By John J. Raspanti
A rematch had to happen.
When champions Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev met for the first time in Sin City seven months ago, neither had come remotely close to losing a boxing match in years. Both were undefeated. The bout was a battle between the two best fighters in the division.
Kovalev started fast, flooring Ward with a wicked right hand to the mouth. Ward got up with a smile, and proceeded to rally, capturing a razor close and debatable 12-round decision.
Ward rejoiced in victory.
“I was not surprised when I heard the decision," Ward said. "I know it was a close fight.”
"It’s the wrong decision. I don’t want to say my opinion," said a stunned Kovalev. "The witnesses are here. They saw it.”
The result of the first fight was called into question by many in the boxing universe. A few called the result a robbery, a charge that is ridiculous.
This Friday, at the Mandalay Bay Inn in Las Vegas, NV, the two rivals will draw hands again.
Kovalev’s blazing start in the first match-up was chilled by Ward’s grittiness. The bout was competitive and edgy. To come back Ward needed to take chances. He did, digging shots to the body. Kovalev hung tough and fought back. The rounds were close--Kovalev’s raw power against Ward’s boxing artistry.
I’ve watched the fight three times. Twice I had Kovalev winning by a point. The other time it was Ward. Close, but hardly a robbery.
You want a bad decision? Watch the Paul Williams and Erislandy Lara fight that went down in 2011. Lara easily outboxed Williams. The decision seemed anticlimactic, that is until Williams was announced the winner by a majority decision.
A few weeks after the fight, the New Jersey State Athletic Board suspended the three judges indefinitely.
Last month Rances Barthelemy was judged the winner over Kiryl Relikh. The fight was a slugfest from the opening bell. I had Relikh taking it by four points. The judges? As one, they all scored the fight for Barthelemy. Didn’t matter that Relikh was the aggressor throughout—and that he landed a hundred more punches. Showtime’s always diplomatic Al Bernstein, at ringside to comment on the fight, described it as, “nothing short of an outrage.”
I could go on ad naseam about bad decisions in boxing. They’re as common as corruption in politics.
Ward/Kovalev 1 was a suspenseful fight with an inconclusive outcome. Hopefully the rematch produces a clearer winner.
Kovalev, 34, turned professional in 2009. His amateur career had been a good one—highlighted by capturing a gold medal at the World Military Championships in 2007. He knocked out 16 of his first 18 opponents, but his pro career seemed stuck in neutral until he was signed by promoter Kathy Duva three years ago.
He picked up his first world title in 2013 by pummeling Nathan Cleverly in four dominant rounds.
Kovalev’s most impressive victories have been over future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, who was expected to tame the man dubbed "Krusher," and former champion Jean Pascal, whom Kovalev sent to Dreamland twice.
Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t officially lost a fight in over 20 years. His management team was criticized for bringing him along slowly.
Experts questioned his move to compete in the Super-Six World Boxing Classic in 2009. Better known fighters like Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, and WBA super middleweight titleholder Mikkel Kessler, were considered the favorites to win the tournament.
Many considered Ward an afterthought. He went into the ring facing Kessler as a decided underdog. At the weigh-in the day before the fight, a number of Kessler’s fans screamed that he would be knocked out in the opening round. They mocked him as a phony fighter.
A minute into the match, Ward’s superiority was apparent. Kessler looked for answers but ate punches for 11 rounds until the fight was stopped due to a bad cut over his right eye.
Ward would go on to defeat Sakia Bika, Allan Green, and Abraham. He met Froch for the Super-Six trophy in Atlantic City, NJ,in 2011. Ward boxed circles around the Nottingham battler, winning an easy 12-round decision. In 2011, Ward squared off against the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world, Chad Dawson.
He stopped Dawson in 10 rounds.
Questions surround the Kovalev rematch.
Will Kovalev be able to press Ward the entire fight? Does Ward now know how to soundly defeat Kovalev? Will Kovalev cut off the ring? Can Ward hurt Kovalev?
Ward, 33, is fully aware of the controversy stoked by the first fight.
“People have to understand that anytime there’s a close decision, you’re going to have opinions either way,” said Ward during a media conference call a few days ago. “I’ve never refuted the fact that it was a close decision, but all those out there that say that it’s some home cooking, they’ve got to remember that I’m not, you know, from Las Vegas, Nevada.”
Ward might not like Kovalev, but he does respect him.
“Like I said before, [Kovalev’s] a good fighter, “Ward said. “It’s not what it’s cracked up to be. He’s a champion and once you become a champion and have defended your belt, you’re a champion for life.”
Former trainer of the year Virgil Hunter expects Ward to dominate Kovalev.
“Well, the opponent definitely won’t see the same fighter in this fight for a number of reasons’” said Hunter. “No need to disclose, but we always go in with several plans or any plan that needs to be implemented at any given time. I believe that what we worked on for Plan A is going to be more than enough.”
Kovalev has been grumbling about losing his belts for months. He wants revenge in the worst way.
“I know one thing,” said Kovalev. “I will kick his ass. I want to destroy him. I want to destroy this guy as a boxer, as a champion. For me he is not a champion, he’s a fake champion. He believes in his victory over me and right now he’s trying to get the belief of people. It’s wrong.”
Kovalev trainer John David Jackson is confident that his man will prevail.
“Sergey doesn’t have to do much more than he did.” Jackson said. “He proved he’s the better fighter, the bigger puncher. If that’s Ward’s best, then, guess what? He’s past his prime. All he did was survive.”
Strong words, but words don’t win fights.
Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) is the most technical fighter in the game. He’s also likely the most intelligent. He maneuvers opponents and pops them with stinging punches. As he proved in the first fight, his inside game is superior. He likes it in close. His boxing brain is as powerful as Kovalev’s punch.
Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) wears down boxers. He’s methodical and deadly. He’s not flashy. Kovalev is the hitman waiting in the shadows to strike. His punching power is scary. It’s his great equalizer. He can knock out a guy with either hand, but his right hand is like dynamite.
So who wins the fight?
I’m going with Ward for two reasons.
His brainpower, and his ability to adapt.
Ward has been in there with Kovalev. He’s tasted his power. He survived and came back. I’ve been told by a number of fighters that boxing is 90 percent mental. Ward has the mindset to beat Kovalev. He can also change his plan in the heat of a battle. If Kovalev hurts Ward, or floors him, he better knock him out. If he doesn’t, I see Ward winning the bout by a decision that some won’t agree with.
But then, that’s boxing.