It has been 7 months since Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward first locked horns at the top of the LHW division. It was a fascinating fight, with neither man allowing the other to wrest control of the action, and both using every ounce of their P4P skill sets to try and outfox the other. On that night both fighters won. Andre Ward got the official verdict, proved he could dig deep and fight through serious adversity when it appeared he was outgunned and outboxed early on. Sergey proved he is more than a puncher, more than just a mean SOB. He is a brilliant boxer with maybe the best jab in boxing, excellent timing, and a great ring general. It was near impossible to separate the two on that night, ringsiders and TV viewers were split, with maybe a slight edge to Kovalev. The judges were not, scoring unanimously for the Oxnard fighter and ensuring that cries of robbery would dominate the post fight narrative yet again.
Robbery or not (note: it definitely wasn’t), the first fight was an enthralling contest with momentum swinging back and forth round by round. Two highly competitive, mentally tough warriors who refused to allow the other to gain control for long.
The nature of the first bout means we have a reasonably clear picture of where each fighters strengths and weaknesses lie going into the second fight, and both have clear game plans to follow for victory…
Sergey Kovalev: Channelling Manny
It doesn’t take an expert to see where Kovalev was having success against Ward. Taking control of centre ring, boxing behind his jab, Kovalev swept the majority of the first half of the fight. Like many former Emmanuel Steward students do/have done, Kovalev is able to simultaneously make himself the aggressor, while also keeping the fight at long range behind his lead hand. It puts his opponents in the horrible position of circling around looking for openings, while being peppered with hard jabs, threatened with a fight ending power, and generally being suffocated on the outskirts of the ring.
As early as round 2 Kovalev had started to push Ward back, feinting with punches more than actually throwing, the Russian was able to establish his territory with just the threat of his power.
In the first round Ward had been more static, trying to outbox Kovalev from the centre, but after shipping a few hard jabs, possible even being hurt a little by one, he found it more appealing to start moving around the ring. If he had any doubts about his ability to box with Kovalev in the centre, at long or medium range, the knockdown at the end of the second erased them. Seeing that Ward was looking to counter his jab, Kovalev showed excellent timing, anticipating the counter, and landing his own vicious right in the process.
Sergey even leaves his jab out for a split second to draw Ward in, only going for the kill when his opponent was fully committed and defenceless. For Andre, the choice was obvious. He had to move and try and keep Kovalev away from him and off balance. Maintain his distance.
Unfortunately for Ward, distance is exactly what Kovalev craves. From this position Sergey was able to launch lightening fast attacks catching Ward as he was backing up.
Exploiting Ward’s tendency to back up in straight lines, Kovalev is able to shift his weight from leg to leg as he attacks, which confused Ward’s ability to pick which shot he going to really turn over, and further compressed the ‘safe’ zones that Ward could occupy in the ring. His spearing jab was a constant threat, keeping Ward at distance, off balance and effectively scoring throughout the fight.
Being pushed so far to the outside also meant that Ward frequently had to start his attacks from too far out, allowing Kovalev many opportunities to counter Ward as he tried to close the distance.
For long periods Kovalev was able to dominate using these tactics. Keeping his American opponent at range, peppering him with lead hands, confusing him with feints and controlling the centre of the ring. His blitzkrieg attacks appeared at times to be busting Ward up, and in moments it almost felt as if Ward was beginning to wilt in face of such a tactically dominant display from the Russian. Many ordinary fighters would have wilted in these circumstances, if not from the actual punches, just from the psychological pressure that Kovalev was putting on him. But Ward is not an ordinary fighter, and his reaction to this early adversity proved beyond any doubt that he is as mentally tough as anyone in the sport.
Andre Ward: Channelling … Dempsey?
Perhaps for the first time in his career Andre Ward was faced with an opponent who he couldn’t outbox in the traditional sense. He was outmanoeuvred and outgunned, potentially facing his first competitive loss in 20 years. However Ward and his trainer Virgil Hunter had never left any stone unturned when trying to maximise his potential, recognising very early in his pro career that he needed to be able to get in the trenches if he was going to be a complete fighter. They thought they were installing a smart contingency plan against any opponent hoping to bypass his refined skills and out fight him up close. In this fight however, it ended up being his best and most effective weapon.
