There is a certain amount of chaos that each of us is willing or able to deal with. Some people thrive on it, particularly creating it. Others need everything clamped down to the point that there are no surprises. Each of us is looking for a comfortable place to thrive as we navigate the space we inhabit. The feeling is most often that the people who occupy those positions are polar opposites, but in reality, they are much the same. Both have inalterably bent their surroundings to their will. The difference is how much noise they create in the process.
This is as true of prize-fighters’ personalities outside the ring as it is their styles inside it. Tomorrow, from the Mandalay Bay on HBO Pay Per View, Andre Ward will meet Sergey Kovalev in a rematch of their closely contested light heavyweight bout from last year. They are two rare fighters whose personalities match their styles. Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KO) is aggressive and forceful when he speaks. There is zero bullshit with him. He says exactly what he thinks and doesn’t care if you don’t like it. He’s as ingenuous a person as exists. He’s also a walking terror in a boxing ring. His feet and hands move with alarming quickness and agility for a man his size. His punches are hard, no matter what. Andre Ward (31-0, 15 KO), on the other hand, is calculated precisely at every moment. In the ring, he uses balance, timing, and range to make the fight exactly as he wants it to be. It’s like a symphony that you know is technically perfect but lacks anything emotive. Ward is much the same in person. Every phrase, every facial movement, every appearance is controlled to room temperature.
If you had to pick someone to get drunk with, it’s Kovalev. If you have to pick who wins a boxing match, it’s 50/50. That’s how the first fight between the two was sold. And it’s the truth. That’s why we were so eager to see it. That’s why we are so eager to see the rematch, because the first twelve rounds were not anywhere near clear enough to say for certain, at least not with any consensus.
For some obscure reason, we’re not hearing about that. “I didn’t need the political climate of today to get me pumped up about serving my country. It’s always been an honor and a privilege,” Ward told the LA Times’ Lance Pugmire. It seems in lieu of an actual promotion, Ward and Roc Nation have decided on angling to Russo-American tensions. The one place I thought I could get away from fucking politics and here it is, battering me because Ward’s promoter couldn’t find anything else interesting about him either.
The only other storyline produced from the promotion has been TrainerGate, wherein the Ward team insists that Kovalev’s trainer John David Jackson called them to defect. Jackson says they called him. How profoundly vapid do you have to be to consider this more interesting than the fact that this is a really good fight, between two of the best fighters in the world, whose first fight was controversial? Have we acquiesced so thoroughly to Ward’s ego that the people who pay him would rather sacrifice profit so as not to offend him with the notion that he may not have deserved a win? Both fighters skipped various promotional activities. Kovalev during fight week, and ward prior. Not interesting at this point. The fight is all that matters now.
The first fight was incredibly close. HBO’s Harold Lederman had it 116-111 for Kovalev, as did I. The judges all had Ward winning 114-113. The first half felt to me and many others like Kovalev dominated, but there are three toss-up rounds. The judges had Ward winning every round, from 6-12 save Burt Clemens, who scored the 12th for Kovalev. Of those rounds, 7 and 9 were clear Ward rounds, and the 10th round was clear for Kovalev. Any other was razor thin.
In that bout, Kovalev was best when aggressively using his jab. When his activity waned, Ward made him pay. Despite his reputation as a knockout artist, Kovalev’s best weapon is that jab. He’s quick enough on his feet to make the range extend much farther that any of his opponents have suspected. He also throws his right from awkward angles. The right that dropped Ward in the 2nd round was in its infancy. A fully extended shot will do much more damage. Ward will have to deal with that again. Because Kovalev is constantly changing his speed and distance, most opponents are never able to adjust. Ward was able to adjust, but that was by using his excellent balance and footwork to get him into no man’s land, where Kovalev was always out of place to set up a flurry, and if he started, Ward was able to close distance quickly and clinch. His bodywork and left hook were also just enough to keep him in rounds, or win them closely. The very best Ward of the first fight was on even terms with Kovalev. The very best Kovalev was clear.
I think much of this fight will mirror the first. Both men will take control for stretches of each round, with the other suddenly finding an angle or a speed that knocks the other out of their rhythm. Look for an inverse of the first fight with Ward having success early but Kovalev gradually stepping up the pressure and creating holes in Ward’s defense, before landing hard. An angry Kovalev is a measured, vindictive fighter. I think he’ll gradually pile up the punishment before doling out a battering, but he’ll have to face a super-human resistance from Ward.
Prediction: Kovalev by late KO
(LAS VEGAS, NV: Andre Ward (L) and Sergey Kovalev pose during their official weigh-in at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 16; Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)