by Cliff Rold
The final punch Andre Ward landed was a low blow.
To dismiss it entirely is intellectually dishonest; to pretend it didn’t happen a lie.
To say emphatically it ended on three straight low blows would be both of those things as well.
The shot that ultimately drew the stoppage, bending Kovalev forward with a grimace and sitting into the ropes, was clearly below the belt. Take into account a high belt line indicated before the fight by referee Tony Weeks.
Andre Ward’s final punch landed lower.
Whether the two before it were also low is questionable. The first appeared to land right on the designated clean area. The second, from multiple angles, is hard to decipher. It may have landed low; it may have arced into the fair part of the body. The position of the cameras makes it hard to tell.
It doesn’t mean the stoppage wasn’t coming anyways. Kovalev was in real trouble in the eighth, the most sustained trouble either fighter had been in through their two fights. In what had been a tightly contested fight, Ward seemed to turn the tide firmly in the seventh and was having his best frame in two fights in the eighth.
Kovalev may have had a rebound in him. We’ll never know. He didn’t look like it at the time.
While Ward was rocked and dropped in the first two rounds of their first encounter, he never appeared as dire as Kovalev did in round eight of fight two. The Russia was under a sustained assault. Clean shots set the stage, beginning with a perfect right hand to the chops, and perhaps a few more of those finish matters anyways.
A clean shot didn’t and the debate rages on.
It will be part of the conversation about the fight for as long as people talk about it.
Let’s go the report card.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Kovalev B+; Ward A/Post: Same
Pre-Fight: Power – Kovalev A; Ward B/Post: A; B+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Kovalev B+; Ward A/Post: B+; B+
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Kovalev A+; Ward A+/Post: B+; A
In a rivalry filled with venom outside the ring, a scoring controversy, and 20 rounds of high quality action between a pair of well-matched light heavyweights, it may ultimately have been a fitting end.
For those who thought Kovalev won the first fight, the memory will remain. Nothing occurring last Saturday will change their mind. Like Jose Luis Castillo to Floyd Mayweather, Kovalev will always come up in discussion of Ward’s career as the guy denied the rights to his “0.”
The conclusion of the rematch will add to their bile and they’ll ignore why Ward remains undefeated. Does he bend the rules? Sure he does, and it’s nothing new. Ward’s willingness to find any opening for a win is part of why he’s so hard to beat. He will hold, grapple, elbow, and work the hips and high groin if he can get away with it. He knows how to mix it in with clean work and make it hard to penalize.
He’s not the first great fighter it could be said of.
His work against Kovalev in the rematch was on par with the sort of extracurricular bodywork Julio Cesar Chavez drove opponents nuts with.
But there is more to it than that. Ward fights with a focus, a tenacity, and a will that is hard to defeat. One of the judges had him down 5-2 at the end of seven. The other two had Ward ahead a point and may have been generous. Through the first six rounds, Kovalev was throwing and landing more than Ward and probably should have been close to as ahead as he was the first time.
Kovalev’s jab, right hand, and patience made him a technical challenge for Ward, the great rival of his career to date. For long stretches, he was the one outboxing Ward in both fights. Like Ray Leonard who could never quite outbox the longer armed Tommy Hearns, Ward did his best work when he got gritty and outfought Kovalev.
It makes one wonder why Kovalev never tried to answer back. In his fight with Pernell Whitaker, Chavez landed some low and borderline stuff early. Whitaker responded by flagrantly blasting him well below the belt more than once, risking deductions along the way. He answered fire with fire and then took over the fight, a ridiculous draw verdict not withstanding.
He at least didn’t lose.
Kovalev complained of fouls in both fights with Ward but never responded with more than token rabbit punches in the clinch. Would he have been penalized where Ward never got more than a warning?
He still could have asserted himself more. Instead Kovalev looked for help as the rematch wore on, even after shots that landed in the declared clean zone. It was hard to ignore. Ward was landing the right hand with more authority in the rematch, and his clean body work was as nasty as it had been in the second half of the first fight.
There’s a perception of Ward as a sort of master boxer and in technical terms he’s very good. However, he’s not the sort of precise maestro a Mayweather was or the man on his undercard Saturday, Guillermo Rigondeaux, can be. Ward is willing to get in the trenches and bar fight; it doesn’t seem to bother him.
He’s there to do whatever it takes to win.
In the second half of their first fight, he did enough to convince the judges to move him past a wide first half deficit. Last Saturday, Ward convinced Weeks Kovalev was done.
Was the stoppage too quick? It might have been. Paulie Malignaggi was adamant on the British broadcast. There are some who have stated Ward should have been disqualified for the finish but it’s a rooting interest talking. Weeks, had he called the foul, could have given Kovalev five minutes to recover and even taken a point. Having taken no points prior, there were no grounds for a disqualification in the moment.
Five minutes would have been a fair call if it had gone that way.
But in the bang-bang of the moment, without the chance to watch the replays a dozen times, it’s a more difficult call. Weeks wasn’t watching the result of a single punch. He was watching the culmination of a series of shots that had Kovalev reeling and then sitting on the ropes, a man who was doubling over in the first place from clean body and head shots accumulated in the seconds prior.
Controversy will reign for those who see it as controversial but the sport will move on. This result doubles the misfortune of the first fight not going Kovalev’s way. What a rubber match we might have had under these conditions. Then again, if Kovalev wins the first, perhaps we get no rematch at all.
Kovalev, now 34, will look to pick up the pieces and find new prey at light heavyweight. Ward, 33, may only have a couple more years of near prime time left and should make the most of it. A showdown with Adonis Stevenson is the best fight available to both at light heavyweight and let’s hope it can get done. It would be nice to see the era cleaned out with all the titles available in a final showdown.
For now, we have the end of another really good fight between two guys who in many respects were made for each other. While neither was a classic, both fights were contested at a high level and exhibited the quality of both fighters. It wasn’t just anyone who could handle the jab and power of Kovalev and keep coming.
It took Andre Ward to do it. Along with wins over Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch, and Chad Dawson, he’s built quite the ledger for himself.
Report Card Picks 2017: 17-10
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]