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Sergey Kovalev-Andre Ward: Pre-Fight Report Card

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Cliff Rold does excellent previews - here's tonight's big one - my pick is Ward - just a gut feeling and not based on anything else - a pick'em fight for me
Sat Nov 19, 2016

Sergey Kovalev-Andre Ward: Pre-Fight Report Card


by Cliff Rold

Four years ago, having gone through the Super Six minefield and becoming the first man to stop then lineal light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson in a super middleweight title fight, Andre Ward looked like the heir apparent.

Following the wild round robin years of the 1980s featuring a relative parity of elite talent led by Sugar Ray Leonard, there has always been that one guy who stands out from the crowd; the sublime master talent whose peers can’t quite catch up to in their prime.

Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones, Floyd Mayweather…Andre Ward?

That’s the way things looked like they were heading.

Maybe that’s the way they’ve been all these years anyways. Injuries and a well documented legal battle with his former promoters kept Ward on the shelf for most of 2013 and all of 2014. Since returning in June 2015 from an eighteen-month layoff, the former 168 lb. king Ward has been in the ring three times.

He may not have lost more than a handful of rounds.

He hasn’t shared the ring with anyone who had any business doing better than that.

That changes this weekend.

A lot of things have changed over the last four years.

When Ward stepped into the ring with Dawson in September 2012, Sergey Kovalev was still just an interesting prospect in the light heavyweight division. In January 2013, he announced that he might be much more. A three round annihilation of former titlist Gabriel Campillo was an eye opener. Campillo came in on the heels of highly debated decision losses to Beibut Shumenov and Tavoris Cloud; he could easily have been a unified beltholder that night.

Kovalev walked through him.

He’s walked through a lot of other good fighters since while winning three of the four most recognized belts in his class. Nathan Cleverly and Jean Pascal had never been stopped before they faced Kovalev. No one had ever shut out the great Bernard Hopkins before Kovalev did it. In nine title fights at light heavyweight, only two have lasted the distance and all have hit the deck at least once.

None of them were Andre Ward.

In the four years since Ward last faced someone regarded as an elite talent, a genuine rival has emerged. In each other, Ward and Kovalev find an opponent that can both validate everything they’ve done to date and elevate their standing to a new plateau.

Many fights can be regarded going in as 50-50 but for the rare few does that really set the imagination on fire. It might not decide history’s king at 175 lbs. (that claim still resides with Adonis Stevenson), but the winner will be widely regarded as the best light heavyweight in the world.

This isn’t just a fight where we can’t be sure who will win.

It’s a fight where we can’t wait to find out. 

kovalev-ward-weigh-in (6)

Let’s go the report card.

The Ledgers

Sergey Kovalev
Age: 33
?Current Titles: WBO Light Heavyweight (2013-Present, 8 Defenses); WBA Super Light Heavyweight (2014-Present, 4 Defenses); IBF Light Heavyweight (2014-Present, 4 Defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Height: 6’0
Weight: 175 lbs.
?Hails from: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Hails from Russia)
Record: 30-0-1, 26 KO
Rankings: #1 (BoxingScene, TBRB, Ring, Boxing Monthly, BoxRec), #2 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 9-0, 7 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 4 (Gabriel Campillo TKO3; Nathan Cleverly TKO4; Bernard Hopkins UD12; Jean Pascal TKO8, RTD7)


Andre Ward
Age: 32
?Current Title: None
Previous Titles: WBA Super Middleweight (2009-15, 6 Defenses); WBC Super Middleweight (2011-13, 1 Defense); TBRB/Ring/Lineal Super Middleweight (2011-15, 2 Defenses)
Height: 6’0
Weight: 175 lbs.
?Hails from: Oakland, California
Record: 30-0, 15 KO
Rankings: #2 (BoxingScene, TBRB), #3 (ESPN, Boxing Monthly, BoxRec), #4 (Ring)
Record in Major Title Fights: 7-0, 1 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 5 (Mikkel Kessler TD11; Sakio Bika UD12; Arthur Abraham UD12; Carl Froch UD12; Chad Dawson TKO10)


Pre-Fight: Speed – Kovalev B+; Ward A
Pre-Fight: Power – Kovalev A; Ward B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Kovalev B+; Ward A
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Kovalev A+; Ward A+

If the weigh in is any indication of the atmosphere Saturday night, the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist at Light Heavyweight, Ward, will have the home court advantage here. Kovalev got a round of boos when he stepped to the scale.

He smiled anyways. This isn’t first time he’s been on the road in hostile territory.

Both men looked elated by the moment and in peak shape. There was no reason to expect anything less. Both Ward and Kovalev have been consistently professional throughout their careers. They also consistently met and exceeded expectations.

Kovalev and Ward are gamers. They don’t just win their big fights. They win big in their big fights. What will that mean Saturday? It could mean one man holds to that standard and simply takes over.

We can hope it means we get something more memorable than that, a genuine two-way contest worthy of the anticipation this has garnered among serious fight followers.

