by Cliff Rold
It’s still certain to garner passionate argument. Who won the first fight between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev?
Opinions vary. Cries of robbery, in favor of Kovalev, are probably still the strongest held takes. For those who thought Kovalev won by more than a round or so, a grave injustice was witnessed last November.
From this corner, robbery is an overstatement; these eyes witnessed a fight decided by about a single point with the knockdown of Ward in round two making the difference. The greatest source of singular scoring controversy may not have been the fight itself but a lone frame.
In a contest with swing rounds galore, round ten wasn’t one of them. Kovalev threw more, landed more, and landed harder. All three judges gave the round to Ward. It came after a string of rounds marking a second half momentum swing for Ward in general.
Tenth round scores were arguably the difference in the fight. Flip the scoring and Kovalev wins. It was a case where, if one felt strongly about the tenth, there was something to be said for the capacity for human error. Boxing gets a lot of charges of corruption but in this case we saw a possible example of how judges can get as caught up in the story of what they’re watching as anyone else outside the ring.
The story of the fight in the moments and months since the first fight has been a largely dominant first half from Kovalev and a gutsy rebound from Ward. Even that is too basic a recollection. There is a perception is come circles that Kovalev slowed down in the second half. The punch stats for the fight don’t bear it out. Both men threw more in the second half. It was less about Kovalev slowing down and more about Ward picking up the pace.
The official tally says Ward 1-0 in this rivalry. The court of public opinion remains undecided and thus they do it again.
On Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 PM EST/6 PM PST), we have two fighters who look every bit as evenly matched as they were last year. Will we still be debating the better man after chapter two?
Let’s go the report card.
?Current Title: WBA “Super”/IBF/WBO Light Heavyweight (2016-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
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)
Weight: 175 lbs.
?Hails from: Oakland, California
Record: 31-0, 15 KO
Rankings: #1 (BoxingScene, TBRB, Boxing Monthly, BoxRec, Ring); #2 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 8-0, 1 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Mikkel Kessler TD11; Sakio Bika UD12; Arthur Abraham UD12; Carl Froch UD12; Chad Dawson TKO10; Sergey Kovalev UD12
Previous Titles: WBO Light Heavyweight (2013-16, 8 Defenses); WBA Super Light Heavyweight (2014-16, 4 Defenses); IBF Light Heavyweight (2014-16, 4 Defenses)
Weight: 175 lbs.
?Hails from: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Hails from Russia)
Record: 30-1-1, 26 KO
Rankings: #2 (BoxingScene, TBRB, Ring, Boxing Monthly, BoxRec), #3 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 9-1, 7 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Gabriel Campillo TKO3; Nathan Cleverly TKO4; Bernard Hopkins UD12; Jean Pascal TKO8, RTD7; Andre Ward L12
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+
Going into the first fight, there was a cadre picking Ward, not just to win, but to win with relative ease. They found out along with Ward just how far fetched the prognostication was. Ward’s ability to nullify action, winning one round at a time, isn’t always high drama or completely clean but it’s effective. It was assumed he could nullify Kovalev the way he did Kessler and Froch.
Neither of them had the toolbox and completeness of Kovalev. Kovalev was quicker than Ward early but not late, managed distance well, and most importantly had and maintains a lengthy telephone pole of a lead left hand. His jab discombobulated Ward early and kept Ward’s rally in the second half honest.
Ward did plenty right himself. Ward found a way to get Kovalev punching less off the front foot in the second half, ripping the body and grappling in spots. Kovalev’s output stayed up but his punches were more often reactive than they’d been early. Ward’s ability to clinch can be frustrating for those rooting against him, a dirty tactic to many, but he’s hardly the first to go to that well. He combined it with hustle the first time around and won more of the second half than Kovalev did.
How much is really going to change here? Both men fought with a lot of their best ingredients last time. That neither pulled away for the full twelve rounds isn’t an indictment. It’s a credit to how good they both are.
In terms of defense, Ward threw less but landed at a higher percentage and remains hard to catch clean all night. His defense isn’t as sharp as a Floyd Mayweather but it’s an asset. Kovalev is underrated defensively, keeping himself at long range and rolling well with shots.
Ward can try to start faster this time, but if he does he risks Kovalev when he is at his quickest and his punches land hardest. Kovalev, who can get caught head hunting, can and should work to the body more and from the start. Kovalev got off to a torrid start last time. Will he try to pace himself differently this time? If he does, is there a chance he lets his best chance to win slip by?
One thing we know: Kovalev has dropped or stopped every opponent in at least the last six years (and Grover Young finished on the deck after an accidental foul). If Ward can stay on his feet for all twelve, he takes a healthy step towards victory. Has Ward taken Kovalev’s best shot yet? The second round knockdown in the first fight was a hard, cuffing shot but it wasn’t quite Kovalev’s Sunday punch. Will Ward go another fight evading the worst bomb of all?
Anyone who thought they knew who would win the first time was just guessing their best. It’s still true this weekend. The same can be said of any fight; there are enough Tyson-Douglas nights to prove it. To say it’s just guessing means something different when two top-notch professionals square off. In fights between men this good, this well matched, no one really knows until everyone does. Ward could win another decision. Kovalev has the power and technique to end matters in an instant.
The thing that makes Kovalev such a tough out for Ward is the Russian is so much more than power. He and Ward are both thoughtful in the ring, well schooled and disciplined with high fistic IQ’s. He can box with Ward. Conversely, Ward can match the toughness of Kovalev. As much as some want this to fit into a puncher/boxer binary, there is more nuance at play.
Nuance is why this fight will probably be a lot like the first in terms of its competitiveness. Ward is still going to be rough in the trenches. Kovalev’s jab is still going to be a troubling weapon. Looming is how the first fight affects judging.
In the first fight, Ward got every benefit of the doubt. Looking at the official scorecards, most of the rounds Kovalev was awarded were demonstrative. Almost anything close went the other way. In a fight likely to have swing rounds again, will Kovalev get some benefit of the doubt the second time around?
The smartest pick is, as it was the first time, a Ward decision. The quality of the matchmaking feels like it needs a third chapter to truly decide the better man. The pick here is Kovalev, with at least one knockdown, walking away the victor this time around.
But, hey, that’s just guessing.
Report Card Picks 2017: 17-9
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]