Since last week’s article, I’ve expended a bit of thought on the magnitude of this Saturday’s contest in Vegas. And I have to say, in conclusion, I don’t think we’re talking it up enough. Quite simply, it’s the biggest night of boxing since 1987.
In April of that year, Sugar Ray Leonard did the impossible in coming out of 3 years of retirement to take the WBC middleweight title from Marvin Hagler. That night’s split decision still causes arguments now, but the bout represented a momentous collision of legacies and styles. Everyone, but everyone, tuned in.
Sure, there have been big nights since, but always with caveats attached. The careers of Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, Chavez, Jones Jr, De La Hoya, Mayweather and Pacquiao were all peppered with huge events, but none like this. When Holyfield upset Tyson in 1996, ‘iron’ Mike was already a decade and a prison term past his prime, even more so when Lewis KO’d him in 2002. Roy Jones winning the heavyweight title in 2003 was massive, but John Ruiz was too modest an opponent for it to be truly historic. Meanwhile Mayweather v Pacquiao, of course, should have happened around 2010, rather than 2015.
This weekend’s match-up will leave no lingering question marks. Both fighters are at their peak. Kovalev is 33, Ward 32, while their records mirror each other at 30-0. (Kovalev also has a technical draw as Grover Young retired injured following an accidental foul in 2011). The winner can claim to be no.1 pound-for-pound.
While Krusher has shown himself the world’s supreme light-heavyweight, the Son of God has done the same at super-middle. Their styles combine into a classic boxer v puncher match up and just like the superfight of 1987, few are brave, or foolish enough to make a categoric prediction. There are other parallels, too.
When Hagler met Leonard, both men were considered dominant. Hagler, at 33, was perhaps just starting to show signs of slowing, but hadn’t lost for nine years and was coming into the bout off an impressive destruction of John ‘the beast’ Mugabi. Leonard, was two years younger and arguably physically fresher. He had been an imperious welterweight, in many people’s eyes the best ever, but doubts whirled around his three years of inactivity.
Andre Ward, of course, rose to international prominence after winning the super-six, super middleweight tournament. A supreme technical boxer, defensively adept and masterful fighting on the inside, he swept aside the best that the 168lb division could offer. Ward has never just been a cute slickster though – he has super-fast hands, great timing and what seems an unshakeable mindset.
So many great fighters use belief in God as a psychological tool in the ring. Holyfield, for example, used to sing hymns in the dressing room. It is maybe form there that Ward’s steadfastness has emerged, because no matter what style he is faced with, or which puzzles his opponent offers, Ward always finds his way. The ring titans of any era are always adaptable, a trait Ward has displayed repeatedly.
Yet it is a stark reality that since defeating Carl Froch in the final of the super-six in December 2011, for one reason or another he has boxed just five times. Averaging only one bout a year, his opposition has not always been stellar either.
Chad Dawson was a good fighter at 175, but was weight drained and weak against Ward, while Edwin Rodriguez looked decent on paper but failed to deliver. (Both those were at super-mid). At light heavy, deeper questions must be posed. Paul Smith has never won a fight above British level, Barrera is a nice prospect but not yet world class, while Alexander Brand has a loss to Badou Jack and little to recommend him as top tier operator.
While Ward’s skills are undeniable, it is an unavoidable truth that he has not boxed in true world class for a long time. Not only that, but he is completely unproven at the top end of the 175lbs division. If he were fighting an average champion, this might not be an issue, but he isn’t. Ward is stepping up to take on the most fearsome light heavyweight puncher of recent times.
Sergey Kovalev first exploded into my consciousness when dismantling Nathan Cleverly in 2013. Prior to that I had heard the name but knew little of him. But as that fight unfolded I immediately got the sense that I was watching someone special.
Nathan Cleverly took a lot of stick afterwards from those who had always questioned his championship credentials. Yet since then he fought a barnstormer with Andrezj Fonfara and now holds a world title again (WBA ‘regular’). Anyone who has followed Clev’s career will know he has an excellent chin. Despite that, every clean shot Kovalev landed hurt him. Every. Clean. Shot.
Krusher may not be a master boxer like Ward or flashy like a Mayweather, but has solid boxing fundamentals, great balance and smooth movement. More than any of that, however, he possesses mountain-moving power. When he boxed Bernard Hopkins in 2014, many predicted (in much the same way some are suggesting about Ward) that B-Hop would be too cute, would use his ring smarts and out-think Kovalev. Yet the first time Hopkins felt Krusher’s power, in round one, he went down.
After that, Hopkins, who came into the fight as a two belt world champion, made no attempt to win. He literally ran away for 12 rounds, rather than taste that power again.
Since then Kovalev has stopped Jean Pascal twice, a man who had never before been knocked down and poleaxed fringe contenders like Ismail Sillakh and Cedric Agnew.
He looked less than his best last time out, against Isaac Chilemba, but Chilemba, like Hopkins, came nowhere near winning. To be able to box Kovalev openly enough to beat him, while avoiding his shots, rather than just fiddle through to the end and survive – that is the task ahead of Andre Ward. It is a huge one.
This is genuinely a fight either man can win, so what is written here does not come with huge certainty. A points decision for the Son of God would not surprise me at all. But…
Andre Ward is a great fighter and a likeable man. If he were up against the other light heavyweight champions, Stevenson or Cleverly, I would make him a clear favourite. But Kovalev is different gravy. The Russian will hold a 1.5 inch reach advantage and will be able to use that to find the target.
Ward’s boxing skills will see him make the fight highly competitive. I wouldn’t be surprised if it begins scrappily and SOG takes the early rounds, but eventually Krusher’s power will tell. For all his talent, Ward will not be able to go 12 rounds without getting hit clean. When that happens he will be hurt. His heart will keep him there, but ultimately his body won’t.
Kovalev to stop Ward between rounds 9 and 12.
And the true winner? That’s easy.
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