Perhaps the most significant fight of 2016 takes place on Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas as two of the top-five talents in the sport, unified light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) and undefeated former super middleweight king Andre Ward (30-0, 15 KOs), square off in a hotly anticipated matchup at the 175-lb. limit. The stakes are high; Saturday's winner will become a bona fide star in the sport and has a solid argument to be recognized as boxing's number-one fighter.
Kovalev-Ward is the culmination of a year-long buildup, which featured several contentious periods of negotiation. Both boxers had their requisite tune-ups earlier in 2016 (Kovalev fought Isaac Chilemba and a rematch against Jean Pascal; Ward faced Alexander Brand and Sullivan Barrera) and each is now ready to take on the most difficult assignment of his professional career.
Kovalev is one of the most destructive fighters in the sport, featuring a deadly right hand and a burgeoning ring IQ. Ward is perhaps the sport's consummate boxer and has the versatility and adaptability reserved for elite talents. Saturday's matchup is the classic boxer vs. puncher clash. Although the gambling houses have installed Ward as a slight favorite, both pugilists have clear paths to victory. Below are the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.
1. Can Ward take Kovalev's punch?
Although Ward has beaten fighters of varied styles throughout his professional career, he's yet to defeat a genuine knockout artist. Yes, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler and Edwin Rodriguez featured good power but Kovalev punches at another level. His power is among the best in boxing. As a pro, Ward has been knocked down once, early in his career against Darnell Boone, a fighter who also took Kovalev to the brink in a debatable split decision loss in 2010. (Kovalev won more authoritatively in a 2012 rematch, knocking Boone out in the second round.) Despite that hiccup against Boone, Ward has demonstrated a fine beard as a pro.
However, if Kovalev lands his Sunday punch, all bets are off. He has the power to hurt or stop any light heavyweight. Kovalev's money shot is his right hand and he sets it up well with his other punches. Although Kovalev's right is one of boxing's supreme weapons, he isn't just a one-trick pony. Fighters can get so wary of his right that he wins rounds and hurts opponents with thudding jabs and crisp left hooks.
Even accounting for Ward's defensive prowess, it's unlikely that he'll manage to escape all 12 rounds without being hit by something big by Kovalev, who has landed authoritative punches on all of his best opponents. Kovalev's thundershots will ask several questions of Ward: When Kovalev lands his right, can he survive? At 32, does Ward still have the ability to get up? If he's hurt, can his legs withstand a true Kovalev assault? Does Ward have the physicality to neutralize Kovalev in those moments to buy himself recovery time? The answers to these questions will determine if Ward has a legitimate chance of raising his arms at the end of the night.
2. Can Kovalev establish an inside game?
Ward's safest bet in the fight is to stay out of mid-range, where Kovalev has the reach and power to cause maximum damage. Knowing this, Ward will most likely spend large portions of the bout either on the inside or out of range. When outside of the pocket, Ward can potshot and reduce Kovalev's punch volume. However he's still going to have to make a stand at points in the fight. Kovalev is fairly good at cutting off the ring and Ward will have to do enough offensively to win rounds.
Inside fighting has become a lost art in boxing but Ward is one of the few fighters in the sport who has grasped and mastered all of its implications. By using angles, movement, creative punch variety and his physicality, Ward has experienced significant success at close range. There, he consistently beats his opponents to the punch, out-thinks them and gradually demoralizes his foes. He has several short punchers that are weapons in tight quarters. Specifically, his left hook has stunning accuracy and surprising power.
Kovalev likes to use his reach to punch. In close, his jab and straight right hand become lesser factors. His uppercut can disappear in fights. Ultimately, Kovalev needs to find something that works at close range. Perhaps it could be short left hooks to the body or uppercuts, but without consistent inside weapons he will cede large territories of ring geography to Ward. Certainly Kovalev will be tying-up at points but he won't be able to neutralize Ward 100% on the inside with just inaction. Kovalev will have to do some fighting on the inside to earn Ward's respect and disabuse him of the notion that being in close range is a safe harbor.
3. Battle of the jabs.
Both fighters have excellent jabs. They'll use the punch to initiate their offensive rhythm and thwart opposing momentum. Ward has the better hand speed of the two but Kovalev's jab is constant and accurate. Kovalev also jabs expertly to the body, which opens up additional offensive opportunities throughout a fight.
Much of the ring generalship of the fight will center on which fighter can establish his jab and if either guy can take away that punch from his opponent. Ward has an excellent counter left hook and is a master of timing. If opponents become too predictable, he'll counter them with a full arsenal of potential shots or use the ring to disrupt his opponent's timing.
Kovalev will double and triple jab to reduce counters. Although Kovalev isn't a natural counterpuncher, he's improved in this area under trainer John David Jackson's tutelage. His counter right hand was enough to keep Bernard Hopkins in survival mode. Most of Kovalev's opponents spend so much time on defense that they grudgingly offer lead shots. Kovalev uses his jab both offensively and defensively. He sets his other punches up with his jab and it's forceful enough that opponents don't want to open up with their own offense, keeping them in safety-first mode.
4. Ward's legs.
Ward fought only twice in 40 months between 2012 and 2016 as he dealt with injuries and promotional disputes. Upon his return, there were some noticeable differences in his ring performances. He's less explosive physically than he once was and he's more of a straight-line fighter. Some boxing observers attributed those characteristics as symptoms of ring rust. If that line of thinking proves to be correct, with more activity, much of Ward's former athleticism will reemerge. However, it's also quite possible that Father Time has caught up to Ward a bit; very few fighters are in their physical peak in their 30's.
If there is real slippage with Ward's athleticism, and specifically his legs, that problem could manifest in a number of ways throughout the fight. Ward might lack the reflexes to evade Kovalev's big shots. If he can't use the ring like he once did, he'll be in Kovalev's range far more often. In addition, it's possible that he'll lack the quick athletic movements to get on the inside against Kovalev, which would be a huge benefit to the rangier power puncher.
With a full training camp and a determined effort, Ward could still exhibit a close-to-peak physical prowess. If that's the case, then he has many different ways of winning the fight. However, if there is true degradation in Ward's athleticism, then he'll be in harm's way throughout the match. Without his legs at close to 100%, Ward may not have his full range of recuperative powers. Can he recover from big shots? Can he move quickly enough to tie-up Kovalev? Will he be able to use the ring to limit Kovalev's offense?
5. Mental fortitude.
Not only has Ward been undefeated as a professional but he's also won an Olympic gold medal; losing isn't part of his vocabulary. He's defeated several champions and often has embarrassed them in the ring. On one hand, Ward's winning pedigree is clearly established. However, other factors may come into play on Saturday. Getting hit with big shots has the ability to transform elite fighters into something far less than that. If Ward gets hurt or battered in the ring, does he still possess the internal drive to do what it takes to win? He sat out for many years of his prime and has talked about losing his love of the sport. Is he as emotionally invested in winning as he once was? He's a family man and loves raising his kids. If he gets hurt badly, with those considerations enter into his decision making process?
In recent years, Kovalev has been dropped by a lesser talent (Blake Caparello) and hurt in the first Pascal fight. Although he rallied in both instances, he clearly didn't react well in those moments. Against Pascal, Kovalev seemed momentarily stunned in the middle rounds, forgetting to throw punches and abandoning his defensive posture. Facing Caparello, he was temporarily gun shy. Even earlier this year against Chilemba, Kovalev was visibly frustrated when he couldn't land with regularity and turned in a disjointed performance.
Ward will make it difficult for Kovalev. There will be portions of the fight where things won't go his way. Will Kovalev stick to the game plan? Will he take unnecessary risks? Will he check out mentally? Will he start fouling out of frustration? What happens if he gets hit with a lot of solid shots? Which fighter will dig deeper and do what it takes to win? Which will be the more focused competitor? Who will respond better to his corner? These factors could very much determine who will be victorious on Saturday.
I believe that Ward, even with some physical diminishment, still has more ways of winning the fight. He has advantages on both the inside and outside. He also has enough weapons at mid-range to keep Kovalev honest. I think that Ward will gradually take away Kovalev's jab by staying out of the pocket and fighting in areas of the ring where that punch won't be much of a factor.
However, I do believe that Ward's reflexes have slipped enough that the fight will be compelling. Barrera and Brand landed hard shots on Ward, the types of blows that probably wouldn't have landed before his hiatus. There will be moments in the fight where Kovalev catches Ward at the end of a multi-punch combination or pulling straight back. At those points, Ward will have to use his considerable recuperative powers to survive. However, I think that Kovalev will only have intermittent success with his power shots. In totality, Ward will be the more consistent fighter, boxing and neutralizing his way to winning a majority of the rounds. I believe that Ward will have to get off the canvas in the fight but he'll do enough to earn the victory.
Andre Ward defeats Sergey Kovalev 116-111.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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