullifying Kovalev. But who knows, I could change my mind again a couple times before the fight.

Jonathan: It’s a great fight and an important one. I think it’s going to be boring, though. My heart wants to see Kovalev score a mid-round KO via hump gesture-1-2 [editor’s note: we refer to this as a “dick feint”], but I predict we’ll see Ward score a unanimous decision instead.

Jeff: Well, all the fellas here are swinging Ward’s way, and it makes me want to say Kovalev just to be contrarian, but I think Ward has more ways to win. That being said, the fight starts slow with Ward purposefully blunting the action. By mid rounds, Kovalev will force the action, making it exciting but ugly. and it will be a scrappy, grappling, war of attrition down the stretch. Whoever has more willpower in the final four rounds will probably win a close decision. Either guy can win, but Ward seems the more likely.

Matthew: You’ll have to read my preview column.