There are reasons to think both are possible.

If one man takes over, the smart pick to do so is probably Ward. Kovalev physically dominating Ward, hurting him early and never letting up, is possible. Ward’s craft makes that less likely.

The American is the sort of fighter who does a little bit of everything right. He has excellent balance, understands distance as well as any fighter in the game, and can throw in some work from the southpaw side just to mess with an opponent’s timing. Ward’s best power punch is the left hook but power isn’t what makes his game.

What makes Ward so fascinating to watch, and frustrating for foes, is the way he takes weapons away. For fighters who like to fight inside, Ward has proven able to box at range and smother when they get close. Against foes that like to keep a man at the end of a jab, think Kessler and Dawson, Ward beat them up at close quarters. He doesn’t waste motion regardless. Ward moves but he’s not a guy who stays on his toes all night. His movement is about getting to the next spot where he can plant and land again.

It’s not always pretty and he’s not above bending the rules. Forearms, an educated forehead, and clinches that allow him to use his physical strength to wear men down aren’t about aesthetics.

They’re just about winning.

Another thing that makes fighters like Ward successful is that they bring the punch output of their opponent’s down. Ward has smart head movement and is no easy target. If Kovalev headhunts, he is in for a long night. He’s regularly shown the ring smarts to be more than that but he struggled in spots in his last fight against Isaac Chilemba. Chilemba boxed, stayed in his game, and lasted the distance while winning a few rounds along the way. Kovalev couldn’t find him the way he was used to finding others. His punch output dropped from a Compubox average in the eight fights prior to Chilemba by approximately nine punches per round.       

If Chilemba can do that, Ward’s chances to bring his output down even more look good.

Kovalev isn’t above using the rough stuff either. He punches what is available. Sometimes that means flirting around the waistline; sometimes it means a hard shot that lands on the back of the head.

Kovalev will have to have answers for Ward’s reservoir of tactical knowledge. It will start off the jab. In his breakthrough fight against Mikkel Kessler, Ward disrupted the Dane’s jab all night. Kessler had arguably the best jab in the super middleweight division then. The same can be said of Kovalev right now at light heavyweight.

Kovalev’s jab appears superior to Kessler’s. It’s just as straight but Kovalev isn’t as athletically rigid and he mixes it up to the head and body better. Ward has the edge in speed here but Kovalev is quick enough to use his advantage in arm length. The reach, on paper, isn’t far apart but Kovalev has more narrow shoulders than Ward. Earlier this year, the punch that Sullivan Barrera had the most (of limited) success with against Ward was the jab. Like Kovalev, that was predicated on his length.

If Kovalev can establish his jab, he can win the fight. The jab sets up everything else. Some have pointed out Kovalev’s perceived deficiency on the inside. If this becomes a phone booth fight, the edge will be to Ward. Few are better at working in the clinch and hacking away with the free hand. Carl Froch was able to land his share of awkward rights against Ward. It wasn’t enough to change the fight, but the angles he worked from made Ward work to the end. Kovalev is quicker than Froch and can land at similar angles with more precision.

It doesn’t mean Kovalev lacks weapons at close range. He’s very good at taking a short step backwards and landing quick left hooks and shortened, slashing overhand rights when foes try to crowd. That he can land those with power moving backwards makes him more dangerous.

Defense is an assumed advantage for Ward but Kovalev isn’t easy to hit either. His head movement is an overlooked asset and he’s good at creating space. This could be a fight where we see both men thinking and looking for openings in spots versus punching.

Temperament will be a factor as well. Neither Kovalev nor Ward come across as kindly men in the ring. Can either man shake the other mentally and force them out of character? How will Ward respond if he has to come off the floor? How will Kovalev respond if he finds himself being bullied inside and forced to the ropes?

We’re mere hours from finding both the answers to these questions and what questions we didn’t think to ask. 

The Pick

There are a few ways for Ward to win here and it will be interesting to see what his strategy is. Does he think his chances are better in smothering Kovalev or will he find his edge in speed allows him to use his legs and counter punching to keep Kovalev frozen and resetting. For Kovalev, it's a tighter needle to thread. He has to hurt Ward at some point and not let him establish a rhythm. Kovalev can win rounds that way but it's hard to see seven of them. Ward is a twelve round, methodical fighter. A long steady contest favors him. The power of Kovalev, his underrated quickness, and fluid combinations, make him a threat no matter the round.

This isn’t as simple as boxer versus puncher. Both men are well-rounded, high boxing IQ talents with commensurate professional experience. They’ve seen a range of styles, both have been in big fights, and neither knows how to lose. However, in flipping the coin on a fight that is 50-50 on paper, the coin comes up Ward. Kovalev’s paths to victory depend on offense and Ward is a master of stifling offensive fighters. It’s the safe pick even if no pick feels safe on this one.

The fight is that good.  

Report Card and Staff Picks 2016: 37-13

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