Forced to the edges of the ring, Ward knew his best chance at getting to Kovalev was to get inside, rip the body and turn it into a dog fight. To get there he had a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of heavy fire to avoid on the way. Much a Jack Dempsey or Mike Tyson used to do, Ward tried to ambush Kovalev with quick aggressive moves. He would get low, shift forward, look to evade or block the counter(s), and try to quickly trap Kovalev into an inside fight he didn’t want, or catch him off balance as he backed up.
The second phase of the attack is crucial. Kovalev is an excellent counter puncher and is very good at anticipating his opponents moves, quickly stepping back to avoid danger. The first phase can often end in you taking punishment, or the attack quickly dissipating. However he often backs up in straight lines and loses his boxing stance if he is forced keep retreating. This leaves himself vulnerable to an opponent that is able to stay balanced, avoid the counter and keep the attack going.
Early on Ward found his opponent well prepared to nullify him up close. Kovalev and his team had clearly done their homework, decided that they didn’t like the look of Ward’s infighting ability and come to the conclusion that the were not going to fight there at any cost. The clinch was a big part of the fight, especially early. Kovalev trying to hold and stop Ward from working, Ward trying to wrestle his arms free and get on the attack. Early on Kovalev was moderately successful. Even if not completely stopping Ward working, he was able to secure underhooks, smother and push enough to take the sting out of the punches.
But this is a tiring way to fight if you aren’t used to it, and as time went on Kovalev found himself increasingly unable to live with Ward on the inside. Although he attempts to fight back, the difference between the two is obvious. Ward is well schooled, keeps his elbows tucked, his head down and his centre of gravity low. This provides him with a solid base that allows him to generate torque on his shots while also staying defensively sound. Kovalev on the other hand is too straight up, restricting him to mostly tappy punches. His elbows are often far away from his body, his guard too loose, presenting an inviting target downstairs for his opponent to exploit.
As Ward’s body work and the tough fight started to take it’s toll on Kovalev, he began to have less success on the outside. Often appearing a little frustrated and cumbersome closing the gap.
Increasingly Ward was able to pick Kovalev’s attacks and break their rhythm with pre-emptive head movement or footwork. He also found more confidence in centre ring, landing good shots while boxing with the Russian. However Sergey’s jab remained a force throughout, and into the championship rounds he was still picking up rounds behind it.
For the rematch it is tough to see either doing anything drastically different. Both are into their 30’s and neither have changed camps. By this point, for the most part, their styles are their styles. All that remains is to look at small adjustments that can make the difference on the night.
For Ward he needs to be much sharper early doors. He needs to not back up so much and concede that in this fight he isn’t the boxer, he is the aggressor. Getting inside and working needs to be a big focus of his game plan, similar to how he fought Allen Green and I’m sure it will be.
For Kovalev, he needs to be honest with himself and see why he ended up on the wrong side of the scorecards, even if he doesn’t agree with them. His conditioning has to improve, with much more emphasis on stamina while grappling with Ward. Technically he needs to be a lot tighter on the inside, keeping his elbows tucked in and not allowing such an easy target downstairs. He can also do a better job timing Wards bursts, especially focussing on uppercuts when Ward drops down low, and also committing a lot more to body shots himself. He is a very good body puncher especially with straight shots at range, but seemed to abandon them after the second round KD.
Both need to not be backing up in straight lines.
On the 17th June they resume their rivalry and look to erase all doubt as to who is king of the division, and who is P4P no.1. The build up so far has read like a cold war spy drama with rumoured defections, misinformation, espionage and psychological warfare taking centre stage. Come Saturday night, all these distractions will be forgotten and, as always, only the fight will matter. I suspect this one will be equally hard to call and equally tight on the cards. I hope not. I hope one of these two has it in them make that next step to greatness.