We live in the supposed information age. Everything that everyone does is compiled, quantified, and analyzed to deliver a more specialized experience whether you’re shopping or watching TV. Sports have also followed this trend, and in many ways led the charge. The experience of fandom is lost to some degree because you’re constantly being updated about how an in-game performance compares to the adjusted scale of someone fifty years ago. We’ve recently seen how badly those predictive algorithms can malfunction.
I think we all need a little uncertainty in our lives, and there is no more welcome mystery than a pick ‘em fight between two of boxing’s best. You can look at punch stats and win-loss records until the cows come home, and still not be sure. There is no statistical mean to reference when two individuals meet each other for the first time.
Andre Ward versus Sergey Kovalev is a toss-up. It features two of the sport’s three best light heavyweights. Two fighters at or very near their prime. The two fighters you’d pick to beat anyone else in their respective division are fighting and we didn’t have to wait five years past its sell-by date. This is the kind of fight that keeps us sniffing around this crazy sport and coming back for more no matter how bitterly disappointed it makes us.
If you’ve paid any attention to the build up for this fight, you’ve been treated to no shortage of infomercials about the tribulations of each fighter’s life. Neither seems comfortable with having their past and psyche exploited for personal gain. However, while they appear equally impassive, Kovalev’s mask breaks more easily, and regularly, into a gleeful malevolence that has endeared him to fans. The only thing one gets from the stone-faced Ward is an occasional self congratulatory smirk. Fortunately, this isn’t a personality contest.
Distilling the fight down to boxer vs puncher is woefully myopic. Ward (30-0, 15 KO) is a consummate boxer, but he’s not a pure stylist in the Floyd Mayweather or Pernell Whitaker mold. The 32-year-old Ward is a negative fighter, more akin to the 42-year-old version of Bernard Hopkins. His central aim in the ring is to deny his opponent. If you try to get space, he smothers you, and if you try to get inside, he clinches, all the while disrupting his opponent’s rhythm at every turn with crisp counterpunches and pinpoint timing and range. When a foe has been rendered completely inert, Ward can show flashes of offensive brilliance, as he did against Chad Dawson in 2012, but in general he plays it safe. Calling his style cerebral would be an insult. Ward is playing chess at a checkers table.
Many commentators, especially the HBO crew, behave as though the Ward who demolished Dawson and comfortably won the Super Six is the Ward we will see against Kovalev. Nothing I have seen this year, or in the previous three, lost to legal wrangling and injuries, have convinced me that is the case. Ward dominated his opposition, but none of them were anywhere near world class. So we are left with a question mark. Is Andre Ward the fighter he once was?
He’d better be, because the man across the ring from him Saturday night is coming to take his head off. Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KO) isn’t the busiest light heavyweight out there — in fact, he’s just about average in volume. What separates Kovalev is how he punches and the impact that each one delivers. For a big man, Kovalev is quite nimble and frequently throws hurtful shots when his feet aren’t set or in anything resembling proper position. Think of the right hand that dropped Hopkins as Kovalev was springing back out of range. He also throws a step over left hand when his feet get crossed up that has the effect of making him functionally ambidextrous in the ring. If you try to clinch him, he breaks free. If you try to run, he catches you. The pressure he exerts is from constantly being right on you, not just throwing a lot of punches. In addition to being an excellent boxer, he’s a pure predator between the ropes, and he’s as efficient a hunter as he is ruthless.
The wonderful thing about this fight is that we don’t know if any of this will happen. In a bout between stylistic opposites there is always the chance that the fight itself will be a complete bore. I don’t see that happening here. While it’s true that Ward may try to stink out the joint, nothing I’ve seen leads me to believe that Kovalev will let him. Even when frustrated, Kovalev keeps fighting hard and trying to break through. This will be a bout of moments. In every moment, each man will try to impose himself on the fight and his opponent. Expect many momentum swings and frequent tense exchanges. Kovalev certainly has the power to hurt Ward, and I expect him to throughout the fight, but I’m not sure he’ll be able to get him out of there. Ward is crafty enough and strong enough to survive and work back into the fight. Thank God Robert Byrd is the kind of referee who’ll let them fight.
Prediction: Kovalev by close decision or late stoppage.