By John J. Raspanti
Former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev entered the small conference room ready to meet the assemble of boxing scribes posed to pepper him with questions about his rematch with Andre Ward, which goes down June 17 at The Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, NV.
Kovalev can be a mixture of intensity and humor. However, since losing his titles to Ward, the Russian has been more ferocious than funny, making it clear that he doesn’t like Ward, who captured a controversial unanimous decision last November.
Everything is personal to Kovalev. He has no respect for Ward.
“He didn’t impress me at all,” Kovalev (30-1, 26 KOs) said through his interpreter, and manger, Egis Klimas.
Kovalev was asked about Ward’s punching power.
“I didn’t feel it,” said Kovalev. “He hit me a few uppercuts to the body.”
Watching the replay a number of times, the uppercuts that Kovalev mentioned looked like hard shots. But this is boxing—where acknowledging what your opponent did in a match is rare.
Before he met Ward in November, Kovalev respected him. He spoke glowingly of Ward’s gold medal and that Ward, the former super middleweight champion, was the toughest opponent he had ever met.
Ward, on the other hand, hedged—saying he’d find out in the ring how good a fighter Kovalev was.
I wasn’t surprised by Ward’s response. The man is most competitive athlete I’ve ever interviewed. Respect is earned, not given. I remember a few years ago, I asked Ward about a picture he took with middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.
Ward is normally all smiles in pictures. Not this time. Golovkin was grinning, but not Ward. His expression was blank.
I gave him my theory on what I thought I was seeing.
“Oh, you saw that,” he said, smiling. "I’m impressed you noticed. I’m a competitor. I was letting Golovkin know that ’Hey, I’m the sheriff around here.’ It wasn’t personal.”
Kovalev is cut from a different cloth. There’s no doubt he’s an extremely talented boxer. He won the WBO light heavyweight title by traveling to hostile territory four years ago, and knocking out defending champion Nathan Cleverly. He’s competitive as hell, but from what he says, he’s angry, and maybe a little hurt.
He thinks he was seriously screwed in his first fight with Ward.
And he didn’t enjoy it. Not at all.
“I over-trained for Andre,” said Kovalev.
Over-training for a fight does happen occasionally in boxing. It means, in essence, that a fighter worked too hard before the bout.
“I killed myself months before the fight,” Kovalev said. “I didn’t have the energy I normally have.”
That wasn’t apparent in the first five rounds against Ward. He floored the Oakland native in Round two with a blistering right hand to the mouth. Ward still got up with a smile on his face.
Kovalev said that he should have finished Ward, but there wasn’t enough time in the round to complete the job.
“I felt no danger from him,” said Kovalov. “Ward is no challenge. It’s really important to destroy Andre Ward,“ he added, sounding like a skinny Ivan Drago from Rocky 4.
After Kovalev left, shaking hands with some of us, Ward came gliding into the conference room with a smile, exuding confidence. Makes sense. He’s never lost a professional fight, all though some, including this writer, felt Kovalev edged him last November.
His comeback after getting floored in the second round shouldn’t have surprised anybody.
Articulation and gritty don’t usually go hand to hand. With Ward, they do.
He immediately commented on all the trash talking Kovalev and his team have been doing.
“He makes a lot of excuses,” said Ward. “You learn a lot about man when he has some adversity. He’s very much used to having it his way. He scares his opponents.”
Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) was asked about Kovalev’s assertion that he over-trained.
“Here we go again,” Ward said. “The only problem with that conclusion is that in his fight prior to mine, he got tired. Maybe he did over-train in his camp, but that’s not what I’ve heard. They have to force him to do things. To run.”
Ward’s comeback in the first fight was due to his bodywork. A number of punches landed and appeared to bother Kovalev. Ward is known as an inside fighter, but going to the body is something he’s done, but inconsistently.
He did it against Kovalev due to necessity.
“That (going to the body) just kinda happened,” said Ward.”It was in the moment. He likes you at a certain range. I like things at mid-range. With all his years of boxing, the system he came up through, he couldn’t adjust.”
Ward has made a career of making adjustments in the ring. His intelligence might be his greatest asset.
Kovalev has talked a lot about ending Ward’s career. Intimidation is part of his game.
Ward has taken note, but he won’t let Kovalev get to him.
“He’s the real deal.” Ward said. “He’s a good fighter. All the talk tough wanting to end my career, I love it. It sells papers. And headlines. When I was younger, like thirteen, I had this happen to me. I allowed one dude to do that me. It was close, but I lost. The guy was a big puncher for our age.
“After that I made up my mind that ‘it’ would never happen again. You’re going to have to beat me. I also found that most of the guys, that talk like that, that’s a cover for something else. All this is cool, but there’s a reality and perception. I try and stay in the reality.”
All the talk will stop at around 8:15 P.M. on June 17 in Sin